I grew up in a lower middle class family and I have two sisters. I know that my sisters and mom could not afford to use napkins because paying for the school fees was more important. As the story mentions, my sisters will take time off from school during those days.
His price of 12 rupees (25 cents) for 8 napkins is unbelievably cheap. That means a napkin costs 1.5 rupees which is less than a cup of tea you can buy at a road side stall in India. And I think 75%+ of his target market should be able to afford it.
BTW, you should visit the company's website, they have more details there:
I'm also stunned at the inventor's wife, since she left him thinking this was just a ruse to meet younger women, but perhaps there's something cultural there that I'm unaware of. If I said I was going to go research these here in the US, I'd be terribly shocked if my girlfriend left me over it.
That said, we don't necessarily know the whole story. Maybe he was so focused on the research he alienated his wife.
For instance, a menstrual cup is generally more cost efficient and certainly more environmentally friendly. And it can be manufactured with simple equipment (rubber injection mold).
There's a lot more potential hand-contact with menstrual blood when using a cup than pads, and while someone in the western world might scoff at the idea that using a cup could "ruin" a women's virginity, that could be a real concern for an unmarried girl in rural India.
"Cup manufacturers urge the use of clean water for cleansing. This may not feasible in all countries or conditions, and alternative ways of managing menstrual flow will need to be employed"
Edit: Oh, and as jackityquack mentioned in the sibling comment to this one, that requires running water. I didn't even think it that far, but yeah...that's an even bigger barrier.
And, yes it might be the most cost effective, but if you can't convince a white person to use it, then we shouldn't be telling Indians to use it either. It's an option, but the market should and will decide. (p.s. my roommate uses one too.)
You can stop reading if you get the point, the rest is a rant:
Another example that everyone loves of agriculture. Have you ever heard of a success story through teaching farmers to use non-industrial machinery? Hell NO! You can't win that way. You need to find a way for farmers to compete in the real world, not coddle them. Microfinance them or something. Maybe teach them to partner with a company with the money to buy all the right supplies (tractor, fertilizer, etc) that can actually turn his land in to profit. Then he isn't charity, he's a businessman. Charity is not the solution for people like me (by which I mean a healthy person that can work, since there's no difference between me and another 23 year old in any country in the world).
If you consider that his product is the napkin-making machine rather than the napkins themselves, he does.
> If he creates a better industry, he can keep the profits in India.
Profits are kept in india, instead of building his own giant he empowers others.
All in all, your comment seems to make little sense and to have stopped at the second paragraph in the article or something.
Maybe they aren't super rich but I am sure the napkin makers and the inventor are both doing better then they would otherwise and more importantly they are keeping the money in India.
Are you sure about that?
If every (menstruating) woman in your village purchases their sanitary napkins from you every month because you've got the one machine within 25 miles, you may have a compelling small business, especially when adjusted for cost of living and ease of labor.
I used to work in the 3rd world, and I can tell you that most people who have long-term experience in doing relief and development work in developing countries will tell you that the most sustainable way forward are locally targeted initiatives, with simple machines that step a local group forward, generally along the same lines that innovations happened in the developed world. For example, in Afghanistan, the best thing to happen to the infant mortality rate in several regions has not been the creation of a new, relatively modern hospital, but instead mid-wife training programs. (I'm sorry I don't have citations at hand, I was at some presentations in country when I heard this) Especially in places like rural India that have the potential to be conflict zones, this man inventing a cheap, simple machine and selling the machine instead of selling napkins, is an overall net win, it will make him money eventually and it will increase access to sanitary napkins.
Finally, check into the Howard G Buffet foundation for modern success stories on teaching farmers to use non-industrial techniques, and check out a UNDP project, I think in Loghar province in Afghanistan, where they spent time teaching farmers some American 1930s level farming techniques to increase crop yields three fold without machinery and in a fairly sustainable fashion. (Again, I don't have a citation because this came from talking to a project guy in country, I can't even remember who he was working for now)
Basically, what this inventor is the right way to create a sustainable, inexpensive way to increase the usage of sanitary napkins throughout India. Your way might make more money, but has problems if the goal is to increase women's health, which this man's goal clearly is.
*edited for clarity in a couple spots.
Actually, forcing third world farmers to compete internationally on the global market is what bankrupts them and pushes them into financial slavery. They do just fine without industrialized machines otherwise.
