12 March 2014

Arunachalam Muruganantham Is My Hero

And he should be yours too.

Aruna who, you might ask.

The short answer is, he is one of the most amazing human beings of our time.

Bar none.

The long answer is like this.

Muruganantham is an Indian man who lives with his widowed mother and his beloved wife Shanthi. His remarkable story begins when one day he notices his wife trying to hide some dirty rags from him. He asks her what they are and she reluctantly confesses that they are bits of fabric she uses as sanitary pad.
"I will be honest," says Muruganantham. "I would not even use it to clean my scooter." When he asked her why she didn't use sanitary pads, she pointed out that if she bought them for the women in the family, she wouldn't be able to afford to buy milk or run the household.
As her Prince Valiant,  he goes out and buys her some pads, only to realize how exorbitantly priced these were. A bulb goes up above his head, cartoon-style, and he decides that he can do better than the commercial pads.

He does a little checking up and discovers that only 12 percent of Indian women use sanitary pads and in rural areas they use all kinds of unhygienic substitutes like sand, sawdust, leaves and ash.

So, he creates a cotton pad and gives it to Shanthi for a test ride.
She said he'd have to wait for some time - only then did he realise that periods were monthly. "I can't wait a month for each feedback, it'll take two decades!"
Being a forceful person, he asks around. Everyone, including his sisters, refuses.

Undeterred, he goes to the nearby medical college and asks some female students to test his designs. If you know a little bit about India (or the subcontinent in general) you will appreciate how audacious a scheme this is. It simply is not done. Yet, miraculously, he convinces 20 students to try his designs out.

Muruganantham, the barely educated school drop out, designs a questionnaire for his volunteers to collect their feedback to improve his designs. But one day, he discovers that these medical students simply asked a couple of their colleagues to fill out his questionnaire and realizes that the data he has been collecting was useless.

What would you do if you were in his shoes?

I know I would have quit.

Not Muruganantham.
It was then that he decided to test the products on himself. "I became the man who wore a sanitary pad," he says. 
He created a "uterus" from a football bladder by punching a couple of holes in it, and filling it with goat's blood. A former classmate, a butcher, would ring his bicycle bell outside the house whenever he was going to kill a goat. Muruganantham would collect the blood and mix in an additive he got from another friend at a blood bank to prevent it clotting too quickly - but it didn't stop the smell.
He walked, cycled and ran with the football bladder under his traditional clothes, constantly pumping blood out to test his sanitary pad's absorption rates.
Think about this for a minute. Picture his daily routine in your mind. And imagine how it would look in a traditional setting like his village.

Not unexpectedly, everyone assumes that he has lost his mind. In fact, the whispering, daily avoidance and rumors get so bad that, the woman for whom he started this crazy effort, his wife, decides to leave him. Perhaps understandably, the terrifying ostracism of the villagers becomes just too much for her.

Muruganantham accepts the hand that was dealt to him with equanimity. As he has not much to lose at that point, he decides to press on.

His next insight is to examine the existing pads to determine why they are more absorbent than his cotton designs. But that is not easy to ascertain.
This idea posed an even greater risk in such a superstitious community. "Even if I ask for a hair from a lady, she would suspect I am doing some black magic on her to mesmerise her," he says.
Once again, he convinces his medical students to let him examine their pads. But he runs into another big problem.
 He laid his haul out in the back yard to study, only for his mother to stumble across the grisly scene one afternoon. It was the final straw. She cried, put her sari on the ground, put her belongings into it, and left. 
First his wife, now his mother. That's it, right? Well, not quite.There was more in store for him.
The villagers became convinced he was possessed by evil spirits, and were about to chain him upside down to a tree to be "healed" by the local soothsayer. He only narrowly avoided this treatment by agreeing to leave the village. It was a terrible price to pay. "My wife gone, my mum gone, ostracised by my village" he says. "I was left all alone in life."
What would you have done if you were in his shoes?

I know I would have quit.

Not Muruganantham.

