“Vagina is the centre of gravity of our business and our target is to dam all the vaginas in an eco-friendly way for a particular period every month.” This is not a monologue from Eve Ensler's 1996 classic 'The Vagina Monologues' but the business motto of a Thrissur-based couple.
Meet the 'V-couple' Rashmi and Rajesh Pisharody, first Keralites to set up a menstruation cup manufacturing unit to take on the basic concept of sanitary pads.
The couple, who owns Earth Care Solutions, a Rs 50-lakh turnover firm, proudly says 'V' doesn't stand for 'Victory' for them but 'Vagina' and that is the reason they named their product V-Cup, a small cup-shaped device made of silicone which is to be inserted into the vaginal canal to collect the menstrual fluid. Once full, you can remove, empty and re-insert it and the same can be used for years.
The couple had zeroed in on solid waste management as their area of interest after a lot of research but bleeding uterus was not a subject they mulled over before the company's launch.
The duo from Ashtamichira in Kerala's Thrissur district later shifted to Poonkunnam in the middle of Thrissur city, where they sowed the seeds of their business with a small vermicompost plant at their home. This was their testing ground before launching Earth Care Solutions. While most of the biodegradable kitchen and household waste they processed in the plant, the biggest challenge for them was used sanitary pads. Burning them in the courtyard disturbed the neighbours. So, the first lesson for the future entrepreneurs was Stayfree, Carefree, Whisper, She … all posed a challenge to their idea of establishing an eco-friendly solid waste management firm.
Rajesh and his friends in 2014 set up the company, which supplies vermicompost and other bio-waste management infrastructure to panchayats, residential associations and corporate offices.
Here also, used sanitary pads caused cramps for the company. Because, the workers operating the waste management plant refused to handle used menstrual pads. They couldn't blame the labourers for showing reluctance to handle stinking sanitary pads that block pipeways. The only solution was to propagate an effective alternative to pads.
On International Women's Day, Rashmi and Rajesh, a chemistry postgraduate, discussed with Onmanorama their chemistry and the biology of menstruation without making any tall claims about their revolutionary step in a literate state where talking about periods is taboo.
It was Rashmi who desperately wanted an eco-friendly, reusable menstrual sanitary option as she herself was against the use of pads. Her search ended with menstrual cups, which were popular abroad. She first bought a cup in 2014. “I was initially nervous to push this foreign object into my body. But I knew it is effective and eco-friendly. I was very much satisfied with the results. I suggested menstrual cups to my sister, cousins and friends. Rajesh and I volunteered to get this for all of them. Though we spotted a business idea in it, we were ignorant about manufacturing, marketing and other aspects of it,” says Rashmi.
The couple, who has a 10-year-old son, purchased 100 cups from China as a trial run. All of them were sold out within days. Word of mouth publicity brought in more orders for them. Soon, they started manufacturing the cups in India.
The couple and their partners Mukundan and Praveen discussed a lot about a name for their new commercial product. It was Rajesh who came up with 'V-cup'. “V denotes vagina. 'V' stands for a victory over taboos and stigma. It also means unity. Moreover, the alphabet V resembles the shape of menstrual cups,” explains Rajesh.
It wasn't an easy task to sensitize people about menstrual hygiene and safety. Rashmi and Rajesh traveled to several educational institutions across Kerala and conducted workshops to spread awareness on free and safe menstruation. “Every workshop starts with sheer reluctance among participants to even look at each other. By the end, we ensure that the participants get a clear picture about their own anatomy and need of safe sanitary practices,” adds Rashmi.
“Menstruation begins at an age when girls are ill-equipped to take a decision on their own. They copy menstrual habits from their elders. So it is always better to sensitize the adults about safe practices,” elaborates Rajesh.
Menstrual cups are made of silicone, an eco-friendly material as compared to fiber and plastic. The fact that a cup lasts for six to eight years is the biggest advantage for Rashmi. “I have been using my device for four years now. I can't imagine the volume of cotton and gel-based pads I would have burnt till date if I had not switched over to cups. It is a long-time investment,” she adds.
According to a survey conducted by the company, the cups are most popular among young women employed in corporate sector. Still, the company is not ready to go for an advertisement campaign to promote the product.
“No advertisements and no workshops will lead to the purchase of a menstrual safety product. This is the reason why most of such products are sold through chain marketing. Word of mouth publicity is the best way for selling such products. My friends and I talk to our customers about our personal experiences and give ample instructions,” Rashmi reveals her business strategy.
Rashmi says several school and college teachers have opted for menstrual cups but they hesitate to discuss it with their students.
The couple also answered a few questions about the product.
Does the cup break the hymen?
A: Menstrual cups are insertive devices. There are chances of it breaking the hymen. But, does that actually matter? Cycling, swimming and sports activities also can break the hymen. Menstrual cup is just one among those reasons. So, it isn't the hymen that matters but the taboo. That needs to be deconstructed.
Does the insertion hurt?
A: Cup is an independent sanitary option. It is cent per cent leak proof if worn correctly and is comfortable to wear. Though you may take a couple of cycles to get used to it, it will soon be part of your body. Cups are available in medium and large sizes. Inserting the cup doesn't hurt if you opt for the correct size.
What is the chance of the cup going into the uterus by external force?
A: No. The pelvic bone is designed in a way to prevent foreign bodies entering uterus without a deliberate force. A cup won't go into the uterus and the menstrual blood also won't flow back to uterus.
What about infections?
A: Menstrual cups do not cause any infection on its own. It is far healthier than the gel-based sanitary pads. Menstrual cups should be cleaned in a disinfectant before and after each use.
V-Cup also faces competition from another brand which also started producing the cups in India. The company is sourcing material from Ahmedabad and Bombay for making the cup of hope for women.