Periods are big business. Reusable silicone menstrual cups are popular in some circles, but they’re hardly mainstream—most women are captive to companies that offer disposable pads and tampons. In rural India and other parts of the developing world, this is a problem. Sanitary pads are too expensive for most women to afford (over 300 million women in India don’t use feminine hygiene products, and others make their own unsterilized pads out of materials like ash, wooden husks, sand, and cloth), and as a result, they often miss out on major life opportunities. It’s difficult to sit through classes at school when your period has free reign.
That’s what Azadi Pads, a sanitary pad startup that’s participating in social impact accelerator Impact Engine, hopes to change. Cofounders Ameet Mehta and Dhirendra Singh have seen firsthand how lack of access to feminine hygiene products can have deleterious effects on Indian women. The pair met while working for a nonprofit that gives performance scholarships to students in India. "Women were dropping out because of lack of access [to hygiene products]," says Mehta.
Mehta and Singh realized there was a big market opportunity—one that could help millions of women. Azadi (it means "freedom and independence" in Hindi) was born. The startup has designed a completely biodegradable sanitary pad that costs 35 cents at scale, making it 40% cheaper than competitors.
Azadi will have two main distribution routes: selling to organizations that already have access to rural distribution networks, and harnessing a network of Indian female entrepreneurs to sell the pads. For the latter route, Azadi is targeting a single district in Northern India—about the size of Chicago—where the startup hopes that 5,000 women will sell the pads to the population of 1 million women between 10 and 64 that live in the area. All entrepreneurs will receive a portion of earnings from sales.
Azadi has already raised $50,000 to get started on the pads. "We’re working with a team of experts to design the product. The next step is figuring out manufacturing … maintaining quality while keeping costs low," says Mehta. The startup plans to begin pilot testing in the coming months. A product should be ready for mass production by January 2013.
The company already has competition in Jayaashree Industries, a company that helps rural Indian women buy $2,500 pad-making machines so that they can sell cheap sanitary napkins to their friends and neighbors. There’s still plenty of room in the market—as of earlier this year, Jayaashree had distributed 600 machines in India. That’s impressive, but the period industry can use as much disruption as it can get.