The MIT Startup Giving Indian Women Access To Biodegradable Sanitary Pads
What began as a class project at MIT has taken a life of its own in India as a full-on startup, with the aim of bringing one million affordable, biodegradable, sanitary pads — made of banana fiber — to rural women in India.
Saathi Pads started out as a design for a sanitary pad machine in Amrita Saigal’s senior design class at MIT in 2012 — the idea was to create a blueprint for a low-cost method of manufacturing sanitary pads, to promote access to the product for women across India.
The subject of menstrual health, so long taboo in India, has experienced rising awareness in very recent years. Current estimates say that 88% of menstruating women in the country are forced to use homemade alternatives such as rags, newspapers, wood shavings, even ash, due to lack of menstrual awareness and access to products.
A Saathi Pads workshop in Ranchi, India. Photo courtesy of Saathi Pads.
Saathi Pads estimate rural girls miss up to 50 days of school a year as a result of lack of sanitary pads and access to clean bathrooms; women miss work for the same reason, leading to ultimate dropouts.
“One of the reasons for higher dropout rates is due to a lack of access to hygiene products,” says Saathi Pads Co-founder and CEO Kristin Kagetsu. “The aim is to help with keeping women in work, or at school.”
Kagetsu forms a part of the four-member co-founding team along with Amrita Saigal, Grace Kane and Zachary Rose — all MIT graduates, who came together on a shared vision of the ultimate mission.
“Saathi, which means ‘companion’ in Hindi, signifies that the pads are a companion to women that use them and also to the earth,” says Kagetsu, a native New Yorker, and the sole member of the team based at the company’s manufacturing headquarters in Ahmedabad.
The Saathi Pads team in Ahmedabad; Co-Founder and CEO Kristin Kagetsu in the center. Photo courtesy of Saathi Pads.
It’s not her first time working in India. Kagetsu, a former hardware engineer at Oracle, spent a few weeks working with an NGO in Uttarakhand, developing all-natural crayons, during her time as an MIT student.
“I’m really excited by social enterprises and community in India,” she says.
The Saathi Pad product, made of banana fiber, at the factory in Ahmedabad. Photo courtesy of Saathi Pads.
However, the alpha prototype manufacturing model developed at MIT had to be redesigned.
“When I came to India we had to redevelop everything,” says Kagestu, “we pivoted — at the end of the day we’ve developed a new product.”
That new product is the Saathi Pads that are about to be launched a part of the company’s #onemillionpads program. This will see distribution of a million pads to women in the states of Jharkhand and Rajasthan in conjunction with Delhi-based NGO Ekal Vidayalaya, who will help educate rural women on menstrual health.
Key to the project was creating an environmentally friendly, non-toxic product. Disposable pads, as most of the world knows them today, are made using non-biodegradable plastics, chemical toxins and bleaches, and do not decompose in landfills.
The Saathi Pads are made entirely of banana fiber, an absorbent, and abundant waste-material – the banana tree grows fruit once and then sheds it’s leaves. The team have created a new income source for farmers by buying waste banana fiber from them.
“It is soft, comparable to the pads you get at the store,” says Kagetsu.
Although the used pads are fully biodegradable in a six-month period of time, Kagetsu says they are continuing to research ways of up-cycling the product. Options include adding it as a supplemental product with cow dung for bio-gas creation, and using it in bio-loos, where the toilet collects the waste and converts it to energy. They’re also completing composting trials.
“By next year we look to be available in the Indian urban market as well,” says Kagetsu who adds that the pads will be retailed to rural women, not given away for free.
The concept has also seen a huge number of requests from Saathi Pads’ home country: the U.S.
“We’re going to look at expanding, exporting or developing a local variety,” says Kagetsu. “Ultimately I’d prefer to have local varieties of materials used per country.”