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Meet the activist who was awarded for creating the first biodegradable and compostable sanitary napkin in India

Entrepreneur Kristin Kagetsu, who grew up in New York, always had the support of her mother who pushed her to try new things.

As a sophomore in high school, Kristin ran alongside students much older than her, for the role of co-captain of the first robotics team at her girls’ school. This experience gave her a taste of the world of engineering and instilled in her the value of promoting women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programs.

Prejudices, social norms and expectations contribute to the lack of representation of women in STEM across the world. Only 35% of STEM students in global higher education are women. Additionally, women make up only 28% of the STEM workforce.

“I’ve always been passionate about raising awareness and positive change, whether it’s sustainability, women in STEM, Asians in leadership, etc. “Kristin told Global Citizen.

Sustainability continues to be an anchor in the work that Kristin is dedicated to. Social enterprise co-founder and CEO Saathi has been named the 2022 Waislitz Global Citizen Grand Prize Winner and awarded $100,000 for her efforts to end extreme poverty by sustainably addressing lack of access to menstrual products in India. In addition to financial support, Kristin and the other two Waislitz Global Citizen Award winners will receive networking support to accelerate and scale their impact.

The award presented by the Waislitz Foundation and Global Citizen is supported by Mesoblast, a leading cellular drug company based in the United States and Australia.

Image: Kristin Kagetsu

Kristin launched Ahmedabad, India-based Saathi alongside Tarun Bothra. They are both the originators of the first (and only) compostable and biodegradable menstrual pads in India.

The ecological aspect in their work is paramount because, if all menstruating people in India used plastic-based sanitary napkins, it would create 1 million tonnes of waste per year. While Saathi sanitary napkins were designed to degrade in six months, disposable pads typically take between 500 and 800 years to break down. The plastic used to make them can also contribute to health and environmental issues.

“Tarun and I believe that our work with Saathi has the potential to disrupt current systems on many levels, from creating a sustainable manufacturing model that not only addresses waste, but also ethical sourcing and supply chains. supplies that can help reduce poverty,” said Kristin.

Saathi co-founders Kristin Kagetsu and Tarun Bothra at a meeting.Saathi co-founders Kristin Kagetsu and Tarun Bothra at a meeting.

It was a TED talk on the potential of engineering to positively impact the world by designer and engineer Amy Smith that inspired Kristin to study mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a university in world renown.

During her studies, she received real opportunities ranging from teaching entrepreneurship and leadership in China to developing a plastic and recycling system in Nicaragua. She also spent three months with a community in Uttarakhand, India, developing crayons (which are still sold today) made from all-natural dyes.

But after two years working for a large technology company, Kristin realized that this environment was not for her and that she wanted to return to India. A major award in a business plan competition for Saathi’s first version allowed him to move to India in 2014 where the business took off.

Saathi hosting a workshop for schoolgirls.
Image: Courtesy of Saathi

Co-founder Tarun’s interest in menstrual hygiene began at a young age. He started breaking taboos around menstruation while living in Jodhpur, Rajasthan at the age of seven. He didn’t understand why his mother had to isolate herself from the rest of the family during her period and thought it was unfair.

Menstruation is heavily stigmatized in India, where archaic traditions and beliefs help prevent menstruating people from participating in social and religious events, entering sacred spaces, and even cooking.

Only 12% of people who menstruate in India, where around 60% of the population lives in poverty, have access to menstrual products. Others use hazardous materials like rags and sawdust as an alternative. In rural areas of the country, nearly 23 million girls drop out of school every year because there is a lack of facilities and resources to manage their periods.

With a background in Mechanical Engineering from Nirma University (India) and a drive to give back to communities in need, Tarun joined Kristin in developing Saathi and promoting the company’s work in countries around the world. .

Saathi aims to solve social problems without compromising the bottom line and the planet. The company set out to revolutionize the hygiene industry by manufacturing sanitary napkins from sustainable renewable materials like banana and bamboo fibers that are safe for the body, the community and the environment. They remain accessible to all menstruating people and promote behavior change. Saathi directly helps end poverty using a model that tackles waste, ethical sourcing and supply chains. The brand also works with partners to ensure that its products are recycled.

“We want to create a sustainable and responsible manufacturing model that is designed for the circular economy and for a more just and sustainable future,” Kristin said.

Instead of producing disposable products and focusing on production, for these climate advocates, the circular economy understands reusing and recycling as much as possible as a crucial step towards saving the planet.

When Saathi was created, not everyone was on board with the company’s strategy. Menstrual taboos were still very much in place, and there was little support for menstrual products or openness to tackling plastic pollution, Kristin explained. Backing up their concept with data and research helped them overcome the obstacles they faced early on.

Kristin and Tarun remain committed to tackling with an intersectional approach the issues facing our society. Saathi measures their impact in line with UN Global Goal 9, for industry, innovation and infrastructure, by increasing farmers’ incomes, employing women, giving them access to sanitary pads and education, and by measuring plastic waste eliminated and CO2 emissions reduced.

One of the biggest challenges Saathi faces is that the changes the company would like to see will take time, such as reviewing the way all menstrual products are made. Kristin hopes Saathi can serve as a role model in sustainable manufacturing of menstrual products and can partner with others who share her vision for the future.

“Global citizenship means that we all have to take our share of responsibility for our impact on the world,” Kristin said. “That doesn’t mean our impact has to be global, local actions are just as important. »

While the UN has set the Global Goals, with a roadmap to end extreme poverty and its systemic causes, their achievement is up to ordinary citizens, she added. “We all share the same water, air and land, so whatever we do will eventually impact others. »

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