Saturday, July 20, 2013

Arunachalam Muruganantham's Search For Meaning

Listening to Arunachalam Muruganantham narrate his story on how he set about to produce sanitary napkins at a cheaper cost ( made me realize what a great man he is. He effectively killed two birds with one stone – he found a solution for women to better deal with menstruation at a cheaper cost and also provided them gainful employment in the process. In India, as in some nations across the world, menstruation continues to be a taboo topic; women do not discuss it openly and men blissfully turn a deaf ear to it. While only 5% of the women in India use sanitary napkins, the rest resort to rags, saw dust and even ashes. Needless to say, the latter bring with it a host of health problems.

My thoughts on the ‘Big Issue’ have been presented using each letter of Arunachalam’s name:


Arunachalam came across this idea when he saw his wife gather rags one day. When asked why she did not use sanitary napkins, the wife put forth the cost angle. This led Arunachalam to ponder over the problem faced by hundreds of women which have to deal with this in such a fashion.


Once he became aware, Arunachalam did not sit quiet like most men would have. Instead, he decided to go to the root cause of the problem and decide what could be done about it. He knew fully well that he was entering into a taboo territory.


What Arunachalam thought next was quite unusual. He decided to manufacture low-cost sanitary napkins himself. This would ensure that women start using the napkins and eliminate the health problems faced by them.


The solution designed by Arunachalam to the problem was need-based. He would develop a low-cost napkin which women would be willing to use as against the high-cost one which they did not.


Needless to say, considering Arunachalam was openly discussing a taboo topic, his family and friends abandoned him. He was ostracized from his village for his endeavours. People thought that he has gone mad or spirits have entered his body.


Arunachalam also had to face challenges in the form of volunteers needed to test the product. Women were unwilling to discuss their menstruation problems with a complete stranger. But he did not let these deter him.


When he realised that he could not find volunteers, he decided to test the product himself using animal blood and a football bladder.


His efforts finally paid off when he was able to develop a sanitary napkin on a machine he built himself.


The best part about these napkins was that these were manufactured at less than a third of those sold by MNCs. Also, these were being manufactured at local level by women who gained employment resulting in a win-win situation.


Arunachalam’s efforts bore fruit and he received the 2009 Best Innovation Award from the Indian President Smt. Pratibha Patil. Earlier, in 2006, his machine also won the award for the best innovation for the betterment of society from IIT, Chennai.


Thus designing a solution to an all-pervasive problem led to Arunachalam’s life becoming more meaningful. As he states at the end of his talk, “What do you need to make your life meaningful? You need a problem.”

His story needs to be shared far and wide for many reasons. Firstly, he is an entrepreneur with a difference. He saw an opportunity to innovate in a field as taboo as menstruation. Secondly, when he started, he knew he would be competing against the big MNCs such as P&G and Johnson & Johnson. That, however, did not deter him. Thirdly, even when his wife and his mother left him and he had to leave his village, he did not let go of his passion and continued to put in efforts. Fourthly, he has no qualms about admitting that he is not so well educated nor fluent in English. In fact, he uses his ability to make jokes on himself brilliantly to put across his views.

I have personally experienced the anecdote narrated by Arunachalam: of a chemist wrapping the packet of sanitary napkins in a newspaper. It is indeed sad to think that while India continues to make great progress in almost every other field with women contributing an equal share, a natural thing like menstruation continues to be taboo. I hope the innovation by Arunachalam, in addition to enabling rural and other women to start using sanitary napkins, also encourages discussions on menstruation amongst all sections of society in a healthy fashion.

Franklin Templeton Investments partnered the TEDxGateway Mumbai in December 2012.

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