Entrepreneur with a passion for periods

RNW archive

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Arunachalam Muruganantham has become a poster boy for social entrepreneurship in India. He invented a machine that manufactures sanitary napkins mechanically. That’s not only made the product affordable for millions of India’s poor women, it’s also offered many a means of employment.

It’s a week day and Muruganantham is busy meeting clients at his work place in Coimbatore’s industrial area. It’s a huge room invisibly divided into his office, conference room, workshop and storeroom. It’s anything but fancy.

He’s informing his prospective clients about what the machine does. “It simply breaks down the cellulose, which is the raw material with a liquid retention property, into smaller bits that finally can be wrapped up and packaged into sanitary pads,” he says as he demonstrates.

Muruganantham’s invention is important because of its low-cost production method. Previously, only multi-national companies with massive budgets could fund a production unit of the sort. The high cost of running the production unit was driving up the cost of the product, making it affordable only to a few affluent women.

Muruganantham explains to his small audience that day, “Recent studies have shown only 10 percent of Indian women are using sanitary pads.” Many in rural areas still use rags, clothes, paper, even sticks and stones. Awareness regarding female hygiene is lacking in India due to it being a taboo subject.

“Why? My own wife would not talk to me about it. My sisters wouldn’t either,” Muruganantham says. Still in large parts of the country, menstruating women are considered unclean and are ostracised from society for the five days of their period.

Muruganantham’s innovation targets these women at the bottom of the pyramid. He supplies his machines to areas which have low sanitary napkin penetration. What more? He has promoted these sanitary napkin-making machines as employment opportunities for the women in these rural areas.

“It’s by the women, of the women, for the women,” he says.

A client in the meeting points at a photo frame on the wall, “Is that you?”

“Yes,” Muruganantham says humbly, without mentioning that the photo was taken when he received an award for his social entrepreneurship from the President of India.

A few meetings later and way past lunch time, Muruganantham forces himself to leave the office and rush home to grab lunch. While he is navigating his jeep through the tiny lanes of Coimbatore, he says, “That’s what they call me these days, social entrepreneur. But isn’t this how all business should be? It should not always be about profits. It should be about doing good for society.”

A school dropout, Muruganantham didn’t have to go attend lectures in a classroom to learn this philosophy. On the contrary, he’s now teaching a lot of MBA schools about his way of doing business. “I raise questions when they ask me to give lectures at these big business schools. I wonder why people are running after money. What dreams they are chasing. Whether it’s greed for money or passion for work,” he says.

His passion for work famously got Muruganantham into trouble. Enough has been written about his arduous journey to success - about how he was deserted by his wife, his mother, his sisters and his fellow villagers on his pursuit to manufacturing cost-effective sanitary pads.

“Nobody was ready to talk to me about the issue, so I wore my own sanitary pad and a uterus made out of a football and goat’s blood,” he says. “I understand why my mother left me at that time. It might have been horrible for her to find out that her son was studying sanitary pads used by other women.”

But his professional success has now brought him much respect from the community. On a half hour drive from work to home, he greets and waves at many passers-by. People acknowledge his presence. He reveals that his wife and mother have returned to him.

“I never thought my wife would leave me forever. I just saw it as an opportunity to finish my work soon. I always imagined her to be around. And so when she returned, I wasn’t angry or anything. I have a very good understanding with her. I wasn’t thinking along the lines of divorce at all,” he says as he parks his jeep in the compound.

At home, his wife is glad to receive him and serve him a hot south Indian meal. On being asked how she feels about returning to her marriage, she blushes: “Look at the huge spread of food here. What does that say? I must be content to do this, right?”

Arunchalam Muruganantham is interviewed in the latest edition of The State We're In - It's Not Me, It's You!