Startup Saturday: Pune’s ‘Pad Women’ Are Social Entrepreneurs On A Mission

By Namita Shibad Hindustan Times, New Delhi

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Namita Shibad takes a look at the challenges faced by the soroptomist's club of Pune metro east which set out to solve the problem of providing affordable sanitary napkins to women in India.

Hindustan Times, New Delhi

It starts off with doing good. Which could be a good way to start a business, but often, social entrepreneurs get waylaid by their good intentions and that causes a business to fail.

In 2015, the soroptomist's club of Pune metro east set out to solve the problem of providing affordable sanitary napkins to women in the villages of Maharashtra.

Anupama Sen, who is a pediatrician by profession and a member of the club was enthused by meeting Muruganathan, the man behind affordable sanitary napkins and whose life story has been made into the movie Pad Man.

"I understood from him how the process of making these biodegradable pads worked. At that time, women in Chennai's prison used to make them. I thought why can't we do this for the women in rural Maharashtra?" says Anupama.

Doctors used to conduct medical camps in Tulapur and Phulgaon villages on the banks of the river Bhima. With the help of the zilla parishad there she started a unit to manufacture these pads.

"We needed a simple machine, a mixer grinder to grind the pinewood pulp, a sterilizer, a wooden mold to press down the pads and a sewing machine.

All this was provided by the soroptimists. And they were in business," says Anupama

"Initially we trained 10 women to operate and manufacture these machines. At that time each woman made 10 pads each. Then they slowly graduated to making 20 pads a day. The cost of making one pad was Re 1 and we sold it for Rs 2 since we had to invest in safety gear for these ladies and other operating costs."

It would seem like magic that a do-good business got set up thus. "However, there were, and are, problems," says Rohini Khare, a soroptimist member who is closely involved with this project that has now shifted to Wai near Mahabaleshwar.

"Our pads, which are under the brand Saheli, have the advantage that they are biodegradable. They also cost less.

Now we sell a pack of 10 for Rs.30. The problem is that even in rural areas girls are very conscious of brands.

They would prefer a Whisper to a Saheli. Moreover, our pads do not have wings, which is a must," says Khare.

This problem the soroptimists are planning to address. By collecting enough donations to buy a new machine that can make wings.

"This will cost us about Rs 5 lakh," says Anubha Ramgopal, president, soroptomist's club, "But we have to think of ways to make this business more sustainable."

"Currently, sales happen through donations. So an NGO that wants to supply pads to disadvantaged girls pays us Rs 500 to supply pads for one girl for one year. This way we have delivered pads to the blind school and so on. What we need are more and more women using Saheli," says Ramgopal.

Marketing problems are multifold. Khare feels that if these pads were easily available at stores in villages as well as cities maybe there would be a fighting chance to compete with the big guns. Currently, they make these pads on order. So this depends on people wanting to donate pads to girls in villages or cities.

However, Amruta Shivaday of the Mahila Bachat Gat, that runs the manufacturing unit at Wai, has brought some light to the grim outlook of Saheli.

"I thought that we should try offering our pads to the maternity hospitals in Wai. So, I met the five such maternity homes and they started placing orders with us." Says Khare, "Amruta has made a big difference to Saheli with her orders for maternity pads. These pads are made especially for women who have just delivered. They are thicker and longer, about 10 inches.

"Currently, we have found this niche in the market and the unit produces this on a regular basis. Her orders for these pads is what keeps the manufacturing unit going. Else the work comes in only when someone donates money to give pads to some organization or the other. The other problem in the villages is that if the ladies cannot get pads they are happy to use cloth and other traditional methods. For them, it is not a necessity like it is in the urban areas," Khare adds.

Shivaday works with nine ladies at the manufacturing unit. These ladies are homemakers who find time to earn some extra money for the family.

"In a month, a woman can earn up to Rs.3,000 which is a big help. But for the regular pads, since they are done on an order basis, the Soroptimists have understood the need for markets and sustainability.

"They are currently looking to find ways to invest in the machine that will enable them to make wings for the pads. After that the ladies want the Bachat Gat to take over. Of course, that will require some hand-holding," says Rangaraj.

"We feel that if we can add wings and change our packaging, it will be of great help. We are willing to help them, but we cannot get into the daily workings of this business," Rangaraj adds.

Meanwhile, Saheli will have to make do with the business of supplying to maternity hospitals.

How to make a social business enterprise work Advait Kurlekar, CEO Upohan management consultants and a mentor, shares his thoughts on what Saheli should do to become sustainable as a learning curve for all social entrepreneurs.

"Like I always say 'social entrepreneurship' is entrepreneurship first and then the social cause. One should never forget that you are in business, except that your target group is different from other businesses.

Not-for-profit doesn't mean are sworn to making losses. This translates that you are in the business not to make supernormal profits, but surely you have to make enough to survive, sustain and grow.

The other thing is that it is very important not just for social enterprises but businesses, in general, is to understand what your customer expects out of you.

Understanding their needs even if they are non-paying customers is very important. Every customer has a specific need, expectations from your product or service. So don't get so blinded by your passion for doing good for the society that you overlook at this important point.

Channelise that energy in to making available the right product for your customers. So if women want pads with wings or easy availability do that. Find ways how this can be done.

For example, it is common for people to donate blankets/food grains to some charity in times of mass crisis like flooding, earthquake, etc. What is overlooked is that at times like these, they need potable water and ready to eat food more than blankets.

Saheli should not look at and depend on donations as a giveaway, but look at it like how normal businesses would look at angel funding. Sure donors don't expect returns, but from a social entrepreneurship perspective, one needs to look like it is an investment rather than a donation.

Use that to scale up -- distribution, manufacturing capacity, promotions. Work, partner with other self-help groups and local communities to get their tacit support. Bundle health and hygiene education with your sales pitch. In this case, maybe rural girls are brand conscious, but maybe they really don't know how best to use them. So teach them best hygiene practices along with your sales pitch

Branding and packaging can be of great help to them. There is a saying that we covet with our eyes. So if a product looks good then people may want to buy it. If you are to compete with a Whisper or a Stayfree you must definitely look better if not as good as they. There is an added advantage that Saheli can capitalize on -- its biodegradability.

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