Here in the United States, there are many hygiene and personal products that most of us take for granted. (Toothbrushes, tampons, and deodorant come to mind.) But that’s not the case worldwide. So when Amrita Siagal was an undergraduate interning at Proctor & Gamble in the female hygiene sector, she stumbled on a menstrual conundrum facing females in India.
Siagal, at that time a junior at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), realized that women in rural parts of India had little access to maxi pads, which often resulted in girls missing school during their periods. Upon returning to MIT her senior year, Siagal convinced her team to design a small-scale manufacturing process to produce the sanitary products from banana bark, a local Indian resource that’s also happens to be the most absorbent fiber in the world.
Now fast-forward a couple of years.
Siagal’s experience was the genesis for Saathi, a startup in which Siagal co-created with Kristin Kagetsu, an engineer for Oracle. Saathi is a social enterprise that partners with self-help groups in India to encourage groups of women to start their own feminine hygiene manufacturing business. Saathi sells them the machine for $500, and then aspiring entrepreneurs pay back the money within just a few months. Each small business requires two women to operate the machine and eight more to manage door-to-door sales.
The two recently won $50,000 from Harvard Business School’s New Venture Competition and will use the funds to move to India to launch the business — with the goal of setting up in five villages by the year’s end, according to Fortune. The startup hopes to target villages with around 10,000 people, which roughly means about 2,700 women who are menstruating, Siagal said.
But how does the machine work? Siagal explains that it processes the banana bark into stringy fibers, which are then dried and pressed into fluffy filling for the pads. Thanks to an excess of banana bark that must be cut away each time a tree grows a fresh crop, the pads are a locally sourced, green product.
MORE: How 40 Pounds of Leftover Broccoli Sparked a Farm-Friendly Innovation
“The idea is that whatever village you’re in, whatever country you’re in, your local resources should be able to adapt to your needs – whether it’s coconut fiber or papyrus,” Siagal said. “This is not just about finding affordable pads but really trying to help these rural women feel empowered, to run their own enterprises and move up the socioeconomic ladder.”