Entrepreneur at 76

By Sujata Devadas, May 09, 2016

Ten years ago, Vasanthy Gopalan, a mother, a home maker, a poet and social activist from Kerala, India, read the mainstream Malayalam magazine Mathrubhoomi  to learn that a majority of Indian women were completely ignorant of sanitary napkins and its utility during menstruation. Instead they used cloth, soil, mud, ash, newspapers, or dried leaves to absorb this fluid leaving their body and conceal it from others’ view. 

She was horrified to learn from gynecologist friends and further reading that chronic reproductive tract infections, and often, associated cancers, was the disastrous medical consequence for more than 70 per cent of Indian women. 

KWF's resolve

Although born and raised in Thiruvilwamala village in the southern-most state of India, Vasanthy had a high school education and a liberal outlook, bolstered further when she married electrical engineer, Dr.K.Gopalan, immediately after his PhD in Germany.

As his career took off, she accompanied him with their two daughters. First an engineering professor in Kollam (Quilon), then in Palakkad (Palghat), he subsequently joined the Central Government as an officer in Kolkata. The Indian government then accorded him a diplomatic post in West Germany as science and cultural attaché, then Director of the Indian Institute of Technologies (IIT) at the Ministry of Education, culminating in his selection as the Vice-Chancellor of two universities in Kerala.

2016, Sharing Solutions, Humanity Helps Me

Reputed educationist, Dr.K.Gopalan and his wife Vasanthy

Vasanthy was a quintessential urbanite, yet she knew what she read in this article was fact. A mother of two girls, she also knew that once you teach a mother the importance of good hygienic practices, she will teach her daughters the same valuable lesson. The need for a solution was wedged in her mind.

In due course, after Dr.Gopalan and Vasanthy settled in Thrissur, Kerala, Vasanthy founded the non-profit charitable Kanika Womens Forum (KWF), registered under the Charitable Society Act of India. Majority of Kanika members are middle-income class home-makers above 50 or women living in retirement, who volunteer their time, efforts and skills to assist women and children in their community to overcome financial, socio-cultural, medical concerns, raise their awareness on many issues and equip them for a better quality of life. 

Affordable hygiene

As KWF (or ‘Kanika’) entered the second year with its proactive initiatives, its president, 75-year-old Vasanthy, tabled the proposal to make low-cost sanitary napkins for women living in the low-income economic category, at a committee meeting. Kanika members who often visit schools and enquire about student welfare, were aware about the desperate need for this. Multi-nationals produce top sanitary napkin brands in India. However, their prices are unaffordable for 88% of women in India. Yet in spite of their willingness, ‘a workable project’ did not materialize.

In June 2015, Vasanthy learnt about Arunachalam Muruganantham in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu when she saw his TED talk. Muruganantham, a school-dropout had engineered a low-cost machine to make sanitary pads to help his wife avoid unsanitary methods and use affordable hygienic sanitary napkins. He worked on this solution with dogged persistence for many years. In 2006, his invention was recognized as the best innovation for the betterment of society by the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai. He won India’s 5th Grassroots Technological Innovations Award in 2009.

Crystallization of a project

Vasanthy quickly called a meeting and tabled the proposition of making low-cost sanitary napkins once again citing  Muruganantham’s invention. She received unanimous consent. A member Shanta Rajagopal contacted Muruganantham’s start-up company Jayaashree Industries in Coimbatore to find out more. Learning that the napkin is chemical-free, made from materials available in nature - non-pollutant, easily disposable and inexpensive, thus fostering good physical health and environmental protection - increased their resolve.

Over 4 committee meetings held in different KWF branches and at the annual general body meeting, not a single Kanika member opposed. A few members visited another such fully operational small-scale production unit to see how the whole process worked.

The cost factor

KWF had a very modest amount of funds, but the cost of raw materials, machinery components, packing,  handling and transportation, was Rs.3.16 lakhs. Rs.2.5 lakhs was contributed as loans from willing members out of their household savings. This amount must be paid back.The remaining amount was donated by husbands of Kanika members who supported and encouraged this venture and well-wishers outside the KWF family who knew about its activities and trusted it.