Oh, you're scrounging for rags and ash to catch period blood? I have a machine here you can buy that will let you make napkins from tree bark. I'll even show you how to use it. That's not a subsidy, and it is very much improving the technology at their disposal in a very intentionally iterative way. This isn't a subsidy.
The same goes for teaching farmers sustainable practices. Much of the developing world's issues with hunger are due to poor land management, not a lack of technology. Buffer zones to prevent erosion and good irrigation need to be subsidized in the short term, but in the long term they're going to be self-sustaining.
In general, you're talking about this as if it's a straight giveaway. It's not. It's coming in and saying "you are having health issues/money issues/food issues because you are doing x, y, and z wrong. Here's how you can do it better." Some technology is definitely helpful. But western-style factory farming isn't the obvious solution for subsistence farmers, not by a long shot.
Yes. When the west was developing industrialization, for example, we heavily subsidized burgeoning industry (and still do).
He must have assumed that everybody is as driven as he. I think he's learning the hard way that the problem with poverty isn't necessarily high prices or profit. The biggest shortage is proactive people. You can choose to distribute the wealth, but having observed the general propensity for defeatism in people, I've gradually become an advocate of rather giving means (money, time, resources) to the handful that break from the mold and get things done.
In addition to allowing him to get more done, I also believe that turning in a profit would help him acquire enough notoriety to break down some of those cultural barriers.
Letting people rot in misery increases human misery because those people multiply. I agree that throwing money at the problem is not a solution. But in the West, we have hordes of people who are trained to help others help themselves. Why aren't we throwing psychologists at the poor?
Inner city American ghettos are filled with single mother families that find it psychologically and culturally impossible to make use of the educational opportunities offered to them because before a human can learn intellectually, they need to learn basic emotional skills. They need to learn basic character and coping skills, which is what psychologists teach to those individuals whose parents failed to teach them.
Intervention in poverty should be tasked to the psychologists primarily. Educators make no inroads. Entrepreneurs rarely do either. You rightly pinpoint the issue as defeatism and other psychological disorders -- we have hordes of people who know how to fix this. Let's use them.
Now, his idea is that lot of NGOs in various villages have to make this investment of 1200$ (which is a LOT of money for people living in villages), install the machine, make the napkins and then sell them.
What the OP and I suggest is that he should create/install machines in his own factory, optimize the process even further and then using economies of scale create cheap napkins which every women can afford. Having a central location to drive the prices lower is much easier than installing machines in a country as big as India. And I think he should be able to easily get Investment because his invention is featured at the national level. [And if he can't get Investment, I will start a kickstarter project and send him the money.]
The real problems are marketing(which the article says is a huge problem) and distribution(which from what i read about india, is a huge problem too).
The franchise model seems like a good way to solve those problems, and from what i read about this stuff it's pretty common as a way to solve marketing and distribution in india.
His plan is bad because he creates yet another cause to give money to. With a business, he gets the same outcome and doesn't need help. It's a win-win-win!
Of course, this defeats the stated purpose of encouraging usage by poor Indian women, but if the point is to make money...
Let's start from the scratch. The goal is this:
Create affordable sanitary napkins for women in India.
To achieve this goal, he worked hard to master the first step i.e. to be able to manufacture the napkins at low cost. Great.
Now there are two approaches:
1. Sell machines to different NGOs so that they can create their own napkins. As I mentioned it requires hefty investment of 1,200$. Also, I think it's easy to underestimate how much effort is required to reach different parts of India and selling the concept of these machines.
2. Create machines on his own (using outside investment if needed) and create cheap napkins afforded by economies of scale. He can use the money from the sales and extend it create a better process, better machine and drive prices even lower. He can now rely on an existing vast distributor network to spread these products all over India [I refer you to my shampoo sachet example in this comment: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3370219]. Heck, he can now even export it to other developing countries.
If the goal is to make napkins available to more women in India (and everywhere else), I think that 2nd approach is vastly superior than first. What do you think?
PS: If there is a viable market, I suspect some of those groups will start to grow and you may end up with the type of large company you want him to build.
According to the article and his website the machine costs $2,500 each, can produce 2 napkins per minute and requires 746W of power. Each machine employs a crew of four people.
