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An Indian Inventor Disrupts The Period Industry (fastcoexist.com)
705 points by wallflower on Dec 19, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 145 comments

What an inspiring story.

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:


What I love about this story is how it shows the strength that can come from diversity of perspective. Quite honestly, as a middle-class male in America, I had personally never considered this problem. I never considered the cost or availability of them. There are some problems that can never be solved by the top earners, because we often don't know there are problems! Of course, this is why we also fail so spectacularly when architecting solutions for hunger, education, sanitation, etc in other countries. We don't really understand the problems, so how can we make solutions?

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.

Reactions in more traditional societies always seem more paranoid.

That said, we don't necessarily know the whole story. Maybe he was so focused on the research he alienated his wife.

I had the same thought, but maybe our research would "feel" like a research. It would have forms, focus groups, funding, schedules... a very different situation than his, I presume.

Now that I'm thinking about it, its probably a bit around the lines of "Talking to women about private and inappropriate things would lead toward inappropriate actions. Men don't talk about this, so you must have some other motivation". Still a bit unreasonable, but its hard to say.

Necessity is truly the mother of invention. Stubbornness being the daddy.

I applaud the inventor's drive to lower the cost of production, but sanitary napkins aren't necessarily the best solution.

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).


It probably is a better solution (I use one myself and my only gripe is that I wished I'd known it was an option as a teenager and not already been 30 when I discovered them), but if the menstrual taboo is as strong there as that article implies, then it may be an even harder sell than a man designing a napkin machine.

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.

A great point about 'ruining virginity'. It is definitely a very sensitive topic in India and would severely affect product adoption.

From the linked Wiki page.

"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"

They are great, but I can imagine they might be difficult to manage and to keep clean in some situations.

Not sure about the natural rubber ones, but the silicone ones can be boil-sterilized. But again, then you run into the taboo. If you can't afford sanitary napkins, can you afford a pot specifically for boiling your cup? Would you even be able to get past the taboo to boil it in the same kitchen that you prepare food in, even if it did have its own dedicated pan that never touched food?

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.

Like without running water.

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.)

Good story, but a strange guy. Also, he could probably do more good for his country by selling his product. He would actually disrupt the industry, instead of creating yet another charity project. The way to fight poverty isn't to give poor people poor solution. The way to think about it is that you need to level the playing field, so even Indians would laugh at making their own napkins. If you told a white American do make their own napkin, they'd laugh if your face. But we seem to think it's reasonable for an Indian to do it. That's absurd. If he creates a better industry, he can keep the profits in India. He can then employ persons who will be rich enough to afford to not make their own napkins. That money will trickle out in to the economy and create a richer India. The only solution to poverty is economics. And you can't become an economic super power on charity.

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).

> Also, he could probably do more good for his country by selling his product.

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.

I think wealthy Indians are better than empowered Indians.

There are many wealthy Indians in India already - what India needs is a middle-class - i.e. people that have a roof over their head, with their basic needs taken care of and that are empowered to create their own wealth.

To the poster below me: he is selling $2500 machines. The people he sells the machines to sell the $.25 napkins but the machine can make 1000 napkins a day. One machine properly worked could turn a gross profit of $91,250/year. He has sold 600 machines so far so that is $1.5 million that the inventor has grossed.

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.

You need to divide $91,250 by 8 (=$11,406.25), because the napkins are typically sold for $0.25 for 8 of them. Then, subtract out the costs of energy and raw materials and divide the result by 4 (the number of people it takes to work the machine), and each operator makes perhaps $2000. Based on some of the comments in this thread, that's still not bad for rural India, but it's not nearly the numbers you report.

I think the OP meant to suggest that increase wealth of poor people and make them middle class. You can definitely not create wealth by selling 25 cents napkins.

You can definitely not create wealth by selling 25 cents napkins.

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.

Now that I re-read that sentence, it's not well written. When replying to the parent comment, I wanted to clarify that these napkins will create wealth and help poor people move to middle class. I meant to say that you can not become filthy rich selling 25 cents napkins.

Filthy-rich has different thresholds in different parts of the world. $50k may be a middle class income in Arkansas in the US, but it would be a ridiculously huge amount in small-town India.

