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Friday 25 April  
Arunachalam Muruganantham with his family
Gayatri Parameswaran's picture
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Coimbatore, India
Coimbatore, India

Entrepreneur with a passion for periods

Published on : 17 February 2012 - 4:31pm | By Gayatri Parameswaran (Photo: RNW)
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Arunachalam Muruganantham has become a poster boy for social entrepreneurship in India. He invented a machine that manufactures sanitary napkins mechanically. That’s not only made the product affordable for millions of India’s poor women, it’s also offered many a means of employment.

It’s a week day and Muruganantham is busy meeting clients at his work place in Coimbatore’s industrial area. It’s a huge room invisibly divided into his office, conference room, workshop and storeroom. It’s anything but fancy.

Affordable
He’s informing his prospective clients about what the machine does. “It simply breaks down the cellulose, which is the raw material with a liquid retention property, into smaller bits that finally can be wrapped up and packaged into sanitary pads,” he says as he demonstrates.

Muruganantham’s invention is important because of its low-cost production method. Previously, only multi-national companies with massive budgets could fund a production unit of the sort. The high cost of running the production unit was driving up the cost of the product, making it affordable only to a few affluent women.

Awareness
Muruganantham explains to his small audience that day, “Recent studies have shown only 10 percent of Indian women are using sanitary pads.” Many in rural areas still use rags, clothes, paper, even sticks and stones. Awareness regarding female hygiene is lacking in India due to it being a taboo subject.

“Why? My own wife would not talk to me about it. My sisters wouldn’t either,” Muruganantham says. Still in large parts of the country, menstruating women are considered unclean and are ostracised from society for the five days of their period.

Employment
Muruganantham’s innovation targets these women at the bottom of the pyramid. He supplies his machines to areas which have low sanitary napkin penetration. What more? He has promoted these sanitary napkin-making machines as employment opportunities for the women in these rural areas.

“It’s by the women, of the women, for the women,” he says.

A client in the meeting points at a photo frame on the wall, “Is that you?”

“Yes,” Muruganantham says humbly, without mentioning that the photo was taken when he received an award for his social entrepreneurship from the President of India.

Society
A few meetings later and way past lunch time, Muruganantham forces himself to leave the office and rush home to grab lunch. While he is navigating his jeep through the tiny lanes of Coimbatore, he says, “That’s what they call me these days, social entrepreneur. But isn’t this how all business should be? It should not always be about profits. It should be about doing good for society.”

A school dropout, Muruganantham didn’t have to go attend lectures in a classroom to learn this philosophy. On the contrary, he’s now teaching a lot of MBA schools about his way of doing business. “I raise questions when they ask me to give lectures at these big business schools. I wonder why people are running after money. What dreams they are chasing. Whether it’s greed for money or passion for work,” he says.

Hurdles
His passion for work famously got Muruganantham into trouble. Enough has been written about his arduous journey to success - about how he was deserted by his wife, his mother, his sisters and his fellow villagers on his pursuit to manufacturing cost-effective sanitary pads.

“Nobody was ready to talk to me about the issue, so I wore my own sanitary pad and a uterus made out of a football and goat’s blood,” he says. “I understand why my mother left me at that time. It might have been horrible for her to find out that her son was studying sanitary pads used by other women.”

Reuniting
But his professional success has now brought him much respect from the community. On a half hour drive from work to home, he greets and waves at many passers-by. People acknowledge his presence. He reveals that his wife and mother have returned to him.

“I never thought my wife would leave me forever. I just saw it as an opportunity to finish my work soon. I always imagined her to be around. And so when she returned, I wasn’t angry or anything. I have a very good understanding with her. I wasn’t thinking along the lines of divorce at all,” he says as he parks his jeep in the compound.

At home, his wife is glad to receive him and serve him a hot south Indian meal. On being asked how she feels about returning to her marriage, she blushes: “Look at the huge spread of food here. What does that say? I must be content to do this, right?”

Arunchalam Muruganantham is interviewed in the latest edition of The State We're In - It's Not Me, It's You!
 

  • Arunachalam Muruganantham at his desk <br>&copy; Gayatri Parameswaran - www.rnw.nl
  • Arunachalam Muruganantham&#039;s workshop<br>&copy; Gayatri Parameswaran - www.rnw.nl
  • Sanitary napkins manufactured using machines<br>&copy; Gayatri Parameswaran - www.rnw.nl

Discussion

Sujata 14 April 2014 - 7:35am / Australia

A true human BEing. My heartfelt congratulations to Muruganantham's effort and social awareness. We need more people like him who care for the betterment do mankind and women in particular who need such services. Keep up the good work and best wishes in sharing this with the world.

Joyce Dade 16 September 2012 - 2:30pm

I am amazed to learn of this astonishing man and what he has accomplished for Indian women, himself and his country. His success is a tremendous inspiration to all of us male and female alike. Thank you, Arunachalam Muruganantham. for sharing your story with all of us and, a hearty thank you to Radio Netherlands Worldwide for covering this wonderful man in a surprising and illuminating radio program as well as the online synopsis here. Thank you, thank you, thank you. 

Dayle Ann Stratton 16 September 2012 - 1:50pm / USA

I used to get up at 6:30 to be ready to listen to the show "Being" on my local public station. I'd turn on the radio, and discovered that TSWI was on just before. Now I get up before 6 so that I can listen to The State We're In. Through it I am introduced to remarkable people from all over the world, such as Muruganantham, who is a living example of the grace and simple devotion to good we humans are capable of. Ryan's story, too, and his dedication to living wholly now. An insight into the philosophy of a cosmetic surgeon that I hadn't expected, and the lovely story of a young doctor with Asperger's telling his story with great honesty. Thank you. Each week brings me a new window into ways of seeing things.

Tricia 14 September 2012 - 10:33pm / Bellingham, WA, USA

What a great story! What he went through to show compassion for poor Indian women, and at a personal sacrifice of his social standing. I applaud you for bringing a story like this to light, even though some people may be squeamish about the subject matter.

Kamesh 18 March 2012 - 3:17pm / USA

First of let me congratulate you on the tremendous service you are doing to the society in a conscious way!Bravo!I live in the USA, have been a movie buff all my life and wanted to make the next big thing. I have been continuously in search of my opportunities and that's when I came across your story on tswi.org. Let me come straight to the point, probably lot of people approached you to show your story on the screen somehow by making movie or documentary etc. I am not an experienced movie maker, but certainly have the passion to make the next big movie. At this point, I am interested to make an accurate documentary movie of your inspiring social consciousness and entrepreneurship. I am not interested in making money out of this but take your story to the rural India where the benefactors of your project are. We could together take your story to wider audiences of rural India and thereby bring awareness. If you are interested, please do not delay in contacting me. Kudos to your vision! Keep shining!
Hope to hear from you,
Kamesh

Chikidoodoo 2 March 2012 - 1:25am / Ghana

Well done Muru. Generally, people need help. The sad thing is those who need the help are too proud or simply don't know they need help. Those in the position to help also have personal ambitions which almost always makes it difficult for them to help. It takes a social entrepreneur to do what you have done. God bless you guys for bringing Muru's story to us.
Am next on your show.

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