'Menstrual Man' speaks on finding a simple solution to a global problem
Most Indian women can’t afford sanitary pads so school dropout Arunachalam Muruganantham built a small machine that can produce them at a fraction of the cost. He shares his story at SFU's Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on July 16 as part of the Indian Summer Festival.
Arunachalam: I was invited to give a lecture at Harvard. When I arrived in Boston, I heard things like ‘scaling up.' I found that there was this impression that this guy is uneducated and does not know how to scale up. But this whole idea of scaling up vertically is what foolish corporates are doing across the world. I don’t want to scale up vertically. Instead, I want to branch out. And this has worked well for us. We’ve branched out across India and to 17 other countries — Kenya, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Myanmar (in some of these countries the consumption rate is more alarming than India’s). And purposely I’ve steered clear of marketing people; our office does not have a marketing department. Our popularity came about by word of mouth. And that’s all you need. There’s no point in trumpeting your innovation. If you’re doing innovative things, the world will do that for you.
NN: This may seem like a rhetorical question: Did you find any help from the government authorities in furthering your initiative?
Arunachalam: (Laughs) They didn’t impede our efforts — that was the greatest help.
NN: How have big corporates — the established players in the sanitary pad business — reacted to your success?
Arunachalam: I guess they’ve heard about me often. But, I’m not making a dent in their market. In India, only 12 per cent of the women are using sanitary pads. So their market in India is a small piece of the pie. They’re not concerned because I’m trying to tap into an untapped market.
NN: So this is a business, not a non-profit?
Arunachalam: I’m glad you’ve asked me that question. I’m not talking about charity here. We turn a profit from this. The difference is our business is creating a huge social impact; we’ve created jobs and empowered women as a result. And considering the utility of our product, this business is sustainable, these jobs are intact which means that these women won’t be forced to move to the cities looking for work. We follow a social entrepreneurship model; this is a need-based model — in this, your profit considerations revolve around meeting the necessities of your family. In corporates, you are answerable to investors. Where we differ from corporates is that we are not following a greed-based profit model. Their model is parasitic; ours is like a butterfly — we don’t suck blood, we help pollination.
NN: Across India, how many women are in your employ?
Arunachalam: At present, over 20,000 are directly employed. Our mission is to create millions of jobs for rural India and ensure that every woman is able to use our low-cost product. But, to get there, even my entire lifetime is insufficient.
NN: You’re obviously a very instrumental figure for women empowerment. And in India, women empowerment has become a very evocative term considering the endless cases of gender violence. What’s your perspective on these issues?
Arunachalam: I think these problems have existed for generations. I’d never travelled before so I used to think the most beautiful place in the world is my village. And I used to be happy knowing this. When I did travel to the U.K., Japan, the States, I noticed the difference between developed and developing countries. The most important difference is not the infrastructure, not the wealth, it’s the empowerment of women. The only solution to end this problem is to empower women. And that is achieved by education. In rural India, the reason girls don’t show up for classes for six days in a month is because they have no access to proper menstrual care. So basic needs like this and proper access to clean toilet facilities at primary schools needs to be fulfilled before politicians pass bills and talk about their commitment to women empowerment.
NN: Your efforts caused a great upset in your private life. (For a time) your wife left you, your family and friends ostracized you. How did you find the will to keep going?
Arunachalam: I was too busy. I had a problem and I wanted to engineer a solution to it. I used to be so busy that I would forget to shave. The thing about math, engineering and these kinds of disciplines is that no one’s opinion matters. It’s the solution that matters. And that’s what I was focused on.