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Entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham inspects the production process with some of the owners of Mother Care. (STEPHANIE NOLEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham inspects the production process with some of the owners of Mother Care. (STEPHANIE NOLEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

India’s improbable champion for affordable feminine hygiene Add to ...

There were many moments when a lesser man than Arunachalam Muruganantham might have quit.

When his wife left, for example, humiliated by rumours of his infidelity. Or when his mother moved out next, convinced her son had gone mad.

Or perhaps when he was forced out of his ancestral village, after his neighbours concluded that his insistence on wearing a self-made artificial uterus filled with goat’s blood was going to drive away the protective goddess from their community.

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But none of that was sufficient to deter him from his quest to create the perfect sanitary napkin.

Mr. Muruganantham launched an improbable one-man revolution to bring low-cost feminine hygiene products to the women of India.

And after seven years of toil that cost him almost everything, he perfected his sanitary pad, and the machine to make them – and has created an enterprise that employs 7,000 women across India and converted more than 3.5 million to the use of sanitary pads.

Menstruation is a treated squeamishly in most societies, including this one. Yet all over the world a lack of access to affordable and safe sanitary products keeps girls out of school, prevents them from working and makes them vulnerable to infections that develop when they use items such as corn husks, old newspaper or rags packed into underwear .

In 1998, Mr. Muruganantham was newly married and one day he noticed his wife, Shanthi, skulking out of the room carrying rags and newspaper. When he asked her why, she first told him it was none of his business. Eventually she admitted that she used the paper when menstruating. “I said, ‘You’re an educated woman, why aren’t you using sanitary pads?’ ” She responded tartly that if she and her two sisters-in-law were all to buy them, the family budget would suffer.

Feeling magnanimous, he paid about $3 for a package of pads at the local pharmacy– a not-insubstantial cost given that he had a struggling business making iron window grills. The foreign-made pads ignited Mr. Muruganantham’s entrepreneurial imagination. He came from a family of spinners and he wondered why he couldn’t make a similar product out of local cotton. Viewing it as an act of love for his bride, he obtained some off-cuts from a local mill, cut them into pads, wrapped them in viscose and asked his wife to try them.

Her feedback was terse, as he recalls it: “I’m going back to rags.”

Mr. Muruganantham was aghast: “This is the first failure of my life. I can make anything from metal – why can’t I do this?” He made new pads and tried to get his sisters to try them, too. Nobody wanted to discuss the subject with him, and no one liked his pads.

In search of a more receptive audience, he went to the local women’s medical college but found the students not at all keen to talk about sanitary napkins with a stranger.

Right about then, Shanthi packed up and went back to her parents: It was all over town that her husband was hanging around the college gates, striking up conversations with every girl who passed. She confronted him, and, embarrassed, he dissembled, not telling her of his napkin project. She left and sent a divorce notice.

Mr. Muruganantham then hit on the idea of collecting used pads and trying to reverse-engineer the product. But when he laid them out in his small backyard to study one day, his mother stumbled upon them. She screamed, then promptly filled a sari with her belongings and fled. His sisters moved out, too. He had no more testers.

Mr. Muruganantham reached the obvious conclusion: He would road-test his sanitary napkins himself. “But where was the uterus for me?”

He made one, of course, using the rubber bladder in a deflated soccer ball, filled with goat’s blood he obtained from a puzzled butcher that ran through a tube into a pair of women’s underwear. As he went about the village, he would give it a squeeze every 20 minutes or so.

His clothes were soon stained with blood, which started to stink in the heat – causing a rumour that he had a sexually transmitted disease. He realized his wife and sisters had been telling the truth: His pad was lousy. And, incidentally, this whole menstruation thing was really a drag: “I feel respect to women that all their life they are going along with this rubbish.”

After two and a half years of this, he had his breakthrough: He had a foreign-made pad analyzed at a textile research institute and discovered the substance inside was cellulose, made from tree fibre, that absorbs liquid more quickly than cotton and retains it when squeezed.

Cellulose production is typically done in a multimillion-dollar manufacturing process, but Mr. Muruganantham spent his last savings designing a table-top machine that would shred the fibre and shape it into pads with a hydraulic press.

Meanwhile his village had exiled him to the town of Coimbatore. “I was very happy that now I’ve invented something, but no one was there to share my happiness” – certainly not the five men who shared his hovel.

In 2005, he took his machine to the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, which entered his contraption in a contest for the best invention using technology for the social good. He won, and was summoned to Delhi to receive an award from the President.

When his picture was in the papers, his wife called. She and his mother returned to live with them; Mr. Muruganantham says good-naturedly they probably expected he would soon be a millionaire. But rather than launching into large-scale sanitary-pad production, he sold his machines to rural women at a price barely above cost.

Among them are the six women who co-own Mother Care in in the heart of Tamil Nadu. Last year, they pooled 240,000 rupees ($4,400) for one of Mr. Muruganantham’s machines and started production in a rented garage. They also bought a snappy pink scooter for deliveries, although first they had to learn to drive.

To create a market for their product, they go door-to-door for quiet chats to tell women how the napkins work, assure them they are safe and explain how they can help avoid the discomfort of traditional alternatives.

Manimegalai Velasamy, at 51 the senior member in this team, has used torn-up cotton saris all her menstruating life, for example. While they were absorbent, the problem was washing. She had to clean them surreptitiously, then hang them to dry behind a layer of roof tiles in her small house. It was unthinkable to put them outside and even in the house; custom dictated she must hide them from her mother-in-law. They never really dried, and they were crawling with bacteria .

“People think God has decided that you should only use cloth, and that’s our biggest challenge,” Ms. Velasamy said. “The best thing is we’ve become teachers – teaching about napkins, it makes us confident.”

Mr. Muruganantham, meanwhile, has delivered his units by donkey into villages in the Himalayas. He has set them up in schools so girls can make their own pads and also earn some money. He finds himself in demand to speak at business schools across Asia, where he touts social entrepreneurship as the best model.

“People thought I was a fool,” he says. Today, he’s the sanitary-napkin man.

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