This is part of a series of profiles of Harvard alumni who are young entrepreneurs in South Asia.
Menstrual hygiene is an obstacle for women in many developing countries, including India. Even as the use of sanitary pads becomes more widespread, new environmental problems have emerged for proper disposal.
Saathi, founded by several MIT/Harvard graduates who met while studying mechanical engineering, is trying to change that. They have developed an eco-friendly pad made entirely from local banana fiber that is fully compostable and bio-degradable.
SAI recently spoke with three of the founders, Kristin Kagetsu, CEO, Amrita Saigal, CFO, and Grace Kane, CTO, to learn more about the product and how they hope it improves the lives of women in India.
SAI: To start, could you give a little background about your organization – what problem did you see that prompted you to create this product?
Amrita: This started when I was a junior at MIT. I was working for Procter & Gamble in the feminine hygiene division, for Always and Tampax as a design engineer. And during that time, when I started researching the sanitary pad market in India, I came across the fact that lack of access to sanitary pads was a leading reason for high dropout rates for school-age girls as compared to boys. The main reasons for women and girls not using pads are affordability, availability, and awareness.
This really stuck with me, especially given that for us, having grown up here [in the US], we don’t live in societies where we had these kind of issues. We’ve been given every opportunity to grow up, have dreams, and pursue our education. We started to think: How could we use our engineering skills to design products that are going to help girls in underprivileged areas and help girls achieve their full potential?
After a lot of research, we realized that banana fiber was the best material because it is readily available, super absorbent, and it’s actually a waste product; farmers actually have to cut the tree down after harvest. When we were all on the ground on India, we started doing initial user testing with our low cost product made of banana fiber. One of the biggest issues that we came across was disposal. The women loved the product and the feel, but in rural areas there is no proper disposal system for the pad. It’s such a taboo topic.
Grace: Another option for disposal is burning them. As Amrita said, we originally were really focused on the look of the pads, but what actually happened in the midst of our journey, is this phenomenon in India called “The Sanitary Pad Revolution,” where the government also recognized that this was a huge problem, and there was this big push to just get as many low-cost pads to women as possible. But organizations started realizing that you can’t just put all these non-biodegradable products into somewhere without a waste infrastructure.
Amrita: Our original product was still partly made from plastic. So we kept getting feedback that the women liked our product, but we needed something that is biodegradable and compostable.
Grace: We realized that this was a good opportunity to try and make a sanitary pad that was just as helpful and just as available but with a far less impact on the environment.
So biodegradable in this case means compostable really quickly, in a couple of months under composting conditions. The standard for normal sanitary pad is in terms of decades or more. It doesn’t immediately dissolve when you throw it away of course, but it’s quite an improvement.
Kristin: One of the things that’s going to be exciting is thinking of composting and figuring out, does the village have that capability? There are a lot of villages that have been composting already. So trying to integrate into those systems in this way is already interesting and is definitely going to be an exciting thing.
SAI: It seems like part of your solution is making sure you are working full-circle with everyone involved, including for example, the banana farmers. Was that intentional?
Grace: Well, we originally chose the banana fiber because it’s cheap and we also wanted to have something that’s local and actually puts some money back into the local communities. Because right now, in a lot of cases, the banana farmers have to actually pay for extra labor to get rid of this stuff [waste from the trees]. But then, once we made the decision to form an eco-friendly product, we really wanted this kind of full-circle mentality. As Kristin said, composting and a lot of things are already going on in the ecosystem, so we are trying to see how can we fit into that.
SAI: What kind of scale are you going for, and how many women have you reached?
Amrita: Our goal is to launch with one million pads, hopefully in October in villages in Jharkhand, Rajasthan, and Gujarat. Part of it is also teaching female health workers about proper menstrual hygiene. As they go distribute the pads, they can also share information about proper feminine hygiene. Awareness and education are a huge part of this. Many rural women have no idea what is happening to their body when they get their first period. Villages don’t have sex education or health education in government schools. And at home it’s a taboo topic.
SAI: That’s true, in many countries it is still a taboo topic. Has this been a challenge while you’ve been working on your product?
Kristin: We’ve been hosting workshops, and we were actually kind of nervous and excited to see who would show up, and how it would go. We actually were surprised that there were both men and women participating in the workshop, giving some feedback, and asking questions. We found that people were curious, and they wanted to know more.
Grace: When we first started, we did a survey with rural women and we found some interesting things. In some of the villages, there was no sex ed, but they had all seen an advertisement for Proctor and Gamble pads. But of course even though they had all seen these on TV, they could never actually afford one, so it was seen as a luxury item rather than something that is actually important for your health.
The other unusual thing that’s coming up with the sanitary pad revolution is that, and this is my personal opinion, now in the Indian media, it’s become a lot more ok to talk about pads and to talk about periods. However, that doesn’t mean that women are necessarily being involved in the discussion as much as they should be. I think there have been a lot of government initiatives where it was championed as a cause, but a lot of the people involved in the discussion were still men. But that’s by no means universal – there’s a lot of great, brilliant, female-run NGOs that are working in the area of menstrual hygiene.
Kristin: I agree, there are definitely initiatives run by women as well, even if you look at a lot of the more popular well-known names for manufacturers of pads, even the low-cost ones, they are all men making and distributing them. At least for now, until the others become bigger, and more well-known, there isn’t as much representation from women.
Grace: Which isn’t to say that’s a bad thing – it’s actually great to see men involved in the discussion because it becomes a whole community thing. That’s the other side to it – that people will stand up and say, this is actually ok to talk about.
SAI: How will the pads affect day-to-day life for women? How will they affect their education, or their ability to work?
Grace: That’s one of the biggest things: freedom. A lot of surveys show that girls don’t want to go to school because they’re afraid of their pad leaking. Some of the women we initially surveyed said that if they didn’t always buy pads, they’d buy them for special occasions. For emergencies basically. With the implication that normally, they wouldn’t be able to afford pads so they would just stay off work. It’s the simple fact that they don’t want to have an accident when they go out of the house so they stay home.
Amrita: Comfort is a huge thing. When you are comfortable, you feel more confident.
SAI: Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs who want to work in South Asia?
Kristin: Do research! Be flexible as well. For example, if we had come here and we said, we are married to our idea and we will not change it no matter what, we would have been in trouble. It really depends who’s on your team, what resources you have, and that can change depending on the moment, and what’s the situation of the market at the time. Even if you have an idea, you have to be able to change it or modify it. Our idea has developed over time and has gotten better.
Amrita: Go spend times in the villages. Go live with them. You need to get to know them. Another important thing is finding strong local partners.
SAI: At SAI, we encourage students to think of South Asia as a laboratory to try their ideas – it sounds like you agree.
Grace: If people want to be entrepreneurs with a social purpose, South Asia is a really good place to do that right now. There are a lot of investors, competitions, incubators, and people in general who are really focused on making a difference through technology and entrepreneurship. The environment we see around India and technology is more inclined towards social entrepreneurship than things are in the US. The atmosphere in India is a place where people believe in entrepreneurship as a force for change.
Kristin: I agree, this is a good time. India is an amazing place to make a difference because in India, the number of people you can impact is many times more than in some developed countries. It’s really exciting.
If you are interested in supporting Saathi, you may do so here.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.