A full scale industrial machine is claimed to cost $500K and, from a quick bit of google-ing can produce 350 napkins per minute and requires about 80KW of power. Each machine seems to be operable by a small team of five or so, but let's double that to ten people.
In order to match the production rate of a single industrial machine you would need:
According to this (http://mahadiscom.com/emagazine/jan06/india1%5B1%5D.pdf) electricity cost in India runs around 1.5 rupees per KWh for residential and 3.5 rupees per KWh for industrial applications. Assuming ten hours per day (for easy math) the power costs compare as follows (converted to USD):
175 low cost machines @131KWh in household settings: USD $37 per day.
Industrial machine @80KWh in industrial setting: USD $52.87 per day.
The industrial machine cost a little more to run (power) but it produces 175 times more product per machine. Put a different way, around USD $0.03 of power is required per napkin with the household machine. The industrial machine --even at more than double the electricity cost-- only requires USD $0.0003 per napkin in power.
In terms of labor costs --assuming $1 per hour-- the household machine would cost about $0.033 per napkin while the industrial machine runs $0.0005 per napkin.
According to the linked statistic the TAM (Total Addressable Market) is around 300 million women:
If his dream to "make India a 100% napkin-using country" is fully realized you would need to produce a minimum of 1500 million napkins per month (assuming five pads used per period). The solutions compare as follows:
Assuming that the machines are run 24 hours per day for 30 days.
- Household solution
Labor cost per 30 days: $25,001,280
- Industrial Solution:
Labor cost per 30 days: $90,000
Unless my numbers are grossly wrong (please check, I threw them together quickly) this is not as good a solution as it has been made out to be. In fact, it looks like a really bad solution to a large scale problem. The costs are staggering. Power consumption is at least 50% greater. I'll bet that product quality and consistency also suffers a great deal. And, of course, we haven't even covered maintenance costs and MTBF (Mean Time Between Failures) of 18,000 low-cost machines versus 100 industrial grade machines.
Good job. Lots of work. But I'd invest in a used industrial machine out of China over making thousands of these low cost household devices.
A fraction of an industrial machine makes zero napkins.
Your analysis is spot on, the problem can be solved more efficiently with a large scale production. The capital expenditure cost however is similar (43M vs 50M). You point out they huge disparity in labor costs $25M vs .09M but labor is 'free' in India (which is to say there is so much of it available that the price is a lot less than elsewhere).
The incremental solution here wins because a small increment in cash instantly starts feeding the supply of napkins. The 'big machine' solution loses because it takes a huge investment to get to the point where you can make the napkins and nobody is willing to fund that.
There is another problem which are transportation costs. The infrastructure in India is, by all reports, spotty in the rural areas. By creating the manufacturing in the towns themselves you mitigate the transportation problems. That would not be possible with a centralized industrial machine. Further the folks who 'make' the napkins can also sell them so you have a personal relationship with someone in the town.
The incremental nature, the fact that India is labor rich and infrastructure poor, and the comparable capital costs make this an extraordinarily good solution to the problem.
Well, that assumes that this is the only individual in India that could be interested in the market segment. There are plenty of people in India for whom USD $500K is not a lot of money, particularly if a solid case can be made for the investment.
He could have invested four years trying to raise money to buy a number of industrial grade machines rather than doing what he did.
Here's another interesting data point. According to this site (http://www.euronuclear.org/info/encyclopedia/n/nuclear-power...) the average nuclear power plant in India produces 200MW of power. Deploying enough machines to provide napkins to the TAM would consume around 6% of the power output of a single nuclear power plant. An operation based around industrial machines would require about 4%. It's interesting when you can measure things in terms of the percentage utilization of a nuclear power plant.
I looked through the various responses to my post. Lots of good points. Of course, the infrastructure in India is something I cannot have a good grasp of from my vantage point in suburban Los Angeles. When faced with something like this I always fall back to one of my favorite Mark Twain sayings: "A man holding a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way". This inventor held that cat by the tail. Hard to judge from the outside. I'll have to leave it at that.
And that person would be welcome to undercut him and provide better value. Before he came along, pads were too expensive. Now they're affordable. They also stimulate the local economy, both in terms of increased jobs and increased healthcare (very underrated). Regardless of the means, the end result is better.
