Saral Designs, which promotes menstrual hygiene in under-served areas through innovative technology and distribution models, modified its pad-making machines to make surgical masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Suhani Mohan (right) is the co-founder and CEO of Saral Designs, which works to boost local production and distribution in the menstrual hygiene market. Photograph courtesy Saral Designs.
A metallurgy and materials science engineer from Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, Suhani Mohan started her career as an investment banker. While working with Deutsche Bank’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) team, she met Anshu Gupta, founder of the nonprofit organization Goonj. She heard from Gupta how women in rural India use newspapers, rags and other unhygienic material during menstruation, which leads to reproductive tract infections. “It had never crossed my mind that when I spend Rs. 100 a month to manage my menstruation, how would a woman, whose entire family’s earning is less than Rs. 1,000 a month, manage hers,” says Mohan. “I felt a strong urge to do something about this, which made me quit my job in 2014 and pursue this full-time.”
A year later, she co-founded Saral Designs, a Mumbai-based start-up, which provides access to high-quality and affordable menstrual hygiene products through its SWACHH range of pad-making machines and innovative distribution model. Saral Designs has received training at the Nexus Incubator start-up hub at American Center New Delhi.
In early April, as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the start-up quickly modified its pad-making machines to make surgical masks, to increase availability of personal protective equipment in India. It collaborated with the Mahindra Group to produce three-ply masks at the auto group’s Kandivali factory in Mumbai. The start-up is also working with the Maharashtra State Innovation Society to ensure distribution of 100,000 sanitary pads in Mumbai’s slum areas affected by COVID-19.
Excerpts from an interview with Mohan.
Could you tell us why you chose to focus on the field of menstrual hygiene when you launched your start-up?
We feel access to affordable sanitary napkins is a basic right of every woman. At the same time, the need for reliable and high-quality sanitary napkins is increasing as more women are entering the workforce. While technology is making our lives easier, we believe technology should also be used to address critical challenges that affect a huge segment of the population. This motivated us to build machines that automate processes to lower the costs of production and distribution, while maintaining product quality and service.
What inspired you to change your production in response to COVID-19?
A few months back, we were already thinking of new products to add in the hygiene sector. When the COVID-19 crisis came up, we started getting calls from clients who wanted to know if the sanitary pad machines could be converted to three-ply mask machines.
So, we started looking at how a regular surgical mask is manufactured. We realized that the non-woven material which is used in sanitary napkins is fairly similar to that of surgical masks. And, one of our machines used a very similar process. We thought we could quickly modify this machine to start making masks.
Our design team, led by Saral’s co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Kartik Mehta, spent almost 14 to 18 hours every day, over two to three days, to complete the design. And then the lockdown came into effect. We were unable to procure the components we needed to shift our machines to mask-making. I started emailing a lot of contacts. One of them was my junior from IIT Bombay, who is the executive assistant to Anand Mahindra, chairman of the Mahindra Group. I wrote to her that your factories might have all these tools and would it be possible to make some of our components there. Within four hours, we got a reply from the CEO of Mahindra Vehicle Manufacturers Ltd, Vijay Kalra. Anand Mahindra was also involved in the email exchanges. They helped us with fabrication, connections to suppliers and logistics.
Mahindra has a lot of in-house fabrication facilities because they make cars and this was a fairly simple modification for them. We worked with their team to change the design of the rollers on our machine, from the cutout of a sanitary napkin to that of a surgical mask. Within a week of reaching out to Mahindra, we were able to start mass production at their facility. From 10,000 masks a day, we have ramped up production to 30,000 masks a day. The masks are being distributed to frontline workers through Mahindra’s corporate social responsibility wing.
Could you please elaborate on Saral’s technology and how it makes and distributes its menstrual hygiene products? What innovations did you incorporate in your products and technology?
We aim to cater to women who do not use hygienic menstrual products by addressing the issues of awareness, access and affordability. In developing countries, due to poor infrastructure, either distribution costs make products like pads and diapers 60 percent more expensive, or the existing brands do not cater to remote locations. There is immense potential for local production, which not only reduces distribution costs, thereby making sanitary pads affordable, but also creates local livelihood opportunities.
Technology is at the heart of our solution. We have developed an indigenously designed and patented automatic ultra-thin sanitary pad-making machine, at a decentralized scale. While decentralization reduces distribution costs, the automated production ensures economies of scale and product quality. These high-quality sanitary pads are distributed online, through various retail channels and in partnerships with health care workers, schools and nonprofits to increase awareness and accessibility at the last mile.
Could you briefly describe the social impact Saral Designs aims to create through its technology and products?
Gender inequalities, which are partly rooted in discriminatory social norms, become more pronounced during puberty and can contribute to long-term negative outcomes for adolescent girls. Approximately 48 percent women and girls in rural India use unhygienic materials like cloth, husk and newspaper to manage their periods.
We partner with local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and government bodies to set up manufacturing units and supply them with raw materials. We train their staff on operating and maintaining the machine, to build a last-mile women-driven distribution network. We also co-create awareness content with a gender focus for communities.
Could you provide an estimate of how many people you’ve reached so far with your menstrual hygiene products and how many you hope to reach in the near future?
So far, we have sold 6.5 million low-cost pads, impacting 200,000 girls and women via more than 30 production units in India and five other developing countries. These production units are run by local NGOs and entrepreneurs in Tier II and III towns, creating job opportunities in production and sales. We are working with more than 1,000 rural women, who act as our sales and outreach agents in their communities.
This year, we plan to impact 51,000 girls and women with our awareness campaigns and have 45 machines running production units in different parts of India.
Is there any particular anecdote you would like to share regarding your products?
One of our distributors, Jayashree Kamble, told us that women in urban slums face many challenges during periods, especially in a hilly area like hers, where accessibility to sanitary napkins is low. General stores do not stock sanitary napkins and medical stores are far away. If women need sanitary napkins at night, it is unsafe for them to go down to get it, which is why a door-to-door network is an essential requirement in this community. She was glad that Saral Designs is helping her solve the problem of accessibility and affordability in this urban slum.
How was your experience of participating in the training at the Nexus Incubator? What were your key takeaways from the training?
Nexus has been a great network. We were part of it two years ago and we still reach out to them for introductions and support. Our first machine in Bhutan was set up with another Nexus incubatee from that country, for which we are very grateful.