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Muruganantham left the village with a sense of optimism that he would eventually find success. And he did, with a little help from his pet. "It took a dog to show me the way," he says, recalling an incident in which his dog tore apart a cardboard sheet. Picking up the shreds, Muruganantham finally realized his mistake -- sanitary napkins are not made of cotton, they are made of wood pulp.
Muruganantham became focused on building a machine to manufacture the napkins. He spent nearly three years trying to replicate the massive plants used by multinational companies like Kotex. They cost close to $25,000, but Muruganantham wanted to create something simple and cheap. The idea was to set up manufacturing units in villages like his, where women, mostly unskilled laborers, could use the machines. He hoped women could pool together money to set up the businesses, create employment, and generate a demand for sanitary napkins in rural areas.
"Why buy sanitary napkins from multinationals when we can make them at home and generate employment?" Muruganantham said.
His setup requires three machines. First, the raw material needs to be pulled apart in a machine that resembles a giant blender. Once the wood pulp is fluffed out, it needs to be compressed under a steamer. Finally, the napkin is wrapped with a translucent surgical material and sealed.
Muruganantham patented his machine in 2005 after winning an award from a technology institute in Chennai, India. He then set up a production unit in the city. His wife and mother returned after reading about his achievements in a local newspaper.
In 2009, Muruganantham received an award for innovation from the president of India. He then set up Jayashree Industries, and ever since, the social entrepreneur has been on a mission to educate women about feminine hygiene and persuade them to switch from rags to pads.
Lawmakers seem to have also woken up to the issue. Sanitary napkins are being sold in rural areas at subsidized rates, and a promotional campaign targets teenagers. "The government has currently invested $14 million in the project and can invest more," says Geetanjali Agarwal, a consultant with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
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Muruganantham spends much of his time guiding his clients on logistics--sourcing raw material, pricing, and employment.
At a TEDx talk at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Bangalore in January 2013, a confident Muruganantham narrated his experiences with wit, candor, and humor. "I converted a problem into an opportunity," he told his audience, which consisted mostly of students.
"Have any of the boys here ever held a sanitary napkin?" he asked. The cheering crowd suddenly fell silent.
Muruganantham broke the awkward silence saying, "Don't worry, even your dean hasn't." The boys cheered him on; the girls giggled and looked embarrassed. Muruganantham often corners male heads of schools with the question when he is invited to speak. He assured the audience that he has yet to come across a man who has held a sanitary napkin in his hand. "Why the ignorance?" he said.
Muruganantham wants "menstruation" to be an accepted word; he hopes someday a sanitary napkin will not have to be "smuggled" out of a pharmacy. He hopes girls will stop dropping out of school in rural areas out of embarrassment.
Muruganantham concluded his TEDx speech by urging students to make a social impact. "The choice is yours: Do you want to exist or do you want to live?"
Jayashree Industries has created some 700 brands of napkins in 30 of India's states, with names like Mother Care, Softex, Relax, Touch Free, Be Free, Rosy, and Real Free. Dozens of sanitary napkins have regional names, printed in local languages so they can be accessed by customers who cannot read English.
According to Muruganantham, 7,000 people have been employed so far, and more than 3 million women have shifted from using rags to using pads.
Back in Tirupur, Indumati and her team have a visitor. Eunice Olsen, a Chinese actress and a member of Singapore's parliament, has flown in to meet the women and watch them work. Olsen is a potential customer: She hopes to buy machines to help set up a production unit in Cambodia, where she is involved in charity work. Like Indumati, Olsen, too, had seen a video of Muruganantham on YouTube, where he explains how his machines work.
She became an instant fan.
Olsen spends the whole day with the Mother Care team. The women use semi-automatic machines, so there is more labor involved. "Automatic machines are far more expensive. These machines are sufficient for our output," says Indumati. An automatic machine can produce 3,000 napkins in eight hours. A semi-automatic one churns out only one-third the number, but it can employ up to 10 people. The automatic machine can only employ four people.
Olsen is convinced about the project's feasibility and places an order for 400 napkins to take back.
The women say their husbands, who once refused to help them, are now proud of their industriousness. "My husband wants to know if he can help in the business in any way. I have made him my driver," says Indumati, laughing loudly over the sound of the compressor.