The heavy silence surrounding female hygiene is fading. The increased awareness and open discussions on the topic are coming from unconventional quarters - one of them is a group of IITians in their early twenties.
Archit Agarwal (21), who is pursuing a B.Tech in textile technology from IIT Delhi, first heard about urinary tract infection (UTI) from a female friend while on a trip to Himalayas with college mates. "I got shocked by the fact that most women in India have suffered UTI at least once in their lives due to dirty toilet seats. I was determined to do something about it."
After a year of research and development with the help of his professors, Agarwal launched a feminine hygiene brand, Sanfe, in May 2018. His roommate Harry Sehrawat came on board one month after the launch. Now they have a team of 14.
For Agarwal, entrepreneurship was not a rash decision. He already had some experience working with a start-up incubated at IIT Delhi during his first year there. He also had some understanding of how a business is built and run. "I would often visit my father's office as a child (his father is in the sugar business). He would discuss in detail his business challenges and how he tackled those," he says.
While doing the market research on female hygiene, Agarwal found out about toilet seat sanitizers and a few imported devices that help women urinate while standing. "In India, sprays can't work always because toilet seats are often wet and imported devices don't suit Indian women as most of them wear sarees and salwar kurtas with dupattas. They would need a device that can be managed using one hand."
Keeping these aspects in mind, the Sanfe team designed a product 'Stand and Pee', which is paper-based and single-use. It costs Rs 99 for a pack of 10. Pregnant women and patients with knee or back injury/surgery could also find it useful, he says. So far 250,000 units have been sold.
Agarwal and Sehrawat had a second light bulb moment, which also taught them a marketing lesson. "One of my friends was upset because she could not do well in exams due to menstrual cramps. This gave me the idea to develop a pain reliever kind of a product." Sanfe launched an essential oil-based 'pain relief roll-on' in March 2019 on International Women's Day. They have sold 25,000 units so far.
The roll-on is approved by Directorate of Ayush for manufacturing, but Sanfe marketed it as "approved by Food Safety and Drugs Administration (FDA) with no side effects". Fact-checking website Alt News busted the claim and IIT-Delhi sent the co-founders a show-cause notice. "In the manufacturing industry, 'Ayush Approval' of the product is often called as 'FDA Approval of Ayurvedic products', which was the source of miscommunication," Sanfe clarified later, saying that it was an "unintentional and factual mistake".
The negative publicity didn't deter Agrawal and Sehrawat, and they were sure that they wanted to do more in the female hygiene space. Agarwal went whole hog on the segment and launched six more products between August and October this year.
Regular sanitary napkins are an environmental concern. Sanfe's period care range includes reusable, 100 per cent-biodegradable sanitary pads made of composite banana fiber. It also offers panty liners, organic cotton tampons, reusable menstrual cups and hygiene essentials such as natural products-based intimate wash and wipes.
Although most of Sanfe's products are targeted towards urban women, the reusable pads are specifically meant for women in tier-2 and tier-3 locations where folded old cloth strips are still used as pads. Sanfe reaches out with the help of NGOs. It has tied up with 15 NGOs so far such as Pinkishe, CWEI, Sachi Saheli and Spherule Foundation.
Sanfe products are available at Le Marche and Apollo pharmacies as well as Amazon, Flipkart, Nykaa and Sanfe's own website.
So far, Sanfe has raised Rs 85 lakh from investors such as Hindustan Petroleum Corporation and Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC). The plan is to raise another Rs 3.5 crore in the next two months. BIRAC has already confirmed Rs 1 crore, Agrawal says. The company has a turnover of Rs 97 lakh.
Agrawal will finish his B.Tech next year. Dressed casually, the reticent IIT student had an air of a nerd as well as the confidence of an entrepreneur. "After I am done with my degree, Sanfe will have my full attention. We have already built a team of 14 and moved Sanfe's headquarters from IIT Delhi incubation centre to Hauz Khas."