Non-financial aid

Small scale entrepreneurial units in India are supported by National Bank for Agriculture And Rural Development (NABARD) who conduct a 3-day training course covering the operational side (using industrial equipment); maintaining proper accounting and marketing strategies; and offer guidance in team building and motivation - to facilitate self-improvement, social improvement and betterment of the nation. Trainers from Co-operative Bank, other lead banks and NABARD imparted the course to a number of Kanika members. Mr.Rajan of Jayaashree Industries, assembled the machinery after it reached Thrissur and trained Kanika volunteers to manufacture sanitary napkins with it.

Heart-stopping moments

‘Talent Nite’, Saturday, October 17, 2015 was a fairly active evening for Kanika ladies who shared their creative skills and knowledge with each other. The  event wound up by 8:30 pm. On her way back home, Vasanthy received a phone call from Valayar, a town on the Tamil Nadu - Kerala border. The truck with the Jayaashree Industries machinery was blocked from proceeding on its journey. 

Unexpected support

The truck driver did not have relevant papers to cross the state border, she was informed. “Send the papers or pay the fine.” said the officer. Vasanthy replied “I am 76. I refuse to go out at this time of night and scan papers right now to send it to you. The truck will have to go back.” Utterly dejected and depressed, she reached home. Her phone rang again. The truck driver asked her what to do. She explained, and he listened quietly. Then he answered, “Go to sleep, Amma. My attendant and I shall sleep in the truck close to the border; this can be fixed in the morning.” 

A short while later, Vasanthy’s youngest daughter arrived with her family for a weekend stay. 7am next morning, mother and daughter put the relevant papers together and sent it. 10:30 am Sunday, the truck gets clearance to resume its journey, reaching Thrissur in the afternoon. The driver, his attendant and Vasanthy’s family members, all pitched in to unload the machinery: a total weight of 1 ton. 

They did it!

KWF members subsequently underwent training and volunteered to put in several hours each week to make the napkins and package it. But the machinery remained where it was off loaded on Vasanthy’s car porch till they found a suitable place to begin production. The breakthrough came in November, when Vasanthy told her Kanika friends, “Even a car shed would serve our purpose.” Immediately, a Kanika member and her husband offered a place in their compound.

It was the end of January 2016 when KWF received approval for electrical connection. February 10, production began. Friends and acquaintances gave a great feedback after trials. Tiny defects were overcome and corrected. On March 08, Women’s day, they sold more than 200 packets of the sanitary pads packet ‘Soukhyam’ charging Rs.43/- ($0.64) for a packet of 10 pads, as compared to the costs for 10 napkins sold by multinationals - above Rs.100/- ($1.50).

2016, Sharing Solutions, Humanity Helps Me

A team of Kanika volunteers at the production unit. Top row 1 to r: Nandini, Indira, Girija. Bottom row l to r : Lata, Shanta, Girija and Vasanthy.

Kanika members and their president Vasanthy are justifiably happy with this accomplishment. It is the epitome of goodwill that ladies who are senior citizens or approaching it schedule hours - mornings and evenings - several times a week paying for their own transportation to help save younger women from disastrous gynecological infections and cancer. KWF recently received a corporation license to run this project.  enabling the District Industrial Centre to subsidize the cost of the machinery by 20 per cent.

Vasanthy says “I wish to pay these volunteers. So many Kanika members are ready to put in the effort. Our priority now is to expand our market and reach the huge consumer base. Although days existed when I thought this would hit the dust, dedication saw it through. We did it. Profits, if any, will help train and employ neglected or destitute women and those with special needs. Happy families in my community has always been my mission.” 

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Readers response
In India, 88 per cent of women cannot afford a sanitary napkin. One woman, together with members of her social initiative, made it her mission to address the issue.