Earlier this fall CleanTechnica stopped by the inaugural “Impact.Engineered” conference in New York City, and it seems that we have been missing out on an important clean tech issue involving women in emerging economies. If you’re thinking of clean cookstoves guess again, the topic is sanitary napkins.
So, how seriously are engineers taking the topic of sanitary napkins? Considering that the Impact.Engineered conference was sponsored by some heavy hitters in the engineering world including the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers as well as the organization Engineering for Change, yes, they’re pretty serious.
The Clean Cookstove Segue Into Sanitary Napkins
The clean cookstove movement provides an analog for the forces working against women who rely on outdated materials and systems that promote a high rate of avoidable illness.
And so for sanitary napkins. Last January The Guardian took a look at the problem of access to sanitary napkins in Kenya, and reported this:
…in a 2015 study of 3000 Kenyan women, Dr Penelope Phillips-Howard found 1 in 10 15-year-old girls were having sex to get money to pay for sanitary ware…
…Before Tatu started using a cup last year, she used rags and mattress stuffing when she couldn’t afford pads, causing infections and painful sores more than once.
Caro Muhonja…says she often has to use cotton and scraps of fabric because sanitary products are too expensive. “They burn, they sting, they irritate my skin, and they leak and soil my clothes,” she says of the ad hoc alternatives.
For women in the workforce, lack of consistent access to reliable sanitary protection ripples into lost economic opportunity. That crippling effect can begin with school-age girls who are forced to skip classroom days or drop out altogether.
A Scalable Solar Power Model Applied To Sanitary Napkins
The topic of sanitary napkins came up at Impact.Engineered because the event showcased all nine winners of this year’s global Innovation Showcase competition, sponsored by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
Among those nine winners was India-based Saral Design Solutions Private Limited. The company was recognized for being “India’s first indigenous designed automatic machine that makes ultra-thin sanitary napkins.”
Indian Women Blog recently spoke to Saral co-founder founder Suhani Mohan. As she describes it, the company’s innovative approach echoes the concept underlying compact, transportable solar power systems, namely, scaling down the technology so it can be transported closer to its point of use:
…We have developed our own machines, and they are world’s first automatic and compact machines to make ultra-thin sanitary napkins. Our machines are barely 10 feet long whereas large-scale manufacturers have approximately 100 feet long machines.
The company’s blog explains further:
We currently have a presence in 80 villages across Maharashtra and work with over 100 Sanginis [trained community volunteers] in these villages…Our ultimate aim as a women’s health start-up is to ensure that 23% girls go back to schools, the health burden of 70% of women who suffer from reproductive tract infections is reduced and every woman has a healthy period!
More On The Topic Of Sanitary Napkins
Here’s a formative anecdote from the Saral company blog that provides a glimpse into the broader implications of a scalable, distributed model for sanitary pad manufacturing (break added for readability):
To put to test this decentralization model of ours, we recently exported our first machine- Swacch 2.0 to a local entrepreneur in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Ariful Forquan identified the need of female garment workers in nearby factories which causes several women to miss work or use unhygienic materials during their periods like husk, newspapers, ragged cloth etc.
As a factory owner himself, he faced a lot of problem due to the regular absenteeism of female workers. When he delved deeper into the matter, he found out that the problem is prevalent mainly due to lack of access and availability of high-quality menstrual hygiene products in the local markets.
As described by the Saral blog, Ariful’s research revealed a conundrum. Relatively inexpensive, manually operated machines for producing sanitary napkins resulted in low quality and slow throughput, but the capital required for automated high-speed equipment was prohibitive. Saral’s machine takes on both problems at once.
It’s also worth noting that Mohan also advocates for lowering the cost of sanitary products in India by lifting the tax on them, an action already taken by the Kenyan government.
Gilding The Sanitary Napkin Lily
The next step up the sustainability ladder is using local, biodegradable materials rather than synthetic fiber or filler made from petrochemicals.
Back in 2014 The Better India reported on a startup using a combination of “pine wood paper, silicon paper, butter paper, non-woven paper and cotton.”
The company Jani also made headlines several years ago with a sustainable sanitary napkins made of locally harvested water hyacinth fiber in Kenya.
Stay tuned for more on that. Just last summer the Journal of Textile Science and Engineering published a study on sustainability and sanitary products that lead off by observing that “…the world is facing a very big problem of carbon footprint of feminine hygiene product. ”
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Image (screenshot): Compact sanitary napkin machine via Saral Design.