Can New-Age Menstrual Hygiene Brands Reach Rural India?

Even today, only less than 20% of women have access to sanitary pads

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India's feminine hygiene products industry is undergoing a huge transformation. Dominated by P&G and Johnson & Johnson till now, with 90 per cent market share, the space is now witnessing the entry of many new-age brands such as Nua, Carmesi, The Wonder Box, Pee Safe, SheWings and others.

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There is an increased awareness today about intimate hygiene and the need to use the right menstrual product. These startups have been cashing on the opportunity and claim to offer chemical-free and skin-friendly products at pocket-friendly rates. They are also finding takers in tier 2 cities. "Whether it's tier 1 or tier 2, we have noticed a major shift in consumer behavior. Women are making informed decisions before buying a product. They want to be certain whether a particular product is solving their problem or not. 50% of our orders come from smaller towns. We serve more than 25 thousand pin codes across India," Ravi Ramachandran, founder and CEO, Nua told Entrepreneur India.

The feminine hygiene products market is forecast to register a CAGR of 16.18% during the forecast period 2020-2025, says the Mordor Intelligence report.

However, rural areas still do not seem to constitute a significant part of the consumer segment for the new-age brands as well. Menstrual health is still a far cry in India's villages. Can these new-age startups leverage technology and product innovation to change the same?

The Rural Reach

For Pee Safe, the total consumers constitute 85% from urban areas and the remaining 15% from rural areas. Vikas Bagaria, founder, Pee Safe tells us that he has observed a lot of hesitation around the adoption of menstrual products including sanitary napkins and menstrual cups. "This stems from a lack of knowledge and awareness around the topic," he said.

"While we receive a lot of orders from tier 2 cities, the demand from tier 3 cities, small towns and rural areas would take time. It will require a major shift in mindset, societal norms and Sirona is working towards that," said Deep Bajaj, CEO and co-founder of Sirona Hygiene.

Operating in the feminine intimate and menstrual hygiene space comes with the main challenge of acceptance of the problem for these brands. "We started by bringing to the fore the intimate, menstrual and toilet hygiene issues women have been facing silently. We worked on spreading awareness about countering these issues with best hygiene practices and period alternatives. While a few years earlier it was all about using clean pads for one's safety and hygiene, now, the dialogue has evolved to consider their health, wellness and comfort as well as economic and environmental implications," Bajaj added.

For Avni, a menstrual healthcare brand that claims to focus on creating products that are chemical-free, skin-friendly and environment friendly, about 95% of its consumers are from urban areas and only 5% are from rural areas so far.

For The Fearless Gurl (TFG), a startup that offers The Wonder Box, menstruation wellness and happiness kit for women with products like multivitamins shot, cramp relief cream, intimate wash, emergency period pouch with pad or tampon, the urban to rural ratio is around 70:30 currently. "We aim to increase it to 50:50 in the near future. The product is showing traction and gaining popularity amongst the small towns and rural areas as well. The pocket-friendly rates are also encouraging women to try the kit and use it going forward on a subscription basis," said Tulika Mehrotra, founder-director, TFG Care India, while adding that their products are sourced from SME entrepreneurs and local stores.

Initiatives To Capture The Rural Market

Even today, only less than 20% of women have access to sanitary pads. These new-age brands are claiming to take initiatives to democratize the access of female hygiene products and thereby capture a huge untouched rural market. According to IBEF, the rural FMCG market is anticipated to expand at a CAGR of 17.41 per cent to $ 100 billion during 2009–25.

Prince Kapoor, cofounder, Plush, believes that consumers want a better product and should they experience it they rarely have reservations in using it again. "The onus is on a brand like us that's challenging incumbents to make sure we have a lot more consumers trying out their products," he said.

Pee Safe started an initiative with Raho Safe recently to aid the current situation of menstrual hygiene in India by spreading awareness and educating women about the importance of menstrual hygiene. "We are focused to fight the taboos and stigma around menstruation that still exist in developing countries like India. Having catered to more than 30000 menstruators in a span of 10 months, with the same spirit, we wish to eradicate period poverty in the country. So far, we have distributed over 250K menstrual products, reached out to female inmates and sex workers, covered over 50 cities through 150+ MHM (menstrual hygiene manual) sessions, among other things," said Pee Safe's Bagaria.

The increased internet penetration has also paved the way for these brands to unleash the huge potential in rural India. These brands are using extensive social media marketing on platforms like Facebook & Instagram to reach the rural and semi-urban population by specifically targeting them through ads. They also engage influencers/ bloggers mostly followed by rural/semi-urban population. "Our focus has been on creating a meaningful dialogue with women to discuss their wellness issues, along with thought-through content that is well-researched. Creating a safe space for women to talk about things that have historically been pushed under the carpet, but in a way that is not intimidating nor intrusive, has helped us in building a strong brand pull," said Nua's Ramachandran.

Some menstrual hygiene startups have also been collaborating with NGOs as part of their CSR programs to deliver pads to rural women and women from low-income groups in urban India. For instance, recently, in collaboration with The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, Maharashtra State Innovation Society, YWater India, and the Navi Mumbai hub of the Global Shapers Community, Nua launched Project Prerna to supply 300,000 pads to 30,000 women in the low-income neighborhoods of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.

Long Way To Go

Even though these new-age brands are trying to challenge the legacy players, it still seems to be a minuscule contribution only. The taboo around menstruation on one hand and pricing on the other (10 pads cost 100-300) is still a challenge.

Sujata Pawar, co-founder and CEO, Avni, believes that one key hindrance in bringing about change in the rural society is that over the years commercial companies have demonized cloth-based pads. "On the contrary to the popular opinion, there is no other product that is better than these traditional ones. One might be surprised that traditional Indian menstrual care practices were probably the best for women's health. Today, it appears like a U-turn when we say that the most affordable and healthy way to manage periods is to do it the traditional way," she said.

It is also time people in urban and rural areas started talking about menstruation "Period education should be included in the school curriculum; knowing the reason for menstruation will help eradicate the belief of impurity about periods. Educating men about the importance of menstrual health and how to take care of female health in their family will go a long way," said Mehrotra.