Sanitary breakthrough - Low cost and nature friendly product set to improve lives of tea garden workers

Saathi Pads’ Tarun Bothra and Kristin Kagetsu promote their wares at the India Environment Festival in Ahmedabad in February. (Courtesy of Saathi Pads)

Siliguri -- "My daughters shall not lead my life," said Binita, shredding pine wood pulp with her fingers. She meant two things: They will not be driven into prostitution, and they will enjoy better feminine hygiene.

Binita, a mother of three school-age daughters, recently gave up plying her trade in Kolkata's Kalighat red light district after more than 15 years. She is one of 12 women engaged by New Light, a local nongovernmental organization, to make compostable sanitary pads under the brand name Anandi as part of a project called Mukti, meaning "liberation."

Production has just begun, and the pads are being tested for quality before they go on sale. "It shall take some practice for us to get the perfect pads," said Binita (not her real name).

Like many struggling women in India, Binita has mostly used old rags and discarded cotton saris when mentrating. In rare cases, women use fine sand, sawdust, husks or even leaves. For these women, sanitary pads are for use only on special occasions, if they can afford it.

Anandi is the brainchild of Jaydeep Mandal, the 31-year-old founder and managing director of Aakar Innovations, which manufactures sanitary pads using natural pulp and fiber.

"These pads, while being eco-friendly and affordable, adhere to the [requirements of the Indian] Bureau of Standards in terms of absorbency, retention, softness and moisture content, which makes them comparable to those made by global companies," he said.

Anandi pads are made of imported pine wood pulp, but Mandal said he plans to use domestically-grown bamboo, water hyacinth and jute in the future, and has applied for patents for these products. "The idea is to make use of geography-specific naturally-available materials singly or in unique combinations to make pads that are completely compostable," he said.

Mandal said he has helped to set up 35 manufacturing sites for Anandi pads around India, collaborating with local NGOs such as New Light, and is negotiating a deal to set up a further 600 units in Gujarat State. Outside India he has sold three units in Kenya and one each in Uganda and South Africa, and is testing the waters in Rwanda, Tanzania, Nepal and Bhutan.

In rural markets, his Anandi pads have been selling at 40 rupees ($0.61) for a pack of eight, but the price is scheduled to fall to 30 rupees before the end of April. Mandal said the price has been kept low to wean users away from non-biodegradable sanitary pads that are similarly priced.

The Mumbai-based social entrepreneur said he has also met with potential partners aiming to set up units in tea plantations in Darjeeling and neighboring Dooars. "Tea gardens employ a huge number of women as laborers, and our pads can be particularly of interest in closed estates," he said.


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