I think healthy Indians will be both wealthier and more empowered.

It's a case of one wealthy indian vs many empowered indians. And from the financial model of this guy (selling his machines through rural women) he obviously prefers latter.

Why downvotes? Why not provide a counter-argument?

So India can be like Brazil with its massive income inequality?

It would be wonderful if India achieved the same wealth distribution as Brazil. Some people would become richer and no one would become poorer.


I can't tell what your nationality is, so my apologies if you have had experience in the developing third world, but it sure doesn't seem like you do.

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.

"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"

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.

So the only way for farmers to survive is to subsidize them? The only way is to spend government money to prop them up? If what you say is true, then other solutions need to be explored. Like I said, maybe partnerships or something so they can compete. It's not economically viable otherwise. It's a waste of capital. It's like funding the music industry because their business doesn't work. Music industry, agricultural industry are both industries. They do compete one way or the other. I have a feeling we're way too far apart on this issue to bother though.

You're advocating a complete overhaul rather than iterative improvement. Complete overhauls are nice, but iterative improvements tend to work better.

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.

Unsubsidized farmers competing with subsidized farmers are likely to lose. If you can't stop subsidizing foreign farmers, then the Nash equilibrium is to subsidize your farmers too.

Why? Just let your people go into other industries, give the countryside over to nature or golf courses, and enjoy the cheaper food thanks to those stupid governments that subsidize their farmers.

> So the only way for farmers to survive is to subsidize them?

Yes. When the west was developing industrialization, for example, we heavily subsidized burgeoning industry (and still do).

The only way for farmers to survive on a world market utterly dominated by subsidized farmers in Europe and USA is to subsidize them, yes.

It is not an easy path, though. "Lack of awareness is the major reason, next to the apathy of NGO’s," [...] rural women are clueless as to how to use them, think twice about spending even the small amount of money to buy a packet, and sadly have a devil-may-care attitude about their health

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.

Why does everyone forget education, especially highly basic education like what psychotherapy provides?

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.

My exact thoughts. Once again, you also explained it a whole lot better than I did (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3370197). Being raised in lower income family in India, I have certainly seen how capitalism could lift people of poverty.

I've only had the chance to visit once, but it's wonderful! The best news I've heard is that (i seem to remember) 80% of people that live in slums (slums all over the world), only live there for 1 generation. That means in 80% of cases, people get out of the deepest poverty (people usually come to slums from rural areas, so slums don't shrink). The world is getting better, but it does take a LONG time.


I don't have all the solution. But poor people are people too. They're not going to like a solution that makes them know they're poor. Like if you tell them they can't have a flush toilet. A solution to toilets must make people feel respected, and not have shame. His solution is great because napkins is the best known product, and he's able to make it available to all. He isn't telling them to use a hose or some shit. Sure, a hose is reusable, but fuck that!

Is the idea really for people to make their own napkins? I thought based on the article that the point was that napkins could be manufactured cheaply in the village, rather than on half-million dollar machines owned by multinational conglomerates.

Well, he solved the problem of creating a machine which costs around 1,200$ instead of 600,000$, the machine used by J&J and P&G.

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.]

Yes , he may be able to optimize the cost of the napkins even further. But currently , they're cheap enough.

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.

Or self fund since it sounds to be a profitable idea.

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!

If the point is to make money, then he should sell the napkins just below the price of the competitors, keeping a healthy margin for himself.

Of course, this defeats the stated purpose of encouraging usage by poor Indian women, but if the point is to make money...

Nope, the point is not 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?

A centralized factory is going to need to pay for shipping across India which would increase cost. Rather than dealing with such issues himself he can get people to create franchises and supply the first machine and then sell them more after things start to scale. The end result is to create a domestic industry which will then continue to drive costs down and promote adoption though advertising etc.

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.

Advertising, support, distribution. Much much easy when you have a distributed production/sales force.

It's better to help the poor become rich than it is to give the poor a bobble and have them stay poor. It's essentially teach a man to fish, except with business. He can reinvest, grow the country, then they can all afford the doodle. It's a win for India, and the world! Maybe he sells to North America, and is able to make more money for his country than would ever have been saved by the poor using his cheaper napkin. (I mix doodles and napkins, but it's all the same). It's economics.

