India has the lowest usage of feminine hygiene products in the world. Of the country’s nearly 500 million women, only six percent use sanitary napkins when they’ve got their period.
Muruganantham began thinking about sanitary pads when he realized his wife wasn’t one of the fortunate few. “I saw that my wife was carrying something. She was trying to hide it. So I asked her what it was and she said, ‘None of your business’.”
His wife eventually admitted to him that she was using an old rag to absorb the blood when she had her period. “I saw immediately that it was a cloth so dirty I wouldn’t use it to clean my two-wheeler,” Muruganantham says.
Awareness of the importance of feminine hygiene is low in India partly because the topic is such a taboo. In parts of the country, menstruating women are seen as unclean and forced to live away from the community for a number of days. And it’s common to use old bits of cloth, sticks and even rocks instead of sanitary pads or tampons.
When Muruganantham scolded his wife for using the dirty cloth she explained that sanitary pads were too expensive. “She said she knew about sanitary pads, but if she and women like her started buying them, then they couldn’t buy milk or food.”
For Muruganantham this was a call to action. He began experimenting with sanitary pads and making his own. “I wore a sanitary pad in panties and I made an artificial uterus out of football. I put goat's blood in the bladder and attached it to the panties. Whenever I walked or cycled I'd give the bladder a quick press and blood would go onto the napkin.”
Muruganantham’s obsession with sanitary pads caused problems. After a couple of hours the goat’s blood began to stink and it also leaked onto his clothing. Some of his neighbours thought he had an infectious disease and he was cast out of his village. And when he started giving his experimental sanitary pads to female medical students to try out, his wife left him.
But the setbacks didn’t discourage Muruganantham. Instead of wearing the pads himself, he decided to start collecting and examining used pads from the medical students. This led him to the crucial breakthrough.
“I discovered that pads are not made of ordinary cotton, which releases liquid under pressure but instead, the pads contain cellulose derived from pinewood, which absorbs fast and retains liquid under pressure,” he says.
Once Muruganantham figured out how he could make proper sanitary pads, he began trying to come up with a way to mass-produce the pads cheaply.
After four years trying, Muruganantham came up with a simple machine that could make the pads on a kitchen table, instead of in a factory with multi-million dollar equipment. Muruganantham’s mini sanitary pad machine costs around 1600 US dollars and can be used to produce around 120 pads an hour.
Now, Muruganantham has sold more than 600 of his machines across India. This has not only made it easier for poor women to get hold of proper sanitary pads, it’s also provided some of them with jobs making the pads. And Muruganantham’s wife and village have both taken him back.