It all started when Muruganantham happened to see his wife walk past him hiding a piece of cloth dirtier than a rag used in a garage. “I had absolutely no idea about what sanitary napkins were and whether my wife could afford them. I bought a packet and found 10gm of cotton in each piece; it should not have cost more than 10paise but was actually sold for `3 per piece in the shops. I wondered why I could not make it affordable for poor women.”
Muruganantham took the help of his wife and sisters to start the experiment. He even went to the Medical College to seek help of some volunteers for his project but their feedback was negative. He finally hit upon a way to test the low-cost sanitary product he was making by distributing free to college girls and collecting the used ones for study. In a month, he had a storeroom full of them but not without criticism and ridicule.
Muruganantham found out that the main component in the pads was cellulose. Cotton absorbs fluid but does not retain it while cellulose absorbs and retains fluid. It requires special machine to make cellulose out of wood fibre. As the machine was costing around `3.5 crore, he decided to design one for making low cost products.
It took Muruganantham around two years of trials and errors to design a machine that could process cellulose from wood pulp. Commissioned in 2005, the semi-automatic machine has a capacity to produce 120 sanitary pads per hour ie 1000 pieces daily, each costing a rupee. It runs on 5amp power connections and costs `85,000. Easy on the pocket, the napkins are also biodegradable.
Self Help Women’s groups across India are operating 200 of these machines and reaping some tidy profits. Out of which 29 of them are in Haryana alone. In Uttarakhand, a government company, the Uttarakhand Parvatiya Aajeevika Sanvardhan has begun a project using this machine at a village in the Tehri district. Entrepreneurs, especially women in Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Uttarakhand, too have set up units after buying the machines. Muruganantham also supplies SHGs with raw materials like pinewood chips imported from USA at subsidized rates. He cites the example of an SHG in Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu where each napkin is sold for `2 and, at the month-end, each member of the SHG takes home at least `3,000 from the profits. Some women are also earning more than `10,000 a month by selling napkins with his patented machine design.
The machine was not only chosen by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to be deployed in Africa but it also won in India the ‘Fifth National Grassroots Technological Innovations and Traditional Knowledge Award’ in 2009.