By Gail Batutis, DMSB ’15
“We are a bad startup. This is because we are doing too much; we are addressing everything at once.”
Sombodhi Ghosh, Co-founder of Aakar Innovations, sits across from me at Costa Café in Delhi on a cool February day, stirring his coffee. He takes notes as he explains his business model, his handwriting the indecipherable scribble of someone who thinks faster than he writes, accented with flourishes reminiscent of Hindi script.
Of the 300 million women in India, only 12% have access to sanitary pads, and even fewer use them. Mostly women use rags, or cloth filled with sand or ash. They are washed in secret and hidden, often while still damp and dirty. The cloths are used time and again, shared between all women in the family, and consequently lead to rampant infection and reproductive complications, some resulting in death. Furthermore, studies have shown that 23% of girls drop out of school when they start menstruating due to embarrassment and fear of leaking and staining.
Aakar Innovations is a hybrid social enterprise based out of Delhi, India. They set up mini-factories in poor, rural areas consisting of four simple and patented machines, and they employ local women to make sanitary pads. Aakar Social Ventures, the non-profit arm, fosters educational awareness through programs in schools and women’s self-help groups. Their unique distribution model, based on a hub-and-spoke model of central offices and sanitary napkin production units, brings these products to remote villages at the lowest possible cost, something multi-national corporations do not attempt. Currently Aakar is finishing their first investment round and finalizing plans to add hundreds of new government-subsidized factories in the next five years.
Aakar’s holistic approach springs from the passion of its people, their unwavering devotion to this under-addressed problem. Speaking with them, I can feel the weight of their assumed responsibility, and an iron-clad determination and doggedness to see it through to the end. I feel honored and excited to call these people my new co-workers, as I begin my co-op with them from the 2014 spring season.