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While India remains one of the key growth markets for the disposable hygiene industry, the road to success in the market is far from smooth. Widespread poverty, cultural perceptions, the status of women and lack of access to affordable products outside of urban areas are among the factors that continue to impact the use of disposable hygiene products, including sanitary protection.
In response to a dire need for affordable products, a growing number of start-ups in India have been making it their business to provide solutions to low-cost disposable hygiene products. Jayaashree Industries – a pioneer in manufacturing solutions in low-cost sanitary protection in India – reports that, to date, it has installed 1,300 machines producing sanitary protection towels across 27 states in India and seven other countries. A single machine’s minimum capacity is 1,600 towels per day. This represents close to 760 million towels annually in total production at only minimum capacity.
A number of NGOs working in India have been building further on the Jayaashree Industries concept. UK-based Binti is one such NGO. Founded by Manjit K Gill, Binti is working on projects that help to fund and set up micro-factories, run by local women, to manufacture and sell low-cost sanitary protection towels in India’s rural areas. The organisation is also assessing the feasibility of establishing similar projects in Africa, where the need for affordable sanitary protection is just as dire.
I spoke to Joshna Raghwani, who has been working with Binti as a Director of Corporate Social Strategy, and discussed the situation with regard to sanitary protection products in India and Binti’s work.
Binti was started in 2014 by Manjit K Gill. It is a UK-based social enterprise aiming for a wide outreach to women in developing countries, to provide affordable sanitary protection products, to educate, to improve the position of women, and to overcome taboos around periods.
Geographically speaking, Binti’s current focus is India. The founder, Manjit, has Indian roots and is very familiar with social taboos and cultural inhibitors. She has a good understanding of local culture. We are also looking into the feasibility of establishing similar projects in Africa, for example Kenya.
Education about periods and getting rid of the shame associated with feminine hygiene is important, even in developed countries like the UK. However, the lack of access to hygiene products is also a significant problem in India.
India is a very diverse place, and access to products is also shaped by cultural practices in each city and region. In rural India, cultural inhibitors are strong. When Binti set up its first project in Gurgaon, not far from Delhi, we were faced with strong local attitudes about feminine hygiene and use of sanitary protection. However, the younger generation is typically more open to using sanitary protection.
Access is also dictated by availability and affordability. In India, most sanitary protection products are still sold through chemists. In rural areas, however, a chemist is different from a chemist found in an urban mall. In rural areas, chemists are more like a general grocery store and many do not carry sanitary protection products. Women have to travel to a bigger city to buy them. Although the situation has been improving, product availability is still a problem. These additional costs of travel also play a role in how accessible the products are to women.
Furthermore, even when products are available in local stores, there are usually very few choices, often limited to the Whisper and Stayfree brands. They might not be terribly expensive, but they are still seen as luxury items. For the most part, in India men are still purchasing sanitary products for women and are not always willing to pay extra.
The idea was spearheaded by Arunachalam Muruganantham, the founder of Jayaashree Industries. He began manufacturing the machines about 10 years ago, and these are now available in 27 states in India. The idea is to make them as efficient and as low cost as possible.
A typical woman working on the machine is a housewife. Some women also work on farms. The age range of women operating the machines is quite wide: from women in their mid-20s, just married, sometimes with the first child, to older women. It is a way for many women to earn an income. However, to operate the machines, women still often need to ask for their husband’s permission. Usually women prefer that the machines are installed close to their homes. The projects are often being promoted by word of mouth within the communities women live in, helping to build a wider outreach. Typical end users of the products are young girls. Some have just started their period. They attend a school or a college.
Raw materials are primarily locally sourced, and wood pulp is a main component. Binti, however, is in talks with other companies and is assessing the possibility of alternative supplies and ingredients, such as hemp for instance.
We want local women to run the projects and become more financially independent. So, these projects need to make money, and the products are sold at a cost. However, they are priced lower than leading mainstream brands. The retail price averages about Rs18 to Rs25 for a package of 12 towels. Brands like Whisper retail for about Rs30 and more for the same quantity.
Binti is working to set up a more structured distribution and is working with local chemists. The price, of course, has to be right for the local stores to agree to carry the products.
Binti is also assessing the possibilities of establishing distribution through local schools and colleges using, for instance, vending machines. We are also looking at distribution to hospitals as well as seeking to engage various organisations to purchase products in bulk and then donate them.
We can definitely see a positive social impact of the projects. Women are becoming more financially independent. Education is also an important aspect of the projects, and this does not only concern girls. Boys and men are becoming more educated about respect for women. There is also a health aspect to it as the projects address the issue of safe hygiene practices, create awareness of menstruation and reproductive systems, and help to address the problem of missed school days due to periods.
The challenges vary from bureaucracy to logistics to cultural attitudes. The machines run on electricity, and supply of electricity can be short, lasting 3-4 hours a day and during only certain times of the day. Buying a generator adds to costs. There is also bureaucracy and red tape to overcome while setting up the machines or organising payments. Delivering machines to a specific area can be a problem, with the machines sent to the wrong destinations. There are also cultural aspects with respect to the use of land as well as the fact that many women still need to ask for a man’s permission to take part in the project.
We are seeing a lot of innovation around the machines. They are becoming more efficient, thereby reducing the costs of products further. We are seeing innovation with respect to raw materials used. Additionally, other initiatives are starting to evolve around the micro-factories, such as installing burners next to the machines to address the issue of waste disposal. There are also “green” initiatives, which look into making reusable products. There are currently 8-10 manufacturers of the machines. If the distribution continues to rise, then the manufacturers will need to scale up the production to meet the demand.
Manufacturers operating in the developing markets need to take notice of the initiatives that focus on alternative solutions to providing low-cost hygiene products. Affordability needs to be very much on the agenda. Start-ups and NGOs involved in the projects setting up micro-factories and improving access to the products in rural areas through small local retailers have a good understanding of local needs and challenges. Additionally, sanitary towels manufactured by machines made and installed by Jayaashree Industries retail at a much lower price than the leading brands. The difference is on average 30% and more.
Coupled with the rise of domestic manufacturers that offer economy brands, long-term competitive pressure on key internationals is likely to increase, especially outside of major urban areas. Since the potential for long-term growth and further market penetration lies outside major metropolitan areas, where the demand will be reaching saturation point, the developments in low-cost products are not to be ignored.
Major industry players looking to conquer India’s vast consumer potential need to consider economy brands and ensure expanded access to these through local retailers. Along with education and improved incomes, improved availability of economy products would increase product adoption. As women’s conditions improve, they are likely to gradually trade up to better-quality products, helping drive the long-term industry growth.