PEE IN PEACE

Startups are out to save Indian women from the horrors of public toilets

Quartz india
Quartz india

For most Indians, visiting a public toilet is a nightmare.

While rural India suffers a dire lack of safe and clean sanitation facilities, the country’s urban areas aren’t any better. Brave souls often contend with leaky or dysfunctional plumbing, besides outright filth. And whether at the workplace or on the go, it’s Indian women who struggle the most, forced into uncomfortable contortions to avoid physical contact—the alternative being to just hold it till they get home.

In recent years, however, a nascent industry has emerged to offer a variety of solutions to tackle India’s public lavatories and urinals.

Using design and even basic science, unique products are making their use a breeze. From a funnel-inspired contraption that helps women avoid that awkward hovering pose to a portable toilet sanitiser spray, startups are helping women in need.

Safe, not sorry

On a road trip from Delhi to Gujarat in 2014, Vikas Bagaria’s wife Srijana contracted a urinary tract infection. That made the couple notice the glaring need for a portable toilet sanitiser in India.

“While there are all sorts of disinfectants or toilet cleaners available in the market, none is portable and meant for the toilet seat,” Bagaria told Quartz. In 2012, Mumbai-based Asian Aerosol did launch Elavo, a toilet seat sanitiser, but it’s mostly unavailable today. So, in 2015, the couple decided to launch PeeSafe, an isopropyl alcohol (IPA)-based spray that kills the bacteria in toilets.

The formula is simple, with ingredients that include IPA and propellants butane, isobutane, and propane, and certified by a government-backed testing lab, Bagaria said. A 40ml can of PeeSafe sells for Rs120 and is available at pharmacies and modern-trade stores in 10 cities across India, besides on e-commerce websites such as Amazon. “It was all about packaging it and making it accessible to users,” he added.

So far, Redcliffe Hygiene, the parent company promoted by Bagaria, had sold around 2,00,000 units of PeeSafe. And though the product is unisex, it’s bought mostly by women.

The idea for Pee-Buddy, too, came up during a road trip. During this one, in 2013, Deep Bajaj’s wife and her friends struggled to find clean toilets. Bajaj, with his event management background, had long understood the difficulties women faced during concerts or fashion shows. But it wasn’t until someone on the trip joked about using a bottle that an unconventional solution presented itself to him.

In 2014, Bajaj and co-founders Mohit Bajaj and Deepak Thareja founded First Step Digital, and a year later, after experimenting with some 40 different designs, they patented an idea for India’s first “female urination device,” called Pee-Buddy. The device lets women avoid sitting on dirty toilets. Made of coated paper, the disposable, bright green, funnel-like product was designed to be used while standing up, and was priced at Rs375 for a box of 20.

But it wasn’t easy to get it to customers initially.

“Stores were a little hesitant,” Bajaj told Quartz, noting that the social taboo surrounding women’s intimate affairs, and the word “pee” in the product name meant that retailers weren’t keen on stocking the product. So, the company switched tack and approached doctors instead, knowing that its product could be useful for pregnant women or those suffering from arthritis.

That strategy paid off. Since then, First Step Digital has sold around 500,000 units of PeeBuddy, both online and through retail stores, which eventually warmed up to the product. Now, it has branched out to other products such as wet wipes and even a herbal period pain-relief patch, targeting other problems women face. “We’re trying to build a solutions company in the women’s intimate hygiene space,” Bajaj explained.

Investor interest is kicking in. While Pee-Buddy was bootstrapped through its initial years, it raised Rs2.96 crore in a pre-Series A funding from the Indian Angel Network in March. Redcliffe Hygiene, meanwhile, managed to raise around Rs6.4 crore from various investors last month. Bagaria now plans to expand PeeSafe’s reach to even international markets.

But India is still a country where some 60% of the population doesn’t have access to toilets. Poor sanitation is an even bigger problem for women from low-income groups, and they’re likely to find products such as Pee-Buddy and PeeSafe out of reach.

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