By then he figures out that his cotton pads are not as absorbent as the commercial stuff. There is something missing and he is unable to find what that is. He decides -against all odds- to ask those big multinationals, like P&G, what is different about their designs. As he puts it:
"It's like knocking on the door of Coke and saying, 'Can I ask you how your cola is manufactured?' 
Muruganantham wrote to the big manufacturing companies with the help of a college professor, whom he repaid by doing domestic work - he didn't speak much English at the time. He also spent almost 7,000 rupees (£70) on telephone calls - money he didn't have.
He tells them that he is a mill owner who needs to test their products. They send hims some samples and he realizes that the missing ingredient is cellulose. That is essentially tree bark and requires expensive machinery to break down.

End of the road, right?

I know I would have quit.

Not Muruganantham.

He decides that he can design a machine that can break down the cellulose and create a sanitary pad.

He gets to work.
Four-and-a-half years later, he succeeded in creating a low-cost method for the production of sanitary towels. The process involves four simple steps. First, a machine similar to a kitchen grinder breaks down the hard cellulose into fluffy material, which is packed into rectangular cakes with another machine. 
The cakes are then wrapped in non-woven cloth and disinfected in an ultraviolet treatment unit. The whole process can be learned in an hour.
The machine is simple and skeletal. His design goal is to make it easy for rural women to use, maintain and fix.

He takes it to Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). They like it so much that, unbeknownst to him, they enter his creation to a national innovation award. Out of 943 entries, his design wins and the President of India is there to give him the prize.
Suddenly he was in the limelight
"It was instant glory, media flashing in my face, everything" he says. "The irony is, after five-and-a-half years I get a call on my mobile - the voice huskily says: Remember me? 
It was his wife, Shanthi.
The happy ending is all around as his mother came back too and his villagers acknowledged that he was not a crazy person possessed by evil spirits.

What would you have done at that point if you were in his shoes?

I know I would have tried to make a few bucks after such an arduous journey.

Not Muruganantham.
"Imagine, I got patent rights to the only machine in the world to make low-cost sanitary napkins - a hot-cake product," he says. "Anyone with an MBA would immediately accumulate the maximum money. But I did not want to. Why? Because from childhood I know no human being died because of poverty - everything happens because of ignorance."
His business model is to get women to work the machines, to create the product and to sell it to other women in the village. He wants them empowered and employed instead of Muruganantham living in a hideous 27-storey high-rise overlooking Mumbai slums.
Most of Muruganantham's clients are NGOs and women's self-help groups. A manual machine costs around 75,000 Indian rupees (£723) - a semi-automated machine costs more. Each machine converts 3,000 women to pad usage, and provides employment for 10. They can produce 200-250 pads a day which sell for an average of about 2.5 rupees (£0.025) each. 
Women choose their own brand-name for their range of sanitary pads, so there is no over-arching brand - it is "by the women, for the women, and to the women".
In an age where every Silicon Valley whiz-kid, who comes up with an extraordinarily brilliant iOS or Android app like getting you to rent your bathroom to drunken strangers during some Mardi Gras-type events, believes that they deserve to be a billionaire and to become an icon, Arunachalam Muruganantham is more than a breath of fresh air.
Muruganantham now lives with his family in a modest apartment. He owns a jeep, "a rugged car that will take me to hillsides, jungles, forest", but has no desire to accumulate possessions. "I have accumulated no money but I accumulate a lot of happiness," he says. "If you get rich, you have an apartment with an extra bedroom - and then you die."
This is a man who nearly lost everything in life in pursuit of a solution for billions of poor and rural women. And he never thought that he should be handsomely compensated for his travails. He still travels long distances to install his machines and to train rural women to use it.

But perhaps more importantly than that, you know what is is his proudest achievement?
He was once asked whether receiving the award from the Indian president was the happiest moment of his life. He said no - his proudest moment came after he installed a machine in a remote village in Uttarakhand, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where for many generations nobody had earned enough to allow children to go to school. 
A year later, he received a call from a woman in the village to say that her daughter had started school. "Where Nehru failed," he says, "one machine succeeded."
Let me repeat once again: Her daughter was the first child to attend school from that village thanks to his machine and his business model.

This is why he is my hero.

Next time some wild-eyed twenty-something lectures you about the importance of protecting and valuing Intellectual Property (IP), lest we forgo important innovation, simply ask him if he knows the story of Arunachalam Muruganantham.

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