In India, sanitary products are uncommon. Saathi makes pads from banana fiber, supplying women who lack access. Co-founder, Kristin Kagetsu discusses sustainable solutions for menstrual issues.
The women of India not only
face issues with class discrimination
but also with feminine hygiene issues.
In particular goods like
sanitary napkins are costly
and hard to find.
Only 36% of menstruating women use them,
while some are unaware that they exist.
Many sanitary products also include plastics.
So, if 100% of women were to use them,
they could become a
major source of pollution.
With all this in mind
a startup has developed a new kind of pad.
We created it because we wanted to make sure
that we're addressing lack of access to
menstrual products, but in a sustainable way.
The pads are made with banana fiber.
When buried, they naturally decompose
and cause no soil contamination.
Co-founder of the company, Kristin Kagetsu
shares her thoughts on sustainable solutions
for feminine hygiene issues.
Sustainable Pads Empower Indian Women
Ahmedabad in the western
Indian province of Gujarat.
The growing industrial city is the location
for many overseas enterprises.
This modern office building is
Kagetsu's company headquarters.
The sustainable sanitary products they make
are sold domestically at eco-friendly shops
and available online in places
like North America and Asia.
The company name,
Saathi, means "friend" in Hindi.
The aim being to be
both woman and eco-friendly.
Kagetsu founded the company
with a like-minded partner.
The lack of access to sanitary products
for Indian women serving
as their motivation.
When you don't have access to
sanitary pads, you'll use other means.
So maybe it's like old cloths
or things like that.
And the issue with the cloth is not that
it's a cloth, but about how do you wash it.
So with old cloths,
if you don't keep it out in the sun,
it won't get sanitized,
and that was one of the main problems.
Why wouldn't people
hang it out to dry in the sun
is because there is a taboo.
So the taboo is there.
And then women feel like
if they're going to hang it out to dry,
then the neighbor will see and then
the neighbor will talk and things like that.
And another kind of issue that we're
looking at is not just lack of access,
but also some of the other infections and
things that people face for
using these unhygienic options.
So sometimes it's not even old rags.
Maybe it would... might even be soil, ash,
or anything else that's available,
and these can cause infections.
The third issue,
then one of the things is, if you don't have
access to these sanitary pads,
then you're less mobile.
You can't go to work or go to school,
and these kind of hinder you
in the long term.
If you can't go to school every month
for five days, three days, or seven days,
then you're missing so much time.
You fall behind.
In the US, something that is a
basic necessity in a way,
like, that you see everywhere.
It's accessible through the pharmacy,
through pretty much any shop
or grocery store, even.
And seeing that many women
and girls didn't have access,
yeah, it was heartbreaking,
like something that
you really can't imagine, almost.
Kagetsu is an Asian-American born
and raised in New York City.
I'm half Chinese, half Japanese,
raised in New York City.
We had the Indian babysitter,
and so she would also,
kind of, introduce us to all the
other kinds of food and everything.
I think I grew up, like, mixed in that way,
like having all three of
the cultures mixed together.
She was admitted to MIT.
But she wasn't so much interested in
subjects like computer programing,
as she was driven to find practical
solutions to pressing social problems.
I had worked on a project in
waste management and recycling.
I worked on a project in plastic
bottle recycling and things like that.
And those were the kind of projects I like
because they're helping to maybe solve
some problems that people are facing.
And then my final project,
I got to come to India actually
and work on a product with
the local NGO in Uttarakhand,
and we were making natural-dye crayons.
So they were focused on textile dyeing,
and they had a lot of pigments left over,
and they wanted to use the pigments
for making some product for kids.
And so I helped them develop that recipe,
but all of the goals for every project
that they work on, and have students work on,
is to improve people's life or
livelihoods or something like that.
That's something I wanted to do.
After graduation, she was determined to
find some way to help people in India,
a place familiar to her since childhood.
She was hoping to address women's
lack of access to sanitary goods.
When she met her future business partner,
they got straight to work.
Basically we wanted to
understand the whole problem
and see if we can come up with one of
the best solutions for that same problem
and not create more problems later.
So we discussed quite
a bit amongst ourselves:
How are we going to do it?
What are the options available?
How do we, kind of, make machinery?
We also had that concept at the beginning.
We thought maybe we'll make these
machines, bring those to a village setting,
and women self-help groups
will make the product themselves.
But that's not necessarily the most effective way for us to, kind of, contribute to the problem.
But as we develop a solution,
we saw like...
when we went to visit the village,
we saw different situations.
So, for example,
if we bring in just regular pads
with the plastic and all of that,
then where are they going to
throw them after they use them?
