Of the many presentations that Suhani Mohan has made in her corporate career, there is one that remains close to her heart. Three years ago, while working as a senior analyst at Deutsche Bank, she created a PowerPoint presentation on issues related to menstrual hygiene for her parents. She wanted to quit her “unsatisfying" job and start a company that provided affordable hygiene products. But her family was not convinced.

“They thought I wanted to quit because of a tormenting boss. It was only when I showed them a proper business plan that they realized I had thought things through," says Mumbai-based Mohan, 29.

Enough bank balance was another reason for her parents’ approval. “The savings were enough to keep me going for three years, which I thought was a good amount of time to understand what I was planning to do," she adds.

By early 2015, Mohan, an alumni of Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, quit her job to start Saral Designs, with friend Kartik Mehta.

The starting point

She first got the idea to produce affordable sanitary pads in 2012, when she met Anshu Gupta, founder of non-profit Goonj, during a volunteering stint. “He mentioned cases of how women would use the same cloth repeatedly, leading to tetanus and reproductive tract infections. We regularly talk about nutrition and sanitation, but menstrual hygiene is something that is never discussed. I had little idea on how deep the problem was, despite being a woman," Mohan says.

While contemplating the feasibility of starting an enterprise, she met Mehta, through a friend who, at the time, was working as a design consultant for packaging companies in Pune. He, too, was looking for an opportunity that could help impact lives.

Finding a gap

A lot of time was spent online to understand the raw materials and processes that were typically used to make the menstrual pads using German and Chinese machines. They also spoke to friends who had worked in the diaper and pad-making industries. While Mehta, also 29, put his mind to the design of the machines, Mohan made the most of her finance background to plug in the numbers, and understand how it could be sustainable.

“There was no competition at the time because the overheads were high for the smaller players. The idea was to match the production capacity and quality of the big manufacturers, at a much lower price. At the same time, there was no technology in place for the scale we had in mind," Mohan says.

The duo pooled in their savings to raise an initial capital of 5 lakh. Mehta led a team of engineers to create the prototype of a pad manufacturing machine at their unit in Navi Mumbai. For the 18 months, they made the pads and distributed them through local non-profits, but once the machines were found to be robust enough to go places, the model evolved.

They now have decentralized manufacturing, and taken on the business-in-a-box model. Among the raw materials they use are compostable replacements for polyethylene. They have another model, where they train 200 women in each district of Maharashtra who become local sales agents in their communities. “We work with local NGOs and entrepreneurs who buy our machines while we support them with raw materials and training for production, distribution and sales," she says.

Each machine, which costs anywhere between 8.5 to 35 lakh, depending on the market demand, can produce about 7,000 ultra-thin pads that are also compostable.

In the past four years, Saral Designs has sold 25 machines in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Haryana, Assam, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, and countries such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Namibia, South Africa and Rwanda. During the Maharashtra Startup Week last year, they collaborated with the state government to set up a manufacturing unit in Chandrapur district.

“lot of our raw material used to be sourced from China. The next step is to collaborate with Indian manufacturers to reduce costs. And of course, sell more machines," Mohan says.

Career Detour features people who quit their 9-to-5 jobs and made their passion work.

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