A 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.”