We have baffling numbers: 122,844 new cervical cancer cases are diagnosed annually in India, says a 2013 report by ICO Information Centre on HPV and Cancer. The disease ranks as the second cause for cancer in India, especially among women aged 15 to 44 years. A predominant cause is poor menstrual hygiene.
"Of the 355 million menstruating women in India, only 12 percent use sanitary napkins. Over 88 percent of women resorted to alternatives such as cloth, ashes and husk during menstruation, thereby causing severe reproductive health problems," claims Sahil Dharia, Managing Director of Noida-based Soothe Healthcare, a two-year-old startup.
These statistics reflect age-old taboos about menstruation among Indians. "Adolescent girls in rural India are unable to attend up to 50 days of school annually due to inadequate menstrual care eventually leading to drop outs," Dharia highlights, citing inaccessibility and unaffordability as two top reasons for low adoption of napkins.
However, Paree - a mid-category brand of sanitary napkins launched by Soothe this May targeting the low, middle and working class bracket-might change all this.
Positioned as a value product, Paree is priced competitively starting at Rs. 12 for a pack of four to a maximum of Rs. 39 for 15. There are packs of eight too. Product variations include soft feel with a non-woven top sheet or dry feel with funnel like pores on the top layer to allow liquid to pass through easily but not resurface, both with and without wings.
"We want to create interest with our price points so that women try our product," Dharia says, adding that their pricing strategy is aimed towards households with an annual income of Rs. 2-5 lakh. In a pioneering move, two napkins in every pack are thicker by a gram for heavy flow days.
Differentiators go deeper. Manufactured at a plant in Noida with a capacity to produce 675 napkins a minute, Paree is chemical free and can absorb 30 millilitre (ml) of fluid in three minutes. On an average, women discharge 28-50 ml of fluid per cycle.
"Ultra-thin napkins are made with super absorbent polymer or 'magic gel', that makes them more absorbent, thinner and sexier," explains Dharia confirming he's not in this business despite Paree being five percent costlier to produce. "We have 150 million women in our current target audience to cater to and they don't need a sexy product - they need to get used to using a napkin first."
Paree's ergonomic design fits various body types. The napkins give maximum protection with embossed channels that distribute fluid equally by directing it away from the center spot, thereby avoiding leakages.
"We also add a layer of tissue to the napkin's core which gives it greater wet strength preventing it from bending out of shape and therefore lasting longer," explains Srinivasa Rao, Founder and Managing Director, Indian Institute of Biotechnology (IIBT), a life sciences firm that has a strategic tie-up with Soothe.
Soothe launched with an initial investment of Rs. 7.5 crore ($1.5 million), a mix of debt and equity from Dharia, Rao, Dr Wasi U Khan, ex-Medical Superintendent of Metro Heart Hospital, New Delhi, and John Cioffi, of UBS Investment Bank. The company has also secured a loan from Bank of Baroda. All four shareholders hold a 25 percent stake in Soothe.
In pilot mode
Since launch, Soothe has dispatched 12 lakh pieces to modern and general trade stores across Maharashtra, its test market, and will pick-up learning from here before spreading nation-wide. "We are bullish on the South," Dharia shares.
The government forms a second vertical in Soothe's business model via state-run programs. It has secured a contract from Tamil Nadu government for 10 million napkins to be distributed free to adolescent girls in schools. An order from Karnataka is on the anvil.
Home-based entrepreneurs will also form its distribution strategy. "We're betting big on it - just not focused here yet because of our retail launch," says Dharia.
Reaching out to community
In the last two months Soothe has reached over 7,000 women pan-India through community programs formatted to educate them about menstrual health, and jointly conducted by a local doctor, a ground partner (NGOs, schools, ASHA Workers, et al) and Soothe.
Soothe conducted 30 sessions across seven states and invested Rs. 10-15 lakh in awareness activities. It will raise additional capital of around Rs. 10 crore to market Paree.
Usha Subramani, Community Program Manager for South at Soothe says outcomes are positive. "Around 60-70 percent of women are responding favourably." Breaking taboos apart, Subramani says they're reaching out to local authorities to help make napkins available in these markets.
Pointing to inefficiency of state-run programs, B Sri Ram Murty, Secretary of Bhagavatula Charitable Trust (BCT) one of Soothe's 10 ground partners, in Vishakapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh says, "The State Government is supposed to give free napkins but it's not happening -only one school got them once."
BCT has conducted sessions in four high schools reaching 18 villages and seek to spread to 100 villages including remote tribal belts. "It's not from a charitable perspective only - if I spread awareness, hopefully they will buy my product," Dharia says admitting to long-term vested business interests.
To amplify their reach, six months hence, Soothe's kitty will showcase rapid, portable diagnostic kits for cervical cancer, tuberculosis, diabetes, ovarian cancer, and malaria. "These can be tapped both in retail and government markets. So the market size for this basket is practically 800 million plus in India," remarks Rao.
Soothe's licensed these technologies from elite laboratories-reputed laboratories in the US, Europe and India which are doing cutting edge research- and will pay royalties and other variable fees for use. Revenues for FY13-14 were Rs. 73 lakh from government orders.
Updated Date: Jun 19, 2014 13:45 PM