Wait a minute...

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:

Machines: 175

Cost: $437,500

Power: 131KW

Workers: 700

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

Machines: 17362

Cost: $43,405,000

Power: 12MW

Labor cost per 30 days: $25,001,280

- Industrial Solution:

Machines: 100

Cost: $50,000,000

Power: 8MW

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.

Great analysis, missed a huge point though.

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.

> A fraction of an industrial machine makes zero napkins.

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.

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.

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.

I agree. Of all the arguments, the one about transportation is probably the most important. Even though there has been good improvements in national highways over the last decade, majority of the roads in India are still in desperate need of repair. Price of gas is about $6/gal. As compared to US, it takes probably 4 times longer to cover the same distance due to traffic and road conditions.

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.

...but labor is 'free' in India...

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.

When the bottom billion in India make around $1-$2 a day, his estimate is off by about an order of magnitude.

India has 1B people and a GDP per capita of about $1400/year, making it a mathematical impossibility that the bottom billion earns $1/day.

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.

According to the 2011 Census, India has 1.2 Billion people, so that rules out any mathematical impossibility.

$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:


India has a little over 1.17 billion people, so if almost all the wealth goes to the top 15%, it's mathematically possible for the bottom billion to make $1 a day.

As you say, though, it still doesn't sound legal.

You're looking at one aspect of the problem, from the supply side. We've had industrial scale manufacturing of sanitary napkins for 100 years.

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.

Excellent point. Conversesly, the most likely is that Proctor and Gamble is perfectly positioned to enter this newly educated market and undercut this inefficient incumbent, destroying thousands of jobs in the process.

But we wouldn't have it any other way.

You could use the same math to show why cars are a terrible solution to transportation. And yet, we've got millions upon millions of cars, and relatively few trains and buses (at least on my continent). People don't decide how to live their lives by sitting down with a calculator and figuring out the most efficient method to serve the entire population of their country.

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.

> 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.

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?

This is correct; there is some double compensation.

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.

-assuming $1 per hour

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.

Better 'usage' numbers (as a female):

>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: http://www.sheinnovates.com/

You're forgetting bootstrapping costs. Sure, an industrial machine may be cheaper in the long term, but he'd have to raise $500k to buy one. In addition, buying an industrial machine lacks the immaterial benefit of bringing manufacturing and engineering jobs and expertise to India.

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.

His solution may be better given the infrastructure. I don't know what the infrastructure is like, but using one big machine requires being able to distribute the napkins to a much wider area. In, say, the US, that's an easy win. We have good infrastructure, and it makes sense to use one big machine and buy them in stores. That may not be true in India - I invite anyone with knowledge on the subject to comment.

A small counterargument: that industrial machine produces 21,000 napkins per hour = 500,000 per day = 15,000,000 per month. So, it would serve say 500,000 women. In highly rural areas of India, the distribution of the product would require quite a complex distribution mechanism.

Indeed, it is not clear if that is just for the machine which produces the napkins or for the entire production line.

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.

This ain't a Google interview :) so the follow-up question is to make a list of reasons why his solution is more practical than buying a used machine out of China.

The hint is the locality of production.

These are like the opposite ends of the approach continuum.

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.

> Workers: 700


The production is decentralized and it enables small business growth in rural areas.

You've left out energy costs to transport raw material to central huge factory, and product from that central huge factory.

If you weren't right, then the whole point of industrialization, division of labour etc, would be all wrong isnt it?

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.

That's some great points. Thanks for the effort to lay out the costs involved. It's a good point to consider how there are often good reason for doing things the way we have been (caveats about this situation not withstanding).

I love that this guy figured out how to make and re-sell a cheaper manufacturing machine!

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!

>not using disposable napkins results in reproductive tract infections. That seems unlikely.

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.

Any kind of planning on helping the situation for menstrual products in India has to start with some kind of observation of existing practice.

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.

Thoroughly brilliant example of relentless execution of a vision with a higher purpose.

Not sure if someone noticed but the women workers are wearing the cloth-mask so as not to be identified in the photo. Interesting, weird and depressing that its embarrassing to be working building sanitary napkins.

