Engineer turned entrepreneur, Suhani Mohan is battling Period Stigma with her start-up
We live in a country where menstruation is still looked upon as a sin in many places. Women are deprived of their basic rights when they are on their period. The taboo is such that people hide the pads in brown bags and lower their voice when saying the word. From this ingrained hesitation and stigma emerges a concern that has been neglected by the authorities and public alike, that is, period poverty. The lack of basic sanitation facilities and the unavailability of pads due to financial constraints is what is called period poverty.
Suhani Mohan took up this cause as her own, and co founded Saral Designs, a Mumbai-based startup that caters to menstrual hygiene. The venture, with her partner, Karthik Mehta has reached out to around 40,000 women and girls directly through community awareness programmes. SheThePeople spoke with Suhani about her journey from an engineer to an entrepreneur, battling the period stigma head-on.
Suhani completed her graduation from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IIT-B). She then worked for three years at Deutsche Bank where she volunteered in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities. She said, “That was when, for the first time, I heard about the situation of menstrual hygiene in India, that almost 70% of women have reproductive tract infection and a lot of it was to do with poor menstrual hygiene and sanitation.” An interaction with Anshoo Gupta of Goonj help her turn the idea into action. And that’s when Saral started up.
A shift of career
Since she was already volunteering for activities, she did know some bit of social work, but, she says, “it was obviously very different and difficult, so I had to spend a lot of time actually interacting with people who had worked in NGOs and were social entrepreneurs to gauge what it takes to be one.” She thus went on the Jagriti Yatra, a tour across urban and rural India where people can meet a lot of entrepreneurs and change-makers, which inspired her to do something for rural India and bring innovation there.
On this journey, she came across many women, who didn’t want to talk about periods. They had normalised stigmas. In the initial stages, they were doing a crowdfunding campaign for which they were shooting a video. She said, “One girl was giving an interview and suddenly her mother comes, pulls her and slaps her in front of us saying that they would be killed if her father gets to know that she is openly talking about periods.” She acknowledged her experience in investment banking that rendered her with basic legal and economic knowledge, required in the initial stages.
The fight against PCOD
Suhani used to have irregular periods as a teenager and the doctor said that it might have been because of the stress she took for IIT preparation. It was later that she discovered she had PCOD. “I always had a period problem but I never thought how other people would have different types of problems. Later, I realized that almost 25% of women in India have some form of PCOD, mild or severe. So, it’s a very large issue and that’s also something that is neglected. That made me think that I personally have encountered something because there was lesser understanding of periods.” She revealed how she could now understand what the situation would have been like in remote areas since she was in Mumbai and still experienced lack of awareness about menstruation.
Quality, Costing and Distribution of Pads
Each XL Saral pad is priced at Rs. 7 and is largely distributed by tying up with ladies from different villages who not only sell the product but also spread awareness across the rural areas. This cuts down the distribution cost, thus making pads cheaper for the consumers. The company manufactures pads using the SWACHH machine that has been designed to cut down the costs. But if costs are down, does it impact quality? Suhani says, “the raw material is the most important thing for which we don’t compromise. We’re sourcing the material from the same suppliers. Then, we’ve ensured that the pads don’t tear or leak by automation.”
Upon researching, she came across two types of manufacturing, one that was done by multi-nationals, which was fast but the distribution and selling costs were high due to intermediaries. The second was a labour-oriented technique wherein the quantity produced was much less. She then came up with an optimal model with her team that ensured larger quantities at affordable rates. They decentralized distribution and reached a wider customer base by involving women in the process. Entrepreneurial ladies were identified and they create awareness and sell pads using the mechanism of door-to-door service. It is now a network of 500 women across Maharashtra and Gujarat.
Conversations on menstrual health
Talking about how to make menstrual conversations a reality, Suhani Mohan says, “There has to be a very gradual shift because these things have been ingrained in our society, not just ours, but globally for almost like thousands of years. So now for this to switch to something which is more liberal and open-minded, it will take some time. How we do it is we gamify the process, where we give some nudges and food for thought to people to think about.”
Out of all the menstruating girls and women in India, less than 20% use sanitary pads. No doubt Saral is making efforts to lower this gap but the journey will be a long one. Saral would need to think about how they scale up their effort and impact more women.
Saavriti is an intern at SheThePeople.TV