Blood, sweat and cheers

Andrew Yin is an NTU student who makes sanitary pads in India so that the girls in the rural areas can go to school. And he himself missed a period… of school

By Derek Rodriguez
While studying for a double degree in Accountancy and Business in NTU, Andrew Yin took a leave of absence and packed his bags for India. His mission – to provide the girls of rural India with cheap sanitary pads.
A different mission

While my friends interned at banks and Big Four firms for their professional attachment, I chose to work for the World Toilet Organisation. While working there, I found out that in rural India, girls don’t go to school because they can’t afford sanitary pads. It was heartbreaking. My girlfriend was very affected by it, and together, we decided to do something about it.

Plants to pads

We wanted to create a sanitary napkin that was cheap and eco-friendly. That’s how we came up with the idea of using water hyacinth, which is abundant in India. It is soft, the fibres from its stem are highly absorbent, and it’s cheap. It ticked all the boxes. So we spent the next year and a half doing research and working towards creating something innovative that was also biodegradable.

Pun-ishing work

I’ve heard all the puns. Yes, it can be bloody exhausting. My female friends would say: “We experience this on a monthly basis and we’re not even making a big deal out of it. And you’re a guy!” I’d tell my girlfriend that making sanitary pads would help me score brownie points with her mum. But she didn’t think so (laughs).

Chance meeting

I met Sombodhi Ghosh, the founder of Aakar Innovations, a firm that makes sanitary pads in India, at a conference in Singapore. There aren’t many guys with an interest in sanitary pads, so we bonded over that! With my knowledge of water hyacinth and his existing technology, we saw the potential of collaborating and agreed to meet the next morning. Unfortunately, we forgot to establish a meeting time. So I went to his hotel at 7am. Two hours later, he finally came down and we talked. One week later, I was on top of a truck heading straight to a village.

Convincing the folks

Instead of finishing my studies and getting a cushy job, I took a sabbatical and went to India. I couldn’t speak the local language and my parents were very worried. My dad never sends me text messages, but when I was there, he’d frequently text to ask how I was doing. My mum needed some time. After I appeared in The Straits Times, however, she was convinced enough to support me.

Hearing my mum explain it to my aunts was hilarious. Speaking in Hokkien, she’d try to avoid saying “menstruation”. She kept saying “that once-a-month thing”.

Night pads

I turned my mum’s kitchen into my laboratory at night. Once, as I was midway through an experiment, dripping grape juice from a syringe onto a sanitary pad, my mum walked in. She stared at me in shock. It was the first time she saw me at “work”. I panicked and asked her: “Do you want some juice?” She said “no”.

India kickstarter

I did a mini fundraiser before going to India and raised over US$2,000. Without these funds, I wouldn’t have survived. I’m fortunate that my friends put in that vote of confidence. They saw how I struggled to bring this to fruition.

Narrow escape

In the first week I was there, I was almost mugged. I was in a taxi when it broke down in a dark alley. One of the two drivers demanded 10,000 rupees, so I gave it to him. He claimed I only handed over 1,000 rupees, so I passed him another 10,000 rupee note. He said the same thing again and started shouting. The other driver also raised his voice and came nearer. Luckily, a tuk-tuk came by and I quickly hopped on. It dawned on me then that I couldn’t take safety for granted and needed to look out for myself.

Changing lives

We have production units throughout India. I had the joy of setting one up from scratch. The village women were employed and trained to make the pads and distribute them to the schools. Around 100,000 pads have been distributed so far. I documented it all and, during an interview, was moved to learn from three young girls that we were changing their lives.

Back-end support

My girlfriend wasn’t ready to go over to India. She thought it was too risky and wanted to begin her career. She got involved by creating videos with the footage I took in India. Unfortunately, we’re not together anymore.

What’s in store?

Right now I have more of a supervisory role in the company. It’s tough because I’m in Singapore. In the meantime, I’ll continue looking out for investors and donors and doing publicity material. I recently won the Prezi competition, a global contest organised for university students who want to raise awareness and funds for a cause, and will go to the United States to talk to a large crowd of investors.

With the grandmother of some girls who benefited from our low-cost pads.
Click to enlarge