How a high school dropout revolutionized women’s health in rural India


Failure is a part of life, but all that matters is how you choose to respond to failure.

The key is learning from your mistakes and never, ever giving up.

This inspirational story is one I'm been eager to share since I read it a few weeks ago. It's about a man in rural India who revolutionized women's health by inventing an affordable sanitary napkin.

Yes, you read that right.

Arunachalam Muruganantham was a newlywed and didn't know much about women's health. So he was shocked to discover his wife was using a rag instead of a sanitary napkin. They're too expensive, she told him. She could have safe, hygienic products or she could put food on the table for her husband and his widowed mother.

Arunachalam had a hard time believing that and went to town to buy a sanitary napkin for his wife. He learned there was about 10 grams of cotton involved. The final product, however, cost far more than the raw material involved. Arunachalam discovered that only 10 percent of the women in his village used sanitary napkins, instead using unsafe, uncomfortable alternatives that often led to disease.

Arunachalam decided he could make them far cheaper.

Now Arunachalam had to drop out of school at 14 after his father died. He was poor. But that didn't stop him.

When he had difficulty convincing women to test his products, he invented a "uterus" and collected goat's blood from the village butcher and wore it under his clothes. He washed his bloodied clothes at the communal well. He dried his test samples in the sun so he could reuse them.

The villagers thought he had lost his mind … or was a pervert. His wife couldn't take the ridicule and left him. His own mother left him.

But that didn't stop him. Even when his cotton test products didn't work, he didn't give up. He got a college professor to help him write companies to learn more about manufactured sanitary napkins. He did domestic work to repay the professor and afford the cost of phone calls to textile mills.

Two years after he started his quest, Arunachalam learned that cellulose was the missing ingredient he needed. Machines to make it cost thousands of dollars. But he didn't give up. He set out to build his own machine, one that anyone could operate.

The first version was made out of wood. He showed it to people at the Indian Institute of Technology, who weren't sure how it could compete against the machines of giant corporations. But, unknown to Arunachalam, they entered it in a national competition for innovation.

Out of 943 entries, Arunachalam's invention won. He met the president of India and became a celebrity. His phone soon rang. It was his wife, who wanted to reconcile. (His mother came around, too.)

Arunachalam started refining his invention and built 250 machines over the next 18 months, installing them in the poorest parts of India. Today, they are in 1,300 villages in 23 states. Women run the machines and the shops that sells the sanitary napkins, which sell for about half the price of the original product.

Each machine keeps 3,000 women healthy and provides jobs for 10 women. Arunachalam wants to export his machine to developing nations around the world.

"My aim was to create one million jobs for poor women – but why not 10 million jobs worldwide?" he asks.

The next time there's a setback or a disappointment, keep it in perspective. No obstacle in our lives is going to be bigger than the ones that Arunachalam Muruganantham conquered. And he, never, ever, gave up.

You can read the amazing BBC News story here.

And here's a 10-minute talk that Arunachalam Muruganantham gave at a TED symposium:



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