Over the last century, our society has become heavily and widely reliant on disposable plastics, which has now become a severe environmental threat globally. Sanitary napkins, which are used and disposed by women every day, also make use of plastics in the non woven fabric and polyethylene around the adsorbent layer they contain.
EAI recently visited the office of Aakar Innovations, who are a unique provider of solutions (machine, raw materials and other products) for biodegradable sanitary napkins, in Delhi. In a recent trip to Mumbai, we could meet with Jaydeep Mandal, who founded the hybrid social enterprise along with Sombodhi Ghosh in 2013 with the aim of providing a low cost sanitary napkin to rural women.
According to Mandal, more than 80% women in India who are not able to use sanitary napkins and a lot of whom get subjected to the many taboos around menstruation like not being allowed visit temples and being isolated. The affordable sanitary napkins targeted at the rural women are made using conventional plastics, and are cheaper by Rs. 6 per packs (Aakar sells these napkins in packs of 8) compared to the similar quality ones sold by multinational companies that dominate the market for urban women. The low cost is possible thanks to the machine developed by the founders that can operate with low electricity consumption, while making high quality napkins. These machines, that can be easily operated, are sold to rural women who manufacture and distribute the napkins under Aakar’s brand name of “Anandi”.
Apart from these conventional napkins, Aakar provide an option for 100% compostable napkins, the company’s primary innovation. The following table shows what the different components of sanitary napkins are, and how a compostable napkin differs.
|Components||Conventional napkins||Compostable napkins|
|Absorbent||Pulp (multinational companies additionally use chemicals)||Same|
|Region around absorbent layer||Non woven||Biodegradable plastic|
|Back layer||PE||Biodegradable plastic|
|Release layer||Paper & gum||Same|
For the compostable version, Aakar currently imports two bioplastic materials: polylactic acid (PLA) and another undisclosed one. PLA is directly used for one of the layers around the absorbent, while the other bioplastic is used after some custom changes. The total weight of a compostable napkin comes to around 10 g, of which 2 g is from the biodegradable plastics. Mandal said that when buried in mud, these completely degrade in 3–6 months.
The compostable napkins cost much higher, Rs. 40 for a pack of 8, compared to Rs. 28 per pack for the conventional ones. The lower end of the napkins that are sold by the multinational companies cost around Rs. 33-34.
While the conventional napkins meet the needs of mostly rural and urban-slum woman, the compostable ones have found a following amongst the urban woman who are conscious about the plastic pollution resulting from them. Rural woman are seen not to really care about biodegradability, but are primarily concerned about the affordability.
In the rural sector, Aakar had to go face struggles initially to get around the taboos around women menstruation. Such as the small stores in the villages don’t want to stock the sanitary napkins as woman are hesitant to be seen buying them. To get the pads to the women who need it, Aakar has been able to establish sales channels though the NGOs, government agencies and corporate CSR programs. The NGOs play an important role in educating the women about periods, menstrual hygiene and sanitary napkins. In fact, post Aakar’s success, corporates have approached it to access its sales channels, but Aakar has refused to do that. Further, Aakar isn’t focused on urban woman for its conventional napkins, where the multinationals can be a competition.
In the niche market of fully compostable napkins, Aakar is the only player at the moment. Even internationally, Mandal is aware of only one other brand: Natra Care from the UK. However, Natra Care isn’t present in India and they sell at a far higher price range as well.
Currently, 25 manufacturing units in 12 different states use Aakar’s machine to manufacture 60,000 napkins a month. Funded in the initial stages with support of IIM-Ahmedabad’s Centre for Innovation Incubation and Entrepreneurship (CIIE), Aakar has become a self-sustaining business to a large extent.