When Arunachalam Muruganantham decided he was going to do something about the fact that women in India can’t afford sanitary napkins, he went the extra mile: He wore his own for a week to figure out the best design.
Analyzing branded napkins at laboratories led to Muruganantham’s first breakthrough. “I found out that these napkins were made of cellulose derived from the bark of a tree,” he said. A high school dropout, he taught himself English and pretended to be a millionaire to get U.S. manufacturers to send him samples of their raw material.
Demystifying the napkin was only the first step. Once he knew how to make them, he discovered that the machine necessary to convert the pine wood fiber into cellulose cost more than half a million U.S. dollars. It’s one of the reasons why only multinational giants such as Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble have dominated the sanitary napkin making industry in India.
It took Muruganantham a little over four years to create a simpler version of the machine, but he eventually found a solution. Powered by electricity and foot pedals, the machine de-fibers the cellulose, compresses it into napkin form, seals it with non-woven fabrics, and finally sterilizes it with ultraviolet light. He can now make 1,000 napkins a day, which retail for about $.25 for a package of eight.
Though he’s won numerous awards (and won his wife back) he doesn’t sell his product commercially. “It’s a service,” he says. His company, Jayaashree Industries, helps rural women buy one of the $2,500 machines through NGOs, government loans, and rural self-help groups. “My vision is to make India a 100% napkin-using country,” said Muruganantham at the INK conference in Jaipur. “We can create 1 million employment opportunities for rural women and expand the model to other developing nations.” Today, there are about 600 machines deployed in 23 states across India and in a few countries abroad.
This sounds like a really neat way of empowering people. I really like how he sees his company as a service, not as a profit-making machine (when he could so easily do so) and rather than hoard the methods of production, he enables it to be easily replicated and distributed so other people can benefit from it, not just himself.
I love how he faked his way into gaming a system that worships money (srsly, a millionaire will get the respect for free shit, but not rural women, let’s think about how fucked up that is) and instead of reproducing the same attitude of hoarding money, he seems to be channeling that into a system of distributing income-producing means. We need more people who think that way, of spreading means of making stuff, rather than controlling them. I bet if the women’s sanitary napkin industry was taken more seriously, someone would find a way to trip up Muruganantham’s efforts to sell the machine.
OMG I am cheesy and perhaps hormonal but this reads to me like an awesome romance epic that needs to be made into a movie. And this movie would then off-set the one-dimensional awfulness that was presented in Slumdog Millionaire. Also, this movie will make me cry endlessly like The Namesake did. I mean, I’m kinda tearing up right now, just imagining it, lolololbawwwww.