Plant-based pads to tackle period woes

In the second of a four-part feature on winners of the Young Social Entrepreneur (YSE) 2012 Programme, Be an Idea speaks to a young woman who is developing a biodegradable sanitary pad for underprivileged women in India. YSE is an initiative by the Singapore International Foundation to help young people embark on social enterprises and nurture a network of entrepreneurs to create businesses that benefit communities.

For Ho Yen Yee, a final-year linguistics student at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), the year has been a filled with numerous peaks of learning. At 22, she is one of the driving forces behind I.M.Pad (Innovative and Manageable Sanitary Pad), a social entrepreneurship project that addresses issues related to women’s health and personal dignity in the developing world.

“In many rural communities, women don’t have access to basic items of sanitation such as sanitary pads,” explained Ho, who felt disturbed after reading about women who turned to alternatives like ashes and dried leaves and were often made to feel ashamed about menstruation. “This can pose serious health risks and I wanted to see how I could help.”

While volunteering with NTU’s Welfare Services Club, Ho met Andrew Yin, her partner who shared the same passion as her about helping the less fortunate

They decided to focus the project on India, which has the lowest level of sanitary pad adoption in the world. An ACNielson survey conducted in 2010 showed that as many as 88 per cent of menstruating women in the country did not use proper hygienic sanitary products during their periods.

Their guiding principles? It had to be effective, eco-friendly and low-cost. “Besides access, affordability is one of the key reasons for the lack of use of sanitary pads in many rural areas,” said Ho. “So we began by exploring low-cost alternatives.”

One intriguing possibility was the use of water hyacinths as a source material. Besides being indigenous to many rural areas in India, water hyacinths also have highly absorbent pulp fibres.

Utilising the plant also helps to alleviate an environmental problem as they can choke irrigation canals and contribute to the spread of waterborne diseases.

“As a woman, this issue is especially close to my heart because I know how uncomfortable and dreadful it can get during menstruation,” she said. “It is actually something that can be managed effectively with a simple sanitary pad and should not be allowed to disrupt a woman’s life and become an impediment to education.

Especially meaningful was a study trip under the YSE banner in June 2012 to Mumbai. Over nine days, the team got to learn more about operational conditions and speak to women there.

With $10,000 seed funding from the YSE, Ho and Yin are now immersed in the research and industrial design stage of their project. Next up? Producing a prototype by mid-2013 followed by a another trip to India to meet with NGO representatives and local self-help groups.

“Inclusive innovation is important especially in the access to basic necessities because all human beings should be allowed the opportunity to live with dignity,” Ho said.

“I really hope to help these women lead normal and healthy lives during their periods, just like everyone else in the developed world.”