And even if he did the industrial machine thing, you've missed the comment on transport issues - transportation is a big thing.
This problem is not new and I am sure that companies like J&J have looked at the Indian market. Reaching remote villages while providing a low price is something that a big company concerned about profits will not consider at all. Not until the numbers make sense.
His numbers for labor cost, namely $1/hour, are in the ballpark of free. It's probably a bit high (I'd guess something closer to 15-35rs/hour), but not unreasonable.
The minimum wage in India is 115rs/day, or 11.5rs/hour with a 10 hour workday, so it wouldn't even be legal to pay 5rs/hour (an order of magnitude less than the 50rs/hour algoshift postulated).
Assuming the machine operators earn a median Indian wage, assuming 8 hour days, 6 days/week, 52 weeks/year, their wage will be 28rs/hour.
$1 a day may seem extreme but in reality it's not quite as ridiculous as you suggest. In 2005, the World Bank estimated that 42% of India's population lived on $1.25 or less per day. In the interim years, the urban poor saw a 3.6% increase in income inequality and the rural 1.3%.
The issue of minimum wage in India is complicated, not all wage-earners get the either the national or state-level minimum wage (and women are disproportionally excluded). This article covers it in detail:
As you say, though, it still doesn't sound legal.
Procter and Gamble can already produce these things for a fraction of the cost. But building and maintaining a distribution network, marketing the product and making a healthy profit drives costs up.
This solution turns that problem on its head. Disperse the manufacturing locally, and let traditional/local social networks get the napkins distributed. In a country as large and complex as India, this is probably easier than finding 5,000 marketing campaigns to try to reach many small pockets of demand regarding a taboo subject.
But we wouldn't have it any other way.
As the article pointed out, the biggest problem in this case is not technical. It's social.
Now that you've shown that the big machines are more efficient overall, how do you get there from here? I would even say that if you know from the start that you want a bunch of $500K machines, then bootstrapping -- what he's doing now -- is in fact the easiest way. Google has some massive datacenters but they didn't start by spending $50M on hardware on day 1.
Wait a minute here, you multiplied the electrical cost per cheap machine by 175 since it makes 175 times less, then compared the cost of the 175 times more, then claimed it made 175 times less, but you already adjusted it to be 1 to 1. Are you double compensating here?
746W per machine => 7.46KWh per day. Multiply by $0.03 USD/KWh (=1.5 INR) to get $0.22/day or $0.00022 per napkin, slightly cheaper than the industrial solution. In other words, the household machines are about half as efficient with power but their cheaper rates on power more than compensates.
In terms of overall efficiency, other factors like raw materials, transportation, etc. are likely to dominate--the power expenditure is small for both options.
Unskilled/semiskilled laborers in India don't make anything close to that.
You are also missing the part where he is distributing production to poorer manufacturers who are willing to take a smaller profit, and thus pushing the market price down. Any commercial entity that buys the $500k machine will not want to get into a race to the bottom in pricing unless they are forced to do so. These distributed units which are run by poor women who don't want/need corporation level profits will force that race to the bottom. In the end, the big machines will likely prevail but prices will be much more reasonable.
>assuming five pads used per period
Assume 1-5 per DAY, at 3-6 days per 28 days. So, 3-30 per month, 40-400 per year per adolescent -> menopausal female.
Oh, and don't forget these are also useful for men in their old age.
I almost cried with pride reading this article. It is a massive, massive problem in the undeveloped world stopping girls and women from working and getting an education. By putting the means of production in the hands of a village collective, the results could be staggering.
See S.H.E. (Sustainable Health Enterprises) for another market-based example in this effort, based in Africa using plant matter without all this processing:
In addition, it's important to note that this is merely a first revision. It's safe to assume, I think, that future revisions would improve upon the design and, due to the agility of manufacturing (how many industrial machines are manufactured per year?), it should be easier to prototype models that improve efficiency, cost and quality. I'd even go as far as to say that if this catches on it will eventually come close to matching the efficiency of an industrial machine for a fraction of the current cost.
Also to take in consideration is
- warehouse area to store raw materials
- some kind of financial system to manage purchase orders / sales orders
21,000 napkins / hour. Let's assume there's 10 in a box, 8 boxes to a case and 30 cases in a pallet.
