Arunachalam Muruganantham is a dyed-in-the-wool innovator. One day he saw the dirty rags his wife had been using as menstrual pads. He asked her why she used something to clean her body that he wouldn’t use to clean his motorcycle. Cost, she replied. If she bought expensive sanitary pads for every woman in the family, they wouldn’t have enough money to buy milk. Wanting to impress, Arunachalam went to the store and bought his wife some packaged sanitary pads. They cost about 40 times the cost of the cotton materials and clever Arunachalam was sure he could make them himself for less.
Menstruation is a delicate subject in India. Menstruating women are considered ritually unclean: specifically, they cannot touch the water supply, which makes menstrual hygiene particularly difficult. Arunachalam, following some very plucky research, discovered that fewer than 10% of women in his region used sanitary pads; most resort to sand, sawdust, leaves, or ash. 70% of reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene; a perfect storm of poverty and ignorance. Arunachalam himself only learned that menstruation was a monthly affair after he demanded immediate feedback on his self-made pads from his wife and was informed that he would have to be patient. That’s when Arunachalam starting looking for volunteers to test his prototypes.
Unable to get female volunteers to test out his pads, Arunachalam resolved to try them out himself. “I became the man who wore a sanitary pad,” he proudly admits. Arunachalam donned a football bladder full of goat’s blood with a few holes punched through it and went about his day, walking, riding, and working to perfect his prototypes. His fellow villagers said he was insane, or possessed, or had a venereal disease, or was simply a pervert.
His wife, tired of enduring rumors about his strange antics, left him. His own mother fled the home after Arunachalam turned their backyard into a laboratory to analyze the effectiveness of used sanitary pads collected from village women. His neighbors had had enough. They said he would have to leave the village, or submit to an exorcism. So he left.
Driven from his home, abandoned by his wife and mother, Arunachalam was on the verge of a breakthrough.
He wrote letters to major Western manufacturers asking what their pads were made of and if he could have some samples. Cotton just wasn’t cutting it. Samples arrived in the mail a few weeks later: it turned out they were hard bricks of cellulose made from tree bark. He was one step closer to an affordable, effective sanitary pad. The machine to turn hard cellulose into a fluffy, absorbent material cost thousands of dollars, so Arunachalam resolved to build one of his own.
Four years later, Muruganantham had a working process to manufacture sanitary pads: three machines, one to pulverize the cellulose, the second to pack it into pads, and a third to sanitize the final product with ultraviolet light. Rather than patent his simple, ingenious process, Muruganantham resolved to install the machines in rural communities and train local women to run them. In 18 months, Muruganantham built 250 machines and distributed them to communities in the poorest states of India. Each installation ends up employing an average of 10 local women, and increases usage of sanitary pads since women no longer have to buy them from stores run by superstitious men.
Arunachalam’s invention hasn’t made him a lot of money, but it has made a difference. “If you get rich,” he says, “you have an apartment with an extra bedroom–and then you die.” His plan in the coming years is to spread his process to more countries in Asia