Innovation Heros. Arunachalam Muruganantham

menstrual_manA school dropout from a poor family in southern India has revolutionised menstrual health for rural women in developing countries by inventing a simple machine they can use to make cheap sanitary pads.

Arunachalam Muruganantham’s invention came at great personal cost – he nearly lost his family, his money and his place in society. But he kept his sense of humour.

“It all started with my wife,” he says. In 1998 he was newly married and his world revolved around his wife, Shanthi, and his widowed mother. One day he saw Shanthi was hiding something from him. He was shocked to discover what it was – rags, “nasty cloths” which she used during menstruation.

Wanting to impress his young wife, Muruganantham went into town to buy her a sanitary pad. It was handed to him hurriedly, as if it were contraband. He weighed it in his hand and wondered why 10g (less than 0.5oz) of cotton, which at the time cost 10 paise (£0.001), should sell for 4 rupees (£0.04) – 40 times the price – way beyond the affordability of most of India. He decided he could make them cheaper himself which led him on the path of  a long a difficult road of invention. You can read the whole story here and it’s a brilliant story.

It took four years for him to figure out what sanitary pads were made of and create a low-cost method for the production of sanitary towels. As well as the technical barriers, he also faced significant cultural barriers to overcome – that women for example who use sanitary pads go blind or will never get married. But slowly, village by village, there was cautious acceptance and over time the machines spread to 1,300 villages in 23 states.

Most of Muruganantham’s clients are NGOs and women’s self-help groups. A manual machine costs around 75,000 Indian rupees (£723) – a semi-automated machine costs more. Each machine converts 3,000 women to pads, and provides employment for 10 women. They can produce 200-250 pads a day which sell for an average of about 2.5 rupees (£0.025) each.

He was once asked whether receiving the award from the Indian president was the happiest moment of his life. He said no – his proudest moment came after he installed a machine in a remote village in Uttarakhand, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where for many generations nobody had earned enough to allow children to go to school.

A year later, he received a call from a woman in the village to say that her daughter had started school. “Where Nehru failed,” he says, “one machine succeeded.”


Innovation Heros. John Harrison

It seems unlikely that we can go back nearly 300 years to find a story of innovation and crowd-sourcing, but we can and it’s a fantastic story.

The ‘Longitude problem’ was the thorniest scientific dilemma of the day – and had been for centuries. Lacking the ability to measure their longitude, sailors throughout the great ages of exploration had been literally lost at sea as soon as they lost sight of land. Thousands of lives, and the increasingly the fortunes of nations hung on a resolution.

In 1714 the British Parliament put up a £20,000 prize (which in those days really was a Kings Ransom) for anyone that could solve the ‘Longitude problem’ which attracted the brightest minds from the scientific establishment throughout Europe – from Galileo to Sir Isaac Newton.

Longitude the story of the lone genius who solved the greatest sceintific problem of the timeOur hero, John Harrison, far from being from the intellectual elite was a humble watch maker who dared to imagine a mechanical solution. While the intelligentsia were focused on the celestial skies, maths and algorithms, Harrison started with what he already knew which was that if you know what time the sun rose and set you could accurately tell the latitude – all he had to do therefore was to make a clock that worked at sea. Remember that clocks and timepieces of the time relied on a pendulum and of course pendulums stop working when a ship starts to roll on the waves.  Harrison was a gifted watch maker and he won the prize – he out-innovated the brightest minds of the time by simply focussing all his efforts on making a watch that accurately told the time whilst at sea.

The lessons in this story;

– Innovation doesn’t have to be brand new and ground breaking – the solution may be right under your noses

– The killer idea can come from anywhere, you never know, don’t dismiss participation from anyone

It’s a great story and I would recommend it to anyone