Q&A: Sanitary napkins to condoms - Heyday founder Kanoria pitches for biodegradable products

Deepanjali Kanoria was 24 when she quit her job as a financial consultant in New York and returned to India to pursue her dream of seeing her products on store shelves. She researched the FMCG sector and found the feminine hygiene segment ripe for disruption. Kanoria launched Heyday, a biodegradable sanitary napkin, in October 2017.

Handout photo of Deepanjali Kanoria.

Millions of women in India don’t have access to menstrual hygiene products (research suggests the percentage of women using sanitary pads ranges from 18 percent to 43 percent), with the $441 million market dominated by a few players such as Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and Unicharm Corporation.

Kanoria spoke to Reuters on why she launched an eco-friendly napkin, the challenges in a field where she says two-three companies corner 99 percent of market share, and why she is unable to source organic material from India.

Q: What’s wrong with the normal sanitary napkins that we find in the market?

A: Ninety percent of the products available in the market are carcinogenic. A lot of them say “cottony soft touch” but they can’t use the words “cotton”, “plant-based fibres” because they don’t use them. They use synthetics, things that shouldn’t be down there.

Q: How did you handle funding, research, and experimenting with materials?

A: I started doing ground-level research about industry and what’s working within the FMCG sector. And basic things like when you go into a departmental store, you’ll see 50 types of creams, you see biscuits of different varieties ... chocolate chip, banana, various kinds of sauces. But when you go into the sanitary napkin section, there’s two or three brands. I saw there was a problem.

Q: And what about the composition of these pads?

A: We wanted to be honest to our customers. So, we tell them that we have used corn and bamboo in our products. Each napkin is covered by a biodegradable film. It looks like plastic, but it is bio-plastic made of corn starch and polylactic acid. We have even shed the polythene bag to reduce the carbon footprint, and we have gone to paper boxes. The whole Heyday product is completely biodegradable.

Q: Including the little tape that holds together the packaging of individual napkins?

A: Yes. All of it. Even the glue is plant-based resin. That’s why it might not stick too well. A lot of people complained about it. We are working on that, trying to better the product. We have made it look exactly like a regular pad. It is an easy switch for the metropolitan woman. If you have a sloppy pad which is biodegradable, made from banana fibre etc but it doesn’t look pretty, then people don’t want to make that switch.

Q: What impact do non-biodegradable sanitary napkins have on the environment?

A: For the environment it is harmful. About 432 million pads are dumped in landfills in India itself (each year). That’s acres of land. Then when you see these landfills, your heart sinks. It is really sad that there is no source of decomposition for about 400-500 years. Our product can decompose within between six months to two years after disposal.

Q: Are there any other products you are working on?

A: We are bringing out two new products - baby diapers and panty liners.

Q: Where did the seed funding come from?

A: The funding was absolutely bootstrapped from my family fund - whatever I had saved to make ends meet - for the first lot that we wanted to bring out, like I told you, in the pilot project. Since then, we have broken even, I would say. It’s something that isn’t at least generating complete losses.

Q: Your product is manufactured in Finland and China. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to produce it in India?

A: It would be. So, the products are also organic. And organic is also a very loosely used term nowadays. What it essentially means is that no chemicals are used in the crop production of any raw material that goes into it. That’s very, very hard to achieve. For any piece of land to have no chemicals, it has to be kept away and kept completely bare of chemicals for almost a decade. So, no pesticides, no insecticides, no chemicals whatsoever. We couldn’t find anything here. The farmers who said they haven’t used any chemicals, the adjacent plot would have. It percolates into the soil. The boundary wall cannot separate your plot.

Q: The government launched a product called Suvidha earlier this year which is biodegradable and is available at a very low price - 10 rupees a pack. But it has not tried to make it mainstream. What do you think is the reason?

A: It is still covered in a plastic bag, and the pad is very sloppy. And it is not widely distributed. It has been created to be given out to women in rural areas. It is a great initiative, in a way that at least they are thinking of bringing about something that is biodegradable ... The government wants to bring about a biodegradable option, so that even when they start educating women, they don’t have to deal with the landfills. So, they are trying to bring a very cheap pad for the rural woman, but I don’t think you and I will see those ads because they are not focused towards the metros.

Q: Why the name Heyday?

A: Heyday basically means you’re at your prime, and we want to make every woman feel that she is at her prime despite being on her period. Also, to let go of the taboos associated with periods because when you are on your period, people often say you’re “down”. We want to say, “no, you’re not down, you’re doing great”. The big giants glamourise your periods, if you see the TV commercials. Wear white pants and jump, but you’re somewhere just holding a hot water bag and resting. We are appreciating the reality of things.

Q: Most female products are packaged in what is assumed as feminine fashion - pink, flowery and the like. You haven’t done that with Heyday.

A: We wanted it to be bright and spunky. You pick up a pack and you feel good. It doesn’t have to be pink or purple. We experimented with it and came up with something we all liked.

Q: Between the two types of napkins that are available presently, which one is doing better commercially?

A: The blue one, that is the Ultra Thin. The other one - Maxi Fluff is for women on heavier periods. There isn’t a very big difference but, yeah, we have seen that women are liking the Ultra Thin and it has sold more. Surprisingly, we thought the seven-packs will sell a lot more. Initially they did sell more, but soon after, the bigger packs started selling more because then we realized our buyers have converted.

Q: Do you have plans to make products like cups and tampons?

A: With tampons we researched but couldn’t get a plant-based applicator. We tried to develop the product, but we failed too many times. We are trying still, but not with the same force, because the tampon market in India is still very small. We are trying sexual products as well, like biodegradable condoms and lubricants.

Q: Everything about female menstruation is taboo in India. Starting from a conversation about it to buying the product. How do we get men to talk about and understand the basics of biology?

A: So, when we do our targeting even on social media, we do include men. A lot of men also buy our products for their loved ones. I think the conversation has already started long ago. It’s not like women lead isolated lives. Men are sensitive to women’s issues. Because it’s a taboo topic, it is something that is not mentioned. It is kind of disregarded in families in India because it is so hush-hush. But I think the youth are completely aware.

Editing by David Lalmalsawma; This story is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission.