Anika Parasher's The Woman Company (TWC) has been selling feminine hygiene products since 2020 and she claims that the firm has seen about a 30 to 40 per cent month-on-month growth since. TWC, along with companies like Pee Safe, Nua, Sanfe are building businesses in India by improving access to feminine hygiene products.
Unlike many Indian startups, including unicorns, the problem in front of these companies isn't just the lack of access, but also decades worth of taboos and prejudices.
For instance, a growing number of these startups market the fact that they sell sanitary napkins, menstrual cups, etc. in "discreet packaging". But one might ask - why is that still a concern?
"When it comes to hiding the pad, there are aspects of patriarchy at play. Women should not have to hide the product in the first place, but at the same time, that concealment provides them with a sort of safety," says Radhika Modi, who is an independent researcher on gender and women's health issues.
The reason e-commerce, food delivery, ride-hailing and other companies have found public and investor interest is because they provide easy access. Ride-hailing apps cut the need to tread the streets in a polluted city to look for a taxi, while food delivery apps bring you dinner from restaurants you couldn't access from home earlier. What Modi, however, is pointing out is that access alone may not work for feminine hygiene services.
One of the most relevant memories, and lessons, of most women's formative years, revolves around menstruation. From physical discomfort to pads wrapped in discrete brown paper to hide that it's 'that time of the month'. Sure, the world might have matured, but for most women in India, it has not gotten any easier.
These brands have been working on making period management products easily accessible across the country by making them available online at reasonable prices. Instead of having to deal with brown paper packets from medicine stores, women can just order what they need online and get it delivered to their doorsteps. And to an extent, they too have struck gold.
No more discreet paper bags
TWC sells these products through its website, as well as through marketplaces like Amazon, Nykaa, Flipkart, and 1MG.
Parasher also said that about 70 per cent of her sales come from Tier 1 cities and the rest is spread across Tier-2, 3, and 4 cities. "This is definitely growing," she said, discussing sales from non-metro cities. "There are evolved women customers in Tier 2, Tier 3 cities who ask us very intelligent questions about sustainability levels, biodegradability levels, which is very encouraging," Parasher notes.
She attributes the growth from smaller towns mostly to the fact that people have spent a lot more time online since 2020 thanks to the pandemic. Which in turn increased access to information about menstruation. Nua's CBO, Mansi Vohra, echoes Parasher's thoughts.
"Women have begun to make more informed decisions about buying health and wellness products since they want to be absolutely certain that the product they are purchasing is solving their issue," says Vohra. "In fact, 60 per cent of our orders come from smaller cities and we serve 6,466 pin codes in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities alone," she adds
IIT-Delhi graduates Harry Sehrawat and Archit Aggarwal's startup Sanfe has a slightly different approach. The company started, in 2018, with an oil to relieve period pains and a device to help women urinate while standing - called Stand and Pee - and avoid contracting urinary tract infections (UTIs).
The company has added a range of intimate washes, sanitary pads, tampons, menstrual cups, panty liners, intimate cosmetics, and more since and its digital revenue currently stands at 99 per cent. Thirty-five per cent of Sanfe's sales come from its website and the other 65 per cent comes from marketplaces.
Access vs awareness
Internet penetration has helped the likes of Sanfe but Sehrawat points out that for a company like theirs, physical retail is inevitable. The company aims to hit 3,000 retail outlets within the next six months.
A veteran in the ranks is Pee Safe, which was 'discovered' by users back in 2013 with its toilet seat sanitisers. The company was formally incorporated in 2017 and founders Srijana and Vikas Bagaria have since added period management products, female grooming products, men's intimate hygiene products, sexual wellness products, hand sanitisers, and even face masks and mists to its list. It has grown a whopping 200 per cent year-on-year since 2020 on the back of these.
While these startups have undoubtedly grown, all the numbers may tell only one side of the story. Statista.com pegs the value of the feminine hygiene products market at $5.9 billion, while Research and Markets pegged the number at over $9 billion in March last year. Why, then did it take a pandemic for these startups to see such growth?
