For years, Tanvi Johri, a business school graduate from New Delhi, had suffered allergies and chaffing rashes caused by the regular sanitary napkins available in the market.
So, when she decided to turn entrepreneur in 2016, she chose to not just find a solution to this problem faced by millions of Indian women, but also deliver it to their homes.
The result was Carmesi, a New Delhi-based company that manufactures all-natural sanitary pads made of cornstarch and bamboo fibre, which was launched in November 2017.
The company has over 5,000 customers today, who place orders on Carmesi’s website and elsewhere on a monthly basis. Its customer base has been growing 30% month-on-month, according to Johri, and the firm has now raised an undisclosed amount from five angel investors.
The most unique aspect of Carmesi is its subscription-based delivery model, which Johri hopes will make feminine hygiene a habit for Indian women.
Reforming sanitary pads
Menstrual hygiene is still mostly a taboo subject in India. So much so that the lack of a sensitive support system often forces girls to drop out of school on attaining puberty. And while sanitary napkins are fast replacing disconcerting fixes like old rags, ash, newspapers, and sand in urban India, these products aren’t devoid of problems either.
Firstly, they are expensive, mainly because they come under the 12% tax bracket. But even among those who can afford them, pads often cause untold physical discomfort. This is because most brands of sanitary napkins are loaded with plastics and chemicals known to cause infections, ovarian and cervical cancers, and even heart diseases. Then there is the additional problem of their disposal.
All this is aggravated by a sort of socio-cultural omerta.
So, as she set forth with Carmesi, Johri and her partner Rikshav Borah had their task cut out. ”What we wanted to do was launch an organic product on the first day but we were a bootstrapped company and couldn’t meet the minimum order to sustain that,” Johri told Quartz.
A chemistry graduate from Delhi University and MBA from the International Management Institute, she had for less than a year at travel bookings startup WeAreHolidays and deals portal Nearbuy.
When she and Borah launched Carmesi, they decided to plough in their personal savings for a smooth takeoff.
“We first created synthetic pads with soft top sheets which were better than the current pads in the market. We ran this for eight to nine months before launching the fully-biodegradable ones.”
It took the duo a year to develop and launch their current product.
Carmesi now home-delivers its sanitary napkins on a quarterly basis, supplying 10 pads per month. The dates of delivery can be customised for those with irregular periods, and those with heavy flows can opt to have multiple packs delivered together.
Over three-quarters of its subscriber base comprises working women aged between 24 and 36 years. “This is the age when women start working and exploring better options, have their own disposable income,” Johri said.
These biodegradable pads do not contain gels, chemicals, or synthetic fibres that cause irritation and diseases. Unlike other mass-market products, they also don’t contain chlorine bleach which can create toxic dioxins.
Now the company wants to make even its packaging eco-friendly, to ensure better disposal, a major privacy, hygiene, and environmental concern in India’s $414 million sanitary napkin market.
For instance, a study in Bihar, the northern state with a population surpassing 100 million, found that 60% of women disposed of their sanitary waste in the open—often in an open defecation ground. India produces nearly 113,000 tonnes of menstrual waste annually.
In recent years, though, the country has seen the emergence of many eco-friendly options in the category. This can be attributed to social media campaigns, public health promotions, and commercial advertising.
Even the Indian government has taken steps like the Suvidha initiative to make biodegradable sanitary pads available at Rs2.50 ($0.038) per piece at over 3,200 centres across the country.
But the market is still nascent, experts believe.
“There are perhaps 10 reusable-pad makers in India today…Investment is needed to generate awareness and make these products available in mainstream shops and outlets,” said Anju Bist, programme co-director at Amrita SeRVe, who created the banana fibre-based reusable Saukhyam Pads.
While Carmesi sells mostly through its own website, it is also available on Amazon, Flipkart, Nykaa, and Burpple.
The company may also soon start selling at niche brick-and-mortar stores like Nature’s Basket and Le Marche, Johri adds, Carmesi’s prices just aren’t competitive enough for the mass market.
“The conventional brands are giants in the distribution model. Even if we try, we can never beat them,” said Johri. Typically, sanitary napkins cost between Rs5 and Rs12 per pad, compared to Carmesi’s Rs25, even with an annual subscription.
Justifying the steep price, Johri reasons, ”When buying a body wash or face wash, we do not think twice and buy a Forest Essentials which is five to six times more expensive than a Nivea or Palmolive. Why? Because we’re concerned about what we’re putting on our skin.”