A Class Project Turns Into a Socially Responsible Startup

August 22, 2016

WomenDressedForAWedding_MMIn 2012, MIT student Amrita Saigal chose to tackle a largely unaddressed health issue for a project in her product design class. She hoped to create a low-cost method to distribute clean, reliable sanitary pads for women across India. The subject of feminine hygiene remains largely taboo on the subcontinent with studies showing that 88 percent of menstruating women are forced to use crude homemade remedies like rags or newspapers. Saigal’s idea centered on a sanitary pad machine that would increase availability in remote areas. This concept eventually grew into Saathi Pads, a startup that aims to provide Indian women with one million affordable and sustainable sanitary pads by the end of the year.

Saigal founded the company along with three other MIT graduates who became united in their mission to change health standards across India. The quartet’s big break came when one of their prototype pads won a prestigious social entrepreneurship award from Harvard University. That enthusiasm soon waned, however, as the team realized they would have to make significant changes if they wanted the design to work in their target market. “When I came to India we had to redevelop everything,” said co-founder and CEO Kristin Kagestu. “We pivoted — at the end of the day we’ve developed a new product.”

The company’s current design relies primarily on banana fiber, an absorbent natural material common throughout the subcontinent. As a result, Saathi pads are free of the non-biodegradable toxins and plastics that constitute most feminine hygiene brands. What’s more, the startup has created a new market for local banana farmers who would normally throw out the leaves and fibers that remain after harvests. While these banana-based pads fully biodegrade within six months, the Saathi team is always looking for ways to “up-cycle” these disposable products. One possible option includes using the pads in conjunction with so-called “bio-loos,” or toilets that can convert waste into energy. In the short term, though, Saathi’s staff remains focused on marketing to women in rural India before eventually expanding into cities.

 

Questions:

  1. How can Saathi Pads grow into a profitable company while targeting such a low-income market?
  2. Does Saathi Pads have the potential to succeed in markets outside of India?

Source: Ambika Behal, “The MIT Startup Giving Indian Women Access To Biodegradable Sanitary Pads,” Forbes, August 16, 2016. Photo by M M.

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