Anika Parasher’s The Woman Company (TWC) has been selling feminine hygiene products since 2020 and she says the business has seen around 30-40% monthly growth since then. 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 facing these companies is not just lack of access, but also decades of taboos and prejudice.
For example, a growing number of these startups are marketing the fact that they sell sanitary napkins, menstrual cups, and more. in “discreet packaging”. But one might ask – why is this still a concern?
“When it comes to hiding the tampon, there are aspects of patriarchy at play. Women shouldn’t have to hide the product in the first place, but at the same time, hiding it gives them a kind of security” , says Radhika Modi. , who is an independent researcher on gender and women’s health issues.
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The reason e-commerce, food delivery, ride-sharing, and other businesses have gained public and investor interest is because they provide easy access. Ride-sharing apps eliminate the need to walk the streets of a polluted city to look for a cab, while food delivery apps offer you to dine at restaurants you couldn’t access from home earlier. What Modi, however, points out is that access alone may not work for feminine hygiene services.
One of the most relevant memories and lessons from most women’s formative years revolves around menstruation. From physical discomfort to towels wrapped in discreet brown paper to hide it’s “that time of the month.” Sure, the world may have matured, but for most women in India, it hasn’t gotten any easier.
These brands strive to make period management products easily accessible nationwide by making them available online at reasonable prices. Instead of having to deal with brown paper packets from drug stores, women can simply order what they need online and have it delivered to their doorstep. And to some extent, they too 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% of her sales come from Tier 1 cities and the rest are split across Tier 2, 3, and 4 cities. “It’s definitely going up,” she said, referring to the sales of non-metropolitan cities. “There are advanced customers in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities asking us very intelligent questions about levels of sustainability, levels of biodegradability, which is very encouraging,” notes Parasher.
She attributes the growth of small towns mainly to the fact that people have spent much more time online since 2020 thanks to the pandemic. This, in turn, has increased access to information about menstruation. Nua’s CBO, Mansi Vohra, echoes Parasher’s thoughts.
“Women have started to make more informed decisions about buying health and wellness products because they want to be absolutely certain that the product they’re buying solves their problem,” says Vohra. “In fact, 60% of our orders come from small towns and we serve 6,466 PINs in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities alone,” she adds.
IIT-Delhi graduates Harry Sehrawat and Archit Aggarwal’s startup Sanfe take a slightly different approach. The company started in 2018 with an oil to relieve menstrual pain and a device to help women urinate while standing – called Stand and Pee – and avoid getting urinary tract infections (UTIs).
The company has added a line of intimate washes, sanitary napkins, tampons, menstrual cups, panty liners, intimate cosmetics, etc., and its digital revenue is currently at 99%. 35% of Sanfe’s sales come from its website and the remaining 65% come from marketplaces.
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Access vs Awareness
Internet penetration has helped businesses like Sanfe, but Sehrawat points out that for a business like theirs, physical retail is inevitable. The company aims to reach 3,000 retail outlets within the next six months.
A veteran in the ranks is Pee Safe, which was “discovered” by users in 2013 with its toilet seat sanitizers. The company was officially incorporated in 2017 and founders Srijana and Vikas Bagaria have since added period management products, women’s grooming products, men’s personal care products, sexual wellness products, hand sanitizers and even face masks and mists to his list. It’s up 200% year-over-year since 2020 thanks to these.
While these startups have undoubtedly grown, all the numbers may only tell one side of the story. Statista.com pegs the value of the feminine hygiene products market at $5.9 billion, while Research and Markets put the figure at more than $9 billion in March last year. Why, then, did it take a pandemic for these startups to see such growth?
The greatest conversation
For many, the conversation and acceptance of this natural, biological process is still taboo, while for others the issues revolve around the lack of informed decisions. The issues of accessibility, availability and affordability of menstrual management products such as sanitary napkins, tampons, panty liners, menstrual cups are largely solved by rapid digitization and internet access, but the first part is more delicate.
“Informed choice is a very important element in the Menstrual Health Management (MHM) ecosystem. Informed choice is when a person making the choice to buy a product knows why they are buying it. Unfortunately, in a country like India, there is a lack of informed choice,” Modi says.
Pee Safe’s mantra for spreading the word and raising awareness has been to be vocal. The company currently sells its products in 25,000 stores across 150 cities in India and 10 countries. He also teamed up with celebrities and was the hygiene partner in Bollywood film Toilets: Ek Prem Katha.
Brands have also tried modern marketing methods, including digital and influencer marketing. For example, Sanfe tapped actor Radhika Apte to spread the word online, while Nua’s Vohra said the company hosts live chats with medical professionals through social media platforms and other experts in the field, and also writes articles on the subject.
Pee Safe’s Bagaria, however, points out that brands will need to “log out” after a certain point. “Only 12% of the Indian population shop online and the rest shop offline. For example, reaching online is good, but to build a sustainable business, you will need to go offline,” he adds.
Disconnecting involves having conversations that are largely avoided even today. TWC’s Parasher notes that the brand will need to engage with individuals “face to face,” teaching people how to wash their hands, how to use certain products and more. She says those conversations will have to take place offline or through virtual interactions.
For example, Modi notes that menstrual cups can be quite expensive for those who are not well off. “It’s easier to spend Rs 30 on a pack of pads than Rs 500 on a menstrual cup,” she adds. But even if financial capabilities outweigh sustainability concerns – how the product should be disposed of, etc. After all, you don’t really think about the planet when you worry about your next meal.
She points out, however, that cloth napkins are making a comeback, which means some want to make this conscious choice. Cloth pads are more eco-friendly because they are reusable and don’t use plastic like regular sanitary napkins.
Still, women from less privileged backgrounds were more open to trying menstrual cups than urban women. Many urban participants in Modi’s research said their mothers “wouldn’t allow” them to use menstrual cups. For his research, Modi spoke about menstrual cups to a wide range of women from Bhuj in Gujarat – across all age groups, married and unmarried.
“So it’s not a rural/urban divide here when it comes to awareness of menstrual health and products. There are other aspects, like patriarchy, that control the access of a woman to the products and these are transversal and intersectional”, explains Modi.
The issue of awareness and acceptance may be more important than access when it comes to feminine hygiene products. Like many women’s health organizations, Modi notes that a public policy approach is needed to raise awareness, starting with activists advocating for sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). Conversations, essentially, need to be built into the program and made routine and regular.
The end goal is to reach a point where “discreet packaging” is not the reason women buy these products online or offline. Sales numbers may continue to rise, but problems on the ground will persist unless we take the bull by the horns.
“There’s a lack of technology in rural areas and not enough accessibility, and they also don’t have the bandwidth to think about sustainability when thinking about their next meal. But I’ve seen urban women, who are working professionals, refuse to switch to menstrual cups,” she adds while emphasizing that the links between virginity and the use of menstrual cups need to be addressed.
During his research, Modi says he met women in Lucknow who were willing to switch to using menstrual cups because they saw it as a good money-saving alternative. And also, because they wouldn’t have to hide the product when going to the bathroom, she says.
Essentially, as Modi says, the conversation is much bigger than just which products to choose. Although there are videos online that can guide you on how to use a tampon or menstrual cup, and most products come with an instruction manual on how to use, remove , eliminate or clean up the product, there is more conversation and information sharing that needs to happen beyond the ads and celebrity connections.
“Thanks to brands and their presence on social networks, accessibility has increased, but not accessibility in terms of comfort and ease of use,” Modi points out.