Meet India's tampon king

NEW DELHI, India — Not long ago, women in the small south Indian town of Coimbatore were convinced that 47-year-old A. Muruganantham was some kind of pervert.

After a failed attempt with his wife and sisters and a cockeyed do-it-yourself effort with a football bladder full of goat's blood, he'd finally hit upon a surefire way to test the low-cost sanitary napkin he was developing for India's poor. He was passing out free pads to college girls and collecting their used napkins for study. And he had a storeroom full of them. When his mother saw it, she burst into tears and packed her things to move in with his sister.

“Everybody claimed I am a psycho, [that] I am using this as a trump card to get close to girls,” said Murugantham, who taught himself English in the course of his research — partly to get past the telephone answering systems he encountered when he called U.S. suppliers. “Before going across that automatic, it will cost 300 and 400 rupees. The moment the operator starts speaking, it will cost 300 and 400 rupees. Then the person will speak in slang English, 'OK,' because this is a material that is only used by big companies.”

Nobody thinks he's a psycho anymore.

In 2006, Muruganantham, a high school dropout, perfected a machine for making low-cost sanitary napkins against all odds. Along the way he'd taught himself English, recruited local college professors to help him draft letters and surf the web for suppliers, worn panties (not to mention a sanitary pad and a football bladder full of blood), and spent many times the cost of his TVS Motors moped on laboratory analyses. He even invented an alter ego to get past the gatekeepers at the U.S. firms that supplied the pine wood-based cellulose — not cotton — that he discovered was the raw material he needed.

“The moment they hear that somebody is calling from some remote place, in India, they will ask, 'Who are you?' So I said I am a millionaire in Coimbatore. We are going to start the napkin company, so we want raw materials,” said Muruganantham.

Eventually, he triumphed. Capable of producing around 120 pads per hour, the machine Murugantham developed costs only about $2,500 — a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and Procter & Gamble (P&G) spend on their plants. And while output of 120 pads an hour hardly offers much in the way of economies of scale, Muruganantham's invention has created its own business model for small “self help groups” of low-income women — creating jobs that earn them twice what they made as ordinary laborers.

“It is an innovative way of addressing the issue of female hygiene and is accessing a market that the Kotex product made by Kimberly-Clark currently does not access,” said a spokesman for Kimberly-Clark.

But even as Muruganantham has intrigued multinationals, earned accolades from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (Madras) and the National Innovation Foundation and inked a deal with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to supply his machines to women's self-help groups in Africa, a controversial Indian government scheme threatens to squash his grassroots movement.

According to local newspaper reports, the government is finalizing plans to supply free and “highly subsidized” sanitary napkins to India's poor. The program is being designed to cover 200 million rural women, using 100 sanitary napkins each per year, at an estimated cost of around $450 million. No details are available yet regarding the supplier, but in India, as in the rest of the world, virtually the only major manufacturers of sanitary napkins are multinationals P&G, J&J and Kimberly-Clark.

“This is a 'first of kind' program where public-private partnership is being explored to bring high quality products to rural poor at affordable rates,” said the Kimberly-Clark spokesman. “The proposed model would envisage a complete reworking of the value chain to drive costs down. The intent is for the project to be self sustainable over a period of time. The Indian government is in talks with all the major sanitary napkin manufacturers — and nothing is finalized as yet.”

Muruganantham doesn't see it that way.

“What I am telling is that if the government permits me we are able without subsidy to provide the napkins,” Murugantham said. “Already, we can make napkins for 1 rupee, 50 paise. If the government comes, we can reduce that by 50 percent.”

And if the government guarantees orders from rural women, the scheme won't cost the state a penny, Murugantham believes. With orders in hand, the women will be able to get small-business loans from local banks, enabling local entrepreneurs to set up 100,000 manufacturing units across India.

But can a grassroots invention really compete with some of the world's largest multinational companies?

Because of poverty and social stigmas surrounding menstruation, today, most Indian women use rags or even scraps of gunny sack instead of modern sanitary napkins — which are unavailable or too costly. For the government, this represents a public health crisis, raising the likelihood that millions of women will suffer reproductive tract infections or even cervical cancer. And for the big napkin makers, it represents a huge, untapped market that promises to keep the business growing for decades.

“Realizing the huge business potential of converting the homemade napkin users to branded napkins,” J&J launched its Stayfree Secure brand in India in 1997, and the low-cost product was the largest selling sanitary napkin in the Indian market within four years, according to the company's web site.

Riding on its Whisper brand, first launched here in 1989, P&G's feminine hygiene division notched growth of 26 percent last year, according to the company's annual report, generating sales of around $100 million.

The future lies in cracking the market comprising the urban and rural poor. Describing a partnership with the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) to teach rural women of Rajasthan about reproductive health — now set to be expanded in Muruganantham's home state of Tamil Nadu — P&G's annual report concludes, “Significantly, the program has been able to convert 85 percent of cloth users to sanitary pad users who used WHISPER.”

"P&G and Johnson and Johnson look at this issue merely in terms of sales turnover,” said PC Vinoj Kumar, a crusading journalist. “But as a social entrepreneur Muruganantham's business model has socio-economic objectives. It creates employment for thousands of rural women, apart from promoting use of sanitary napkins.”

One of the first to discover Muruganantham's invention, Kumar recently launched a Facebook campaign against the government's plan to subsidize sanitary napkins, which he suspects will be sourced from one of the three multinationals that control the world market. In March, one of his campaigners filed a Right to Information (RTI) request seeking “copies of all files related to this scheme right from the initiation of the scheme, to any consultations held with any external agencies, the basis on which the scheme was announced and any other relevant details.”

But according to Kumar, the government's reply simply stated the obvious: “This is to inform you that currently the Ministry, Health & Family Welfare does not have a scheme to provide free sanitary napkins for women living below poverty line. Further, discussions for formulation of the same as well as an assessment of various modalities is taking place in the ministry, after which, the scheme would be proposed.”

In case you're not fluent in the lingo, that's bureaucratese for buzz off: The ministry provided none of the files related to the plan or any other details requested under India's RTI law. Now Kumar plans a letter-writing campaign to approach the president, the prime minister, the health minister and the finance minister and ask them to consider Muruganantham's proposal before finalizing the free sanitary napkin scheme.

Meanwhile, Murugantham's not standing still.

His napkin machines are already in place in more than 200 locations across India, where they are empowering local women, and taking the stigma away from menstruation and feminine hygiene by turning it into a lucrative trade. Though many have flourished, some self-help groups have floundered without management expertise — raising doubts whether a legion of grassroots organizations could truly handle the mammoth job of supplying sanitary napkins to the country. But Murugantham argues that if the government supports him instead of P&G or J&J, his machines cannot only solve India's feminine hygiene crisis but also provide employment for a million women.

That's radical thinking from the bottom of the pyramid. The question is: Will the government squash it and make a mockery of the much ballyhooed “decade of innovation?”