When engineers become entrepreneurs: period poverty and pandemic response in India

Saral Designs is a Mumbai-based social startup that usually produces low-cost menstrual pads. In a fight against the coronavirus in India, the sanitary napkin manufacturer has decided to produce surgical masks.
Raza Naqvi
Girls recieving sanitary pads
Addressing the issue of sanitary pads shortages benefits girls like these
Group of young girls in India
Young girls in India pose for pictures after receiving surgical masks

As Ms Suhani Mohan, the founder of Saral Designs, explains, “Reports started surfacing in early March that India was facing a shortage of masks. During our research, we found that the non-woven layer used in [manufacturing] pads is the same as the ones used to make three-ply surgical masks. We collaborated with Mahindra & Mahindra Group and started producing surgical masks.”

By retooling their existing machines, the organization is now able to produce 10,000 masks per day and was able to distribute 1.2 million masks within three months. They plan to continue producing these masks for health care workers and people living in low-income areas of Mumbai.

“The reason we are focusing on low-income areas in Mumbai is they have been hit hardest by the coronavirus and are mostly containment zones,” says the young founder.

Saral Mumbai and her team ready to dispatch boxes of sanitary pads
Saral Mumbai and her team ready to dispatch boxes of surgical masks

Despite reinventing themselves to step up and aid frontline workers in the fight against COVID-19, Saral Designs has not abandoned their original mission of ending period poverty.

Far from it, the organisation’s founders, Ms Mohan and Mr Kartik Mehta (both alumni of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology) also wanted to address the issue of shortages of sanitary pads.

According to a recent survey by Dasra, a local NGO, 62 percent of respondents said that in the communities they work with, access to menstrual health products from regular channels has become challenging and 22 percent of organisations reported that there was no access to menstrual products at all.

Saral Designs, working with partner organisations such as the ESSAR Foundation and the Maharashtra State Innovation Society, has been able to distribute three lakh (300,000) sanitary pads to women living in low-income and rural areas.

“Using our network of women from self-help groups and villages, door-to-door delivery of sanitary pads became possible for us. We have a tie-up with ladies from different slums and villages who not only delivered the sanitary pads but also spread awareness on menstruation,” said Mr Mehta.

Girls recieving sanitary pads
Addressing the issue of sanitary pads shortages benefits girls like these

Started in 2015, Saral Designs has reached more than 40,000 women and girls through community awareness programmes on menstruation. As a result of COVID-19, the organization is now planning to develop a module where women and young girls are educated on healthy practices related to menstruation in the context of the pandemic.

“It will be our priority to continue spreading awareness on menstruation and coronavirus. Once things start becoming even a little bit normal, we will roll out our campaigns and will engage doctors for the medical checkups of underprivileged women,” said Ms Mohan.

Speaking on the evolution of WSSCC into the Sanitation and Hygiene Fund, Ms Mohan said, “Instead of waiting for a crisis to happen and then starting campaigns for raising money, a dedicated fund like the SHF can help us fight any crisis. For example, if we want to fill the gaps in menstrual health and hygiene during natural calamities or pandemics, a dedicated fund can empower women and girls.”

WSSCC is evolving into the Sanitation and Hygiene Fund to support the response to the global sanitation, hygiene and menstrual health crisis, focusing on four key areas: household sanitation; sanitation and hygiene in schools and health care facilities; innovation in sanitation; and menstrual health and hygiene and the empowerment of women and girls.