So that's 2400 napkins / pallet = ~ 9 pallets per hour. You're also going to need labelling, conveyors, people to pack the boxes, people to pack the cases, people to stack the pallets and then a few fork lifts to move the pallets plus of course engineering staff to maintain all this.
So it's not really small machine v big machine, it's small machine v production line which adds a lot of complexity.
The hint is the locality of production.
One end is a big centralized machinery designed to scale, and the appropriate logistics to ramp up availability across the country. But failures in production or transportation of goods will result in reduced availability. Also, centralized production drains the money to one place, namely the industrial area, and the local people might not have the money to continuously support buying these rags.
The other end is a distributed set of decentralized small-scale production fragments that produces local goods locally. The scheme will yield a higher local efficiency even if the total country-wide production of all units combine is more inefficient. It will recirculate local money more efficiently and boost local economy, again a local maxima, and this will allow more local people to buy the goods which was the whole point of this grassroots manufacturing. Also, production outages in one unit will not cause reduced availability since only a fraction of total production will be offline.
It gets fun to find analogies that fit this pattern. It's like Perforce vs Git, or West vs East.
The production is decentralized and it enables small business growth in rural areas.
The advantage here is they will be able to sell napkins to a community at a MUCH lower price and still make a profit using these small machines than the industrial ones.
I have some questions though.
One is about the suggestion in the article that not using disposable napkins results in reproductive tract infections. That seems unlikely.
Another is that while good, cheap, reliable period-managing supplies are useful and liberating for women, there are movements to use menstrual cups and washable, reusable cloths as an alternative to disposable stuff. "Rags" sounds negative but "reusable cloth pads" less so.
So while this is great, maybe there is still more opportunity for disruption in this market!
Some sources that show that infection, death and loss of reproductive ability is a clear concern:
Addresses many forms of health problems caused by using rags, e.g. in flood areas and where dangerous insects live.
"..unhygienic materials use to deal with periods lead to rashes, sores and bruising, and the women are regularly exposed to reproductive and urinary infections."
"..women rarely washed their rags in clean water and hid them in dark places, which encourages the growth of mould. This has led to vaginal infections and cuts that are hidden and dealt with in silence."
Lastly a note about reusable cloth and cups: these require clean water, which is the first problem here for these communities. Bring clean water to a village and the schools and workplaces and a safe place for cloth/cups to be boiled and dried and you have solved the problem. But clean, running, untainted water is not easy to provide.
In the actual environment of this product, there might be many existing practices/strategies for managing periods which could cause reproductive tract infections.
Just to give you an idea, in some parts of the developing world girls are taught to use diluted disinfectant to douche.. that is surely not the worst.
"Rags" is not a negative word for "reusable cloth pads," the story is actually talking about rags. They might be fine if they are kept sterile, but maybe the time to judge that is after you have done it in poor conditions in India and talked to women there about why they don't do it the same way.
If you don't want your face photographed, you'd better keep it covered the entire time a photographic journalist is on the property, not just when you know he's taking a picture.
This man has certainly practiced the 'design thinking' process outlined by Tim Brown in "Change By Design" - a book about the process of innovation. The Design Thinking process involves lots of ethnographic research, and developing empathy for the user - the same tenets as user centered (UCD) or human centered design (HCD).
In this case, the inventor developed empathy by going so far as wearing a fake uterus that emitted goats blood!
I find this story and others like it to be very inspiring. However, knowing that the world can be changed for the better or worse by people who believe strongly enough about something is both reassuring and frightening at the same time.
Per my reading of the story, he basically pulled really bizarre moves until he finally did the sensible thing and white box reverse engineered a working model ...
Let me give you an example. In India, many low income people can't afford shampoo bottles. So retail companies came up with a concept of 'shampoo sachet' [http://goo.gl/GUopS] (similar to ketch up sachet) and sold it for a rupee (back in 90s when I was growing up). Without this product, I would have never used a shampoo when I was a kid. It was a HUGE seller and you could find it in remote parts of India. I think it is taught as an example in business schools in India.
As per my other post, he is selling his napkin for 12 rupees for 8 napkins. If he actually decided to manufacture them and retail them on a scale, I am sure he can still keep the same low price and achieve better distribution. His current approach of getting people to install machine and then making napkins is much harder to scale. That's my personal opinion anyway.
