SEI Global Fellow Report from the Field: Aakar Innovations

By Gail Batutis

Our tiny auto-rickshaw swerves through traffic, the wind bathing our faces in a sensory assault of dust and fried food, constant construction by barefoot men on bamboo scaffolding and the cries of children at intersections, hands gesturing plaintively at their mouths, swarming when they notice my light skin.

“Begging is one of the biggest industries in India.” Says Sombodhi Ghosh, co-founder of Aakar Innovations and my co-op supervisor, breaking off mid-discussion. “You can hire children to beg for you, and it will be costing only eighty rupees [$1.33] a day. All the money you give them goes to someone else.”

Our auto finally breaks free and speeds up the overpass, crossing into a more run-down area as we approach our Production Unit. In Delhi, a district the size of New York City with a population the size of Texas, the most overpowering perception is of the energy and chaos of the place, of movement, margins, and close calls. Here democracy is practiced in the streets, in the perennial protests of Connaught Place and the blaring advertisements from men with megaphones driving buffalo carts through crowded markets. I found it impossible to imagine before I arrived, and it came as a surprise to find myself falling in love.

We pull up in front of our alleyway in Mahavir Enclave and shuffle out onto the street to pay our fare – $2.50 for a 30 minute ride – and make our way to the last building in the row, where our Sanitary Napkin Machines are kept, the key held by a friendly Bengali family upstairs. Their excitable boxer, Romeo, licks our hands and faces as we wait in a front room. Sombodhi takes a call. He hangs up and groans.

“They’re not coming.” He falls heavily into a chair. This is not the first time this potential client has cancelled on us. I glance over at the machines in the room adjacent. In my first week, Sombodhi taught me how to use them, from weighing the pine fiber – we don’t use cotton, as it doesn’t hold liquid under pressure – through pressing on the bottom plastic layer with a sealing machine cranked to 180 degrees. Even though mine were uneven and ripping in places, it was a simple and rewarding process, one I could picture our women entrepreneurs doing in their villages.

“So what do we do now?” Sombodhi asks, looking at me.

“Well, we don’t have internet here. I guess we should head back to the office.” But first, it’s lunchtime. Sombodhi leads me across a street and down into a lower level where we find an undecorated concrete room packed full of people and noise and the tantalizing smell of the only meal they serve – chole bhature. Over our light, puffy bread, seasoned potatoes, and chickpeas cooked overnight in gravy – wicked spicy peppers optional – we lay out our plan for the rest of the day.

Despite this morning’s apparent setback, there is no lack of interest in our services. Aside from the actual machines, governments and NGOs which partner with us can also pay for us to do marketing and education campaigns in their areas, as well as a week-long training program for the women who will make their living manufacturing sanitary napkins for their communities. We stay with our units afterward as well, managing their supply chain of raw and finished materials, some of which we sell in bulk to NGOs and hospitals. Each unit is able to provide enough products for thousands of women at easily affordable prices, so we have to be selective with our setup to avoid competition between them. We also avoid all organizations – and sometimes the governments of entire states – who Sombodhi dismisses, Holden Caulfield-esque, as “fraud” – those whose primary concern is fund-raising stories or bribes.

In a country like India, success and failure are packed in close, and one stroke of luck can move you from one to another. The fast auto driver can pick up more fares, the smart bargainer can save for a child’s education, and the dishonor of a family member can ruin job and marriage prospects for a lifetime. Investors and business partners circle like vultures, and the livelihoods of many are held in the hands of a few. Aakar Innovations won’t be able to turn the tide for India, or all of India’s women. But for those whom it touches, it might be enough to tip the scales towards a better life.