Startup Saturday: Biodegradable sanitary pads push to get women to ‘breakfree’ of misinformation
Most woman do not know about harmful chemicals that cause rashes and infections, and they do not know that each pad they use is non-biodegradableUpdated: Jul 13, 2019 15:16 IST
A women’s menstrual cycle can be harmful for the environment. Not the elevator pitch a startup might want to consider given the social and cultural battles of the day on India.
Violettte Edwards Sathe has a slightly different spiel to the above statement: “Women need to know that having your periods should not impact our environment. And it is now possible to do just that,” says the former marketing manager with an MNC.
Biodegradable sanitary pads/napkins is Sathe’s product and the company Breakfree, has sold 60 per cent of its current inventory, i.e. two lakh pieces of the “made in Vietnam” product.
As a working woman, Sathe had a super busy life. Says she: “Í always wanted to do something for the environment and the sanitary napkin issue was always nagging me. Most woman do not know about harmful chemicals that cause rashes and infections, and they do not know that each pad they use is non-biodegradable.”
The option is non-disposable pads. Says Sathe, “ Many women are not comfortable with non-disposal pads and some suffer from rashes; but, where do you get organic and biodegradable pads?”
That was the question Sathe and her partner, Rajesh Chandavat, invested Rs 20 lakh in finding out, and providing a solution.
In October 2018 the research began and a manufacturer in Vietnam who held the patent for making sanitary napkins out of bamboo and corn fibre was unearthed.
“Rajesh and I met him and requested a few changes. He used to have a plastic lining which we did not want. So we recommended a plant based-starch used as a bio-plastic. We also wanted the pads to have disposal bags. Unfortunately, the ones available are wrapped in plastic that is meant to protect the pad from humidity.
“Women think it is meant for disposal, which is not the case. So we had disposal bags made of paper with a red dot on it and a wrapper made of bio-plastic,” Sathe explains.
More of the red dot later, but how is quality maintained if the product is manufactured abroad?
Says Sathe, “We are very particular about that. We checks all the parameters. Moreover, when the product reaches India we do further testing in labs to reconfirm that the product is indeed what we ordered.”
The first order was two lakh sanitary napkins free from any chemical and completely natural with the ability to absorb 200 ml of liquid. Also, the disposal bag is made of paper.
Pricing was next and Sathe was in no illusion that this would have a direct bearing on sales. “Even women who are committed to the environment are price conscious. Many are not willing to pay a price higher than what they pay for their current sanitary napkin,” she says.
“We have kept our profit margins low so as to give our customers a good price. If a popular brand sells its pads at between Rs 125 and Rs 140 for a pack of eight, Breakfree pads cost Rs 125 for a pack of seven. This is four regular-sized pads and three night-time ones,” Sathe says.
“When we did our testing I gave a few samples to friends and women on a Facebook group. They loved it. So we opened our sales right there with our trials. We created our own website and signed on with Amazon, Those5Days, Nyka and Ecosattva,” says Sathe.
“However, medical stores are reluctant to stock our product,” she adds, “They feel that because it is not advertised, there will be less demand. This despite the fact that we are offering a 35% commission.”
All Breakfree sales so far, 60% of the two-lakh stock, have come online.
So, about the red dot.
“The other issue associated with the pads is disposable bags to throw them in. Sanitary packs do not give you proper bags to dispose the pad in and this is a big issue with sanitary workers. Sadly, they have to remove stained pads from waste bins and dispose it separately causing many sanitation workers to get infections,” explains Sathe.
“There is a “red dot” initiative, where woman are expected to use bags and mark a red dot on it, so sanitation workers can know what the waste is without opening the bags. Less than five percent of women are doing this. We aim to provide disposal bags with the red dot,” says Sathe.
As of the current quarter, Breakfree is focusing on distribution channels.
“We are also considering setting up a manufacturing facility here in India, but that will need funds,” says Sathe, adding that a local manufacturing unit can help reduce the cost by 25%.
Sathe is aware of at least one brand that is selling bio-degradable pads, in terms of competition. “They charge Rs 230 for a pack of eight. With that pricing they are focusing on the high-end customer. We want to reach out to as many women as possible and are constantly seeing how to reduce our cost,” she says.
As Mr Wonderful from Sharktank would say: It’s all about the licencising play.
“The big players wwill get into biodegradable pads once they see that women are shifting to it. I am very confident of our pads, but we have to get the medical stores buy into this concept,” is Sathe’s view.
That, and of course, women who need to know that having your periods should not impact the environment.