So if you bring a
to a rural area or village
which has no landfill or anything,
then those pads will just
end up around the community
or in the water, in the local
water bodies and things like that,
and then it will pollute those areas.
And so, then, again
it causes other health issues.
So we decided we're going to
try and make these pads
completely biodegradable and compostable.
And at the time, it was not something
other people were looking into.
After a lot of trial and error,
they settled on banana fiber,
and extremely absorbent,
as the base material.
They also developed a proprietary technique
for the pad's manufacture.
We spent maybe two years developing
before selling anything.
So our first pad,
yes, you can say that design did have,
like, just the banana fiber core.
And then we took more time to
figure out how to replace all the layers
because we hadn't settled on
the business model.
So once we took that time,
we were able to replace every layer.
And in terms of the banana fiber,
some of the good qualities is that it's
one of the most absorbent natural fibers,
and therefore the pads are
just as absorbent as your regular pads
that you would get in the market.
A lot of the people we wanted to work with.
They said we should either focus on
addressing the lack of access
or we should focus on
addressing the sustainability,
but not do both together.
And we were very stubborn to,
kind of, commit to both of those things
because we saw it as a full-cycle solution.
We didn't want to separate them
because they're pretty much interlinked.
We also wanted to have as much impact
even built into our supply chain.
So it benefits farmers in that
this is something already
they have to cut down the tree
every harvest anyway.
And once they cut the tree down,
then it's a waste material,
like they need to remove it from the land.
So this is something which we are using.
So we're purchasing, kind of,
their waste material for our use.
So they're able to get
additional income for that.
So not only will they
get income for the fruit,
which they sell to the vendors,
but also, they'll be getting income for
materials they don't use anymore.
In the factory, as a
further means of empowerment,
local women are employed
as production workers.
This woman began work here
through her sister-in-law.
Before, she hadn't known that
sanitary products even existed.
Since I started using pads
my health is better.
Housework is easy
and going out is also no problem.
Yes, I feel my health is much better,
I feel like, I have more power over my life.
Once they are using the pads
and they're feeling like
it's a more comfortable experience,
they don't get rashes,
irritation, other discomfort.
They're also able to be more mobile
and go to school or go to work.
Women that we work with have
also increased their use of pads,
but also they've told us that now that
they have started working with Saathi,
they're able to provide...
they're able to get additional income,
which means they're able to
send their daughters to school,
so they're having more impact
that way as well.
In an effort to overcome taboos
they also hold workshops.
But this comes with its own difficulties.
I would say, in terms of making people aware,
there's a few different challenges.
One is, of course,
the openness to conversation.
And once you're open to the conversation,
then of course we have to
discuss about some things
which maybe people aren't comfortable with -
and there's always something in society
which people are not comfortable with.
But I think this is one of the things which
it's a natural process in our body,
which is something...
that we're trying to break that barrier
because it's not necessarily something
that people should be ashamed of,
or that people have to
hide or something like this,
because it happens to everyone
or like, all women and girls
and other menstruators,
and it's not something
we have to be hiding, I guess.
Saathi distributes pads free of charge
to women lacking access,
paid for by contributions from partner
companies and NGOs working for social change.
So one of our previous goals was to...
like, when we first started Saathi, one of
our goals was to distribute one million pads.
And so this year, we're very excited
to have achieved that goal.
So we've distributed one million pads
to women in underserved areas.
And our new goal is
to reach ten million women.
So that's one of our goals for the future.
And in doing that, we'll be able to eliminate
18,000 metric tons of plastic waste.
So these are some of
our goals for the future.
When we first started Saathi,
at that time only maybe 16% of women
had access to sanitary pads,
and now it's more like 36%.
So even over those years
it's grown quite a lot.
Even as more women use pads,
the environmental impact is minimized.
Banana fiber is used to produce pads.
The pads go to the users.
After use the pads biodegrade,
and in 6 months become compost,
returning to the soil.
The cycle of manufacturing in harmony with
the environment she had envisioned made real.
We asked Kagetsu to
sum up her vision in writing.
"Banana pads that are good for the body,
the community, and the environment."
Banana pads that are good for the body,
the community, and the environment.
I guess our vision for Saathi is that
we're creating a systemic change
in the way menstrual hygiene is addressed,
and that means we're making sanitary pads
from materials that are natural,
don't contain any plastic,
and we're doing this in a
sustainable and responsible way.
I think one of the things is that,
in the future, we're going to be looking for
new models of how we can produce products,
not just our products but other products too,
whether it's furniture
or any kind of products.
How do we make those sustainably?
How do we, kind of,
live symbiotically with nature
and create a more positive environment?
And at the same time, we want to maintain
good relationships also with the community.
Banana pads that are good for the body,
the community, and the environment.