Are you sure about that? I think it's because they can't afford a proper medical mask, they are using a scarf or something similar [Especially keeping the story in mind that this machine is supposed to make napkins for poor women]. As you can see, one woman's back is facing the camera so she doesn't really need to wear a mask unless for cleanliness purpose.

While you are probably right about the true purpose of the scarves, I wouldn't be so quick to assume that the person not facing the camera is evidence of that.

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.

I won't assume anything about the purpose of the mask, but if for cleanliness purpose they should also probably wear gloves.

well-washed hands are almost as good if you don't have access to rubber gloves.

Could there be an alternate explanation for the masks; such as to prevent inhalation of cellulose fiber used in the manufacturing process?

It's probably because cellulose fibers and dust can be quite dangerous.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar (and a photo is just a photo). There may have been other photos where the women are not wearing cloth-masks, but those photos didn't made it because they didn't place enough emphasis on the inventor.

I hardly think that's the case. They are making "sanitary" napkins, which should ideally be clean. I guess they are taking the necessary precautions for that.

The fact that they are covering their heads as well as faces suggests that it's related to hygiene more than privacy. Things that are commonplace and cheap in the western world like disposable masks and caps are not so in the locale mentioned in the story.

I'm going to send this article to anyone who complains about how entrepreneurs only make "trivial apps" instead of solving serious "real-world problems". I love what this man has done, but to say that people unwilling to add to the stress/difficulty/risk of starting a startup by tackling a market/problem like this one is inappropriate. Yes, let's encourage entrepreneurship on all levels, but don't pretend that it's just as hard as building and selling a mobile app.

I heard this guy tell his story to a live audience in Chennai a while ago. He's an electrifying speaker. You should see his passion for his project. He is an inspiration, reminded me of Dr. Varaprasad Reddy of Shantha Biotechnics, who also has a great story to tell.

Brilliant example of the design thinking process in action.

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.

Hard to say if it was brilliant, in fact.

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 ...

I am sad to say when I read this I worried whether the manufacturers' samples would come back to bite him in the form of some sort of patent lawsuit. I guess it could be considered a benefit that he isn't making money, as it makes him a smaller target.

That's much less of a worry in developing world. No manufacturer wants to link "selfish" word with its name in news head lines. And that is how its gonna look if they sue.

Inspirational! This is a great example of the only barrier for not achieving something great...is yourself.

The world needs more people with empathy who are willing to put themselves in the shoes of others. Brilliant story. Thank you for posting it.

You're welcome. I'm glad that the HN readership has helped share this story with people who might have missed this and who are interested in these true individuals.

Why not just buy bulk medical gauze and fold it up? That's got to be cheap as hell, and if it's good enough for bullet holes...

Because medical gauze, usually being sterile, is more expensive than napkins.

I am really glad to see that he did not jump to "profit" at the end. Hope he gets enough support.

I am not so sure. I don't know why it could not have been a for-profit operation. Profit is not a dirty word. I would like to think that a for-profit company would have achieved his goal (of making cheap napkins available to women) faster than NGO approach.

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.

I am not so sure a corporation would keep the price low as a non-profit (or subsidized by the government). A lot of people replying to me said manufacturing in bulk would reduce the price there by achieving what a government subsidy cannot. I don't believe that to be true at all. Simply put if there is more money to be made a corporation will do so. A business would never ever reduce the price to bare minimum possible. There is no need for a business to go super cheap and cater to all the available market. That is not how businesses operate. In other words he could sell the same thing for 3 times the price and still sell enough. That is not his objective. I do agree that it probably would have been a sustainable model but cheaper definitely not.

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.

By not profiting, he is kneecapping his ability to spread his invention around, and now both you and he are reduced to "hoping" for support, a word choice more appropriate than you probably realized.

Profit isn't intrinsically evil. Sometimes not profiting is much more evil.

What's so bad about profit? Most of the improvement in world living standards has been driven by profit-making enterprises.

The aspect of profit that is potentially bad is the maximization part. Based on the cost of the machine and some kind of statistical model, let's say that we determine that the inventor can make the most money (per time worked) if he sells his machines for $6000. Moreover, those who buy the machines can run the same kind of rational statistical analysis and sell the produced pads for $0.20 each (instead of $0.03).