Then to your other points. The shampoo sachets did bring shampoo to the common man not the poor. Businesses had to innovate because back then even the middle class could not afford shampoo. Also I hear many people used (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sapindus) before the shampoo with perfectly good results and so compelling them to move away from it required a really good motivation and a really low price was it.
Profit isn't intrinsically evil. Sometimes not profiting is much more evil.
Now only 25-50% of rural women are using these sanitary napkins, but the makers are maximizing their profits. How long before another person comes along and designs a similar machine that can narrow the profit margin?
Theoretical capitalism is quite efficient in theory, but in practice there are a lot of difficulties realizing it. In this case, it is admirable that people are willing to forgo maximal profit in an effort to instead look after the health of as many women as possible.
Female medical students not wishing to talk to a man about menstruation.
The fatalistic, egotistical and selfish attitude epitomised by women being unconcerned about losing their uterus. And of course, if you don't care about your own uterus, you're unlikely to care about litter, the environment, or pretty much anything.
(ps, as someone who has spent a lot of time in India and whose parenta are Indian, this fatalistic selfishness isn't a gender based issue. It is, however, one of the corrosive elements of Indian culture that worries me).
In many traditional Indian families, the women are not allowed to many daily household tasks while menstruating. This includes cooking, cleaning, performing religious rituals, etc. In many cases they aren't allowed to enter certain parts of the home at all.
To me, that belief system has to change, and it is a gender based issue.
I grew with Indian parents and now I have two daughters. The thought of them growing up with these taboos and feelings about their own bodies is something I'm strongly against.
Watch the full ad for a spoof of every tampon commercial ever. They are absurd (basically the ad industry is in denial).
Maybe yours are different though.
I wouldn't be so quick to judge. If you're a woman in India and a strange man asks you to try something weird that could potentially harm your body, I think you have every right to be suspicious of that person.
this fatalistic selfishness isn't a gender based issue. It is, however, one of the corrosive elements of Indian culture that worries me
I agree that Indians are incredibly selfish in certain ways, especially when you look at their actions through the lens of western cultural practices, but this is probably not a good example of that.
"According to Sumathi Dharmalingam, a housewife who runs a napkin-making business based around the machine, rural women [snipped] have a devil-may-care attitude about their health. "When I caution them that they might have to have their uterus removed because of reproductive infections, they just say, 'So what? How long are we going to live anyway?'
She's basically asking these women to use napkins instead of "dirty rags, newspapers, dried leaves, or even ashes".
I'm looking at it through the lens of someone born in India, who has lived in India, whose parents still live in India, but who no longer does. It's certainly possible that I'm displaying some of the reverse-racism and cultural arrogance I've seen in other NRI / PIOs when discussing India.
As things stand, these women and all generations before them have been using rags. They really can't imagine why they need this new fangled thing called a napkin. Worse, it is very likely a choice between this new fangled thing they don't think they need, and having a bit less food tonight. In that context, it's obvious why they choose to go with the rag.
The point of the story is that yes, people should care about things like food, etc, before the environment. But at the same time, environmental degradation dramatically affects your ability to secure food, shelter, and safety. E.g. it is thought that the Indus River valley civilization declined because of ecological collapse. The costs of environmental degradation on human well-being are diffuse and often indirect, which means it's easy to completely discount them, whereas a rational analysis would factor them in fully into cost-benefit analyses.
This is particularly true at a time when clean water is becoming a crucial resource world-wide. The western world can afford high-tech solutions to clean up water, but the developing world cannot. For their own well-being, people in places like India would do well to be deadly-serious about keeping their water clean to begin with.
You might be surprised what the developing world can put together with electricity and a foot pedal.
I agree that it's fatalistic. But it's the opposite of egotistical and selfish. People with healthy egos generally care a lot about whether they will their lose organs, or their lives. The women in question apparently don't. From the article: 'So what? How long are we going to live anyway?'.
And maybe their lives suck so much that this attitude is understandable.
It's probably better to analyse this in terms of discounting rates (i.e. interest rates).
This whole story is straight out of a movie. Great article.
If there is one person that you ought to be able to talk to about a taboo issue like that, it should be your wife. In fact, she was perfectly placed to be the "more acceptable public face", and talking to women about his work. It sounds like it would have made the process a lot easier for him.
His mother was the one who left over the fake uterus.