Mumbai-based Aakar produces affordable and ecofriendly solutions to increase access to menstrual hygiene products.
A menstrual hygiene education class at a school in Panvel, Maharashtra. Photograph courtesy Aakar
“Out of 355 million menstruating women in India, only around 36 percent of women and girls use sanitary pads,” says Jaydeep Mandal, founder of Aakar. While this is a stark reminder of the long road ahead to making menstrual health and hygiene products accessible for all women in the country, several enterprises across India are working on increasing the availability of affordable menstrual hygiene products. Mandal’s social enterprise, Aakar, produces Anandi, which is sold at Rs. 40 for a pack of eight napkins. The profit from the sale of each pack is paid as commission to the women producing and distributing the napkins. Aakar also provides napkins free of cost in schools and communities in rural areas.
Besides availability, the environmental impact of the plastic component of sanitary napkins is a cause for concern. “Even those who can afford to use existing brands inadvertently add to toxic waste through landfills where [the pads] will remain for 500-plus years or be incinerated, releasing chemicals and toxins into the air we breathe,” says Mandal.
He says that Anandi napkins are free from harmful chemicals and disintegrate into natural elements in composting conditions within three to six months. “Aakar is the first company to develop a commercially available bio-sap,” says Mandal, explaining that the bio-sap is a biodegradable, compostable ingredient made from natural materials.
The idea for producing an environment-friendly product came to Mandal in 2012 while working with the Aga Khan Foundation on a menstrual hygiene project in Afghanistan, which explored the possibility of setting up a production unit for sanitary napkins. “I discovered that disposable sanitary pads were not freely available in the market because of the stigma and shame around menstruation but were sold instead in beauty parlors and other discreet, ‘women-only’ places,” he recalls.
Disposal of the pads was another issue. Many women had to walk far for this purpose, to avoid their neighbors. At times, used products found their way back to the village streets, carried by stray animals. “These discussions made me realize that while access to safe menstrual products was one problem, disposal was yet another,” says Mandal.
The name Anandi was chosen after careful consideration. “It’s understood by a majority of the Indian population, unlike many other brands whose names don’t connect with users. The English language is not understood by a majority of consumers either,” says Mandal.
Aakar is a hybrid social enterprise comprising Aakar Innovations and Aakar Social Ventures. Aakar Innovations enables women entrepreneurs to produce and distribute affordable, high-quality, compostable sanitary napkins within their communities. To facilitate this, Aakar Social Ventures raises awareness regarding menstrual health management and aims to sensitize communities about the importance of feminine hygiene.
“Aakar’s mission is to provide commercially viable solutions for production, distribution, marketing and sales on local and commercial scales and empower women and girls to take charge of their own socioeconomic development,” says Mandal. Aakar supplies machines and materials to the unit location, followed by production and maintenance training by its team.
Aakar joined the 10th cohort at the Nexus Start-up Hub, while it was developing the business model and planning to enter the commercial market. “We wanted to get a refresher—unlearn things and learn new things. The structure of the program was really great and covered various aspects of start-up life,” says Mandal. “Team Nexus connected us with many real-life scenarios and shared genuine feedback about our current and future plans. We gained a lot through this program.”
Ranjita Biswas is a Kolkata-based journalist. She also translates fiction and writes short stories.