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.

I only saw "wife came back when he became famous (and presumably rich)"

the. period. industry.

This is both inspiring and depressing.

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).

But menstruation itself is a very big taboo in most parts of India. It's a subject only discussed among women for many reasons.

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.

It's taboo in the Western world, too.

Where in the western world?

Wherever the ads for sanitary items use blue ink.

Would you mind explaining what you're referring to? I've never encountered such a taboo, nor can I recall ads prominently featuring blue.


Watch the full ad for a spoof of every tampon commercial ever. They are absurd (basically the ad industry is in denial).

America, for one. Sure its too a lesser degree, but taboo still.

Where I live in the US it is no more taboo then urinating or defecating.

My female friends (and girlfriend) are all okay with saying they need to pee. However, they will never say something like "I need to change my tampon". If they do, it will be directed at 1 person in hushed tones and because they're out or something.

Maybe yours are different though.

Isn't that just courtesy? I've found the topic tends to really gross guys out (much as uniquely . . . male things gross out girls), so it's best avoided in mixed company.

And we define taboo as...

But they still use applicators.

I do understand that, but these are female medical students.

The fatalistic, egotistical and selfish attitude epitomised by women

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.

Paraphrased from final paragraph of the article.

"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.

It is ignorance not selfishness. You are looking at these women from the lens of someone who can probably not fathom the level of ignorance amongst the poor uneducated folks in India. If they really understood what it is to lose a uterus, and they believed this random stranger that this would happen, they would be much more open to the idea of using a napkin.

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.

People don't care about the environment when they've got more important issues like food, shelter and safety to worry about. Fuck the environment! Help the people.

My dad grew up in Bangladesh (a country of many rivers). When he was young, fish were plentiful in the waters around where he lived. Americans eat maybe a few kinds of fish, but in his culture they had dozens of different kinds as part of the cuisine (because of its abundance). As intensive farming practices took hold in the 1970's and 1980's, the fertilizer run-off got into the rivers and killed many of the fish, and destroyed the diversity of the fish stocks. When talking about the success of the agricultural methods, of course, nobody ever accounts for the loss of that important food source in the overall calculus.

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.

> The western world can afford high-tech solutions to clean up water, but the developing world cannot.

You might be surprised what the developing world can put together with electricity and a foot pedal.

The fatalistic, egotistical and selfish attitude epitomised by women being unconcerned about losing their uterus

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 more about caring about myself now, versus caring about my later self.

It's probably better to analyse this in terms of discounting rates (i.e. interest rates).

When there are so many worries in the present, many people would not really care about problems that might come in the future. You can call it a kind of de-sensitivity to worries due to over exposure to them.

I really admire this guy. It's sad that his wife left him over it though..

It says later that she came back when his invention took off. (Can you imagine that conversation?)

This whole story is straight out of a movie. Great article.

The good news is that he got his wife back after he began to succeed / get traction.

Is it good news? Maybe I'm being harsh but it sounds like his wife got sick of it all when times were hard, but was happy to stick around to reap the success. I'm not sure that's a good thing.

I've learned not to speculate on such matters when it comes to a relationship between two people. We never know the full story, and what they decide to accept or forgive in each other is really up to them.

You don't understand the taboo of menstruation in India. The culture is steeped in superstition and traditionalism. My hat is off to Mr. Muruganantham for driving through this and (in a Gandhi-esqe approach), not selling out.

I'll admit that I am not 100% aware, but I didn't post my comment in ignorance.

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.

She left because she thought he was hitting on college girls. She came back when it was proven he wasn't.

His mother was the one who left over the fake uterus.

Ditto what the other two commenters said. Also, he sounds like a true nerd. Doesn't care about social opinion and just invents his way to success, even if people think he's weird.

My thoughts exactly. But you were more eloquent than I was.

I don't know if it's a good news. Obviously, I don't know all the minute details of the situation but if I was him, I will not accept her back.

I believe my invention will disrupt the wind power industry... https://sites.google.com/site/verticalwindfarm/

send wampum.

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