The bigger conversation
For many, the conversation around and acceptance of this natural, biological process is still taboo, while for others the issues revolve around the lack of informed decisions. Issues of accessibility, availability, and affordability as far as menstrual management products like pads, tampons, panty liners, menstrual cups are concerned, is largely addressed by rapid digitisation and access to the internet, but the first part is trickier.
"Informed choice is a very big deal in the menstrual health management (MHM) ecosystem. Informed choice is when a person who is making the choice to buy a product is aware of why they are buying it. Unfortunately, in a country like India, there is a lack of informed choice," says Modi.
Pee Safe's mantra for getting the word out and raising awareness has been about being vocal. The company currently sells its products through 25,000 stores across 150 cities in India and 10 countries. It has also partnered with celebrities and was the hygiene partner for the Bollywood film Toilet: Ek Prem Katha.
Brands have also tried modern marketing methods, including digital and influencer marketing. For instance, Sanfe has brought actor Radhika Apte on board to spread the word online, while Nua's Vohra said the company hosts live chats with medical professionals through social media platforms and other domain experts, and also authors articles on the subject.
Pee Safe's Bagaria, however, points out that brands will have to "go offline" after a certain point. "Only 12 per cent of India's population buys online and the rest buy offline. For instance, reach online is good, but to create a sustainable business, you will need to go offline," he adds.
Going offline includes having conversations that are largely avoided, even today. TWC's Parasher notes that the brand will have to engage with individuals "face-to-face", teach people to wash their hands, how to use certain products and more. She says that these conversations will have to happen offline, or through virtual interactions.
For instance, Modi notes that menstrual cups can be quite expensive for those who aren't well off. "It is easier to spend Rs 30 on a pack of pads than Rs 500 on a menstrual cup," she adds. But even though financial capabilities trump sustainability concerns - how the product is to be disposed off, etc. After all, you don't really think of the planet when you're worried about your next meal.
She points out, however, that cloth pads are making a comeback, which means that there are some who do want to make that conscious choice. Cloth pads are more eco-friendly since they're reusable and do not employ plastics like regular sanitary pads.
Yet, women from less privileged backgrounds were more open to trying menstrual cups, as compared to urban women. Many urban participants in Modi's research said that their mothers would "not allow them" to use menstrual cups. For her research, Modi spoke about menstrual cups to a wide spectrum of women from Bhuj in Gujarat - across age brackets, and both married and unmarried.
"So, it's not a rural/urban divide here when it comes to awareness about menstrual health and products. There are other aspects, like patriarchy, that control a woman's access to products and these are crosscutting and intersectional," says Modi.
The problem of awareness and acceptance may be bigger than access when it comes to feminine hygiene products. Like many women's health organisations, Modi notes that a public policy approach is required to raise awareness, starting with activists who advocate sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). Conversations, essentially, need to be incorporated into the curriculum and made commonplace and regular.
The end goal is to reach a point where 'discreet packaging' is not why women buy these products online or offline. Sales numbers can keep mounting, but the issues on the ground will linger unless we grab the bull by the horns.
"There is a lack of technology in rural areas and not enough accessibility, and they also do not have the bandwidth to think about sustainability when they are thinking about their next meal. But I've seen urban women, who are working professionals refuse to shift to menstrual cups," she adds while pointing out that the linkages between virginity and the use of menstrual cups need to be addressed.
Over her research, Modi says she met women in Lucknow who were willing to shift to using menstrual cups since they saw it as a good alternative to save money. And also, because they would not have to hide the product while going to the washroom, she points out.
Essentially, as Modi says, the conversation is much bigger than just one concerning what products one should choose. While there are videos online that can guide you about how to use a tampon or a menstrual cup, and most products come with an instruction manual about how to use, remove, and dispose or clean the product, there is more conversation and information sharing that needs to happen over and above advertisements and celebrity tie-ups.
"Thanks to brands and their social media presence, reachability has increased, but accessibility in terms of comfort and ease of use has not," Modi points out.
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