My three co-founders and I spun Saathi Inc out of a research project on low-cost menstrual products. As soon as our boots hit the ground in India we found we had to pivot away from the low-cost, local-manufacturing model we had originally intended to one focused on environmental sustainability.
In January 2017 the Saathi eco-pad was launched on the Indian market. The pad is made of fully biodegradable materials including upcycled agri-waste from banana farming. A local supply chain was developed which brings farmers extra income and also adds environmental value through the creation of organic fertilizer.
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More details: www.saathipads.com
Saathi: Low-cost & local to eco- and luxury
Saathi began its journey in 2014. Originally, myself and my three co-founders wanted to make a frugal manufacturing unit which could be set up in remote areas, thus making sanitary pads available women on the ‘last-mile’ of the supply chain for the first time. Though other companies had tried similar schemes, our differentiator was to replace wood fluff pulp – an industrially produced pad raw material which is very difficult to transport – with one created from banana fibre, a locally available agri-waste harvested from banana trees after a harvest.
Pivoting to Eco
We teamed up with an NGO running an existing local manufacturing station to test out our new pad design. Though the design itself was successful, to our dismay we quickly found a big problem with the business model itself. Transportation costs in rural India were going down, and wages were going up – meaning the advantage of local manufacturing against big players like P&G was waning.
In addition, the rise in sanitary pad use through government schemes and other low-cost manufacturers had led to another big problem: waste. Sanitary pads contain harmful chemicals from the bleaching process, and petrochemical-based plastics which take up to 500 years to biodegrade. Already sanitary pads create 100,000 tonnes of waste per year with only 16% of women in India using them.
We also realised that there was a lot more to our extra ingredient – banana fibre – than we’d previously realised. We had originally chosen it as a conveniently local resource. However, as a byproduct of existing food farming, which takes up no extra land and uses very little water and chemical fertilizers, banana fibre was the perfect eco-friendly raw material. If we could replace the rest of the pads materials and make it fully biodegradable, we would be well on the way to creating India’s first eco-friendly sanitary pad.
Building the product, building the system
In pivoting, Saathi was moving from a low-cost design where price was paramount to a design for high-end, urban, environmentally conscious consumers. The product had to be redesigned to cater to premium tastes, and its plastic components swapped for compostable substitutes. Our team held co-creation workshops and trials at environmental events around North India to discover what was really important to India’s young “eco-consumers”; we discovered that health and environmentalism were closely linked, and that there was increasing interest in managing waste, with composting and biogas digestion on the rise.
At the same time, we worked with local agricultural associations to develop our banana fibre supply chain. Since the fibre is a ‘waste’ product which normally goes unused, farmers ordinarily have to spend money clearing it from their land. We realised the best approach was to set up centralized collection and extraction centres with staff who would go to farmers’ fields and collect banana stalks for them, ensuring quality and saving the farmers money.
Keeping the centres fairly local allowed us to take advantage of an unexpected benefit – the “mulch” left over when fibre is extracted from banana trees can be fermented to create an effective organic fertilizer, which can be given back to the farmers in return for the fibre.
What was emerging was a truly circular system – a previously waste product was being upcycled to create a manufacturing material and highly valuable fertilizer, to create a product which has the potential to either return to the environment as an ‘organic nutrient’, or create even more value through biogas generation.
Saathi’s eco-pads were launched in Ahmedabad in January 2017, with plans this year to scale up to the rest of India. Urban pad sales are being used to subsidise distribution of the pads in rural Jharkhand, where local pad collection and composting schemes will be trialled.
For more information, see www.saathipads.com