In today’s episode, I have a fascinating conversation with Ira Guha who is the founder of Asan. Asan is a social venture with a mission to eradicate period poverty, which prevents women and girls across the world from participating in essential daily activities (Including going to school and work).
In our conversation, we talk about the impact of period poverty and how Asan cup’s accessibility has the ability to impact the lives and empower the women who use them. We also discuss the seemingly taboo subject of women’s health, especially relating to periods, and how the social shifts we have made towards sustainability globally have made an impact on the future of menstrual products.
To find out more about Asan, head over to their website and Instagram page. To connect with Ira and find out about the impact that Asan is making within the many communities that they have partnered with, connect with her on LinkedIn.
Unlock exclusive content and access to our podcast while supporting our show, how is that possible? Become a Narrative of Purpose patreon at patreon.com/noppodcast
Hello and welcome to a new episode of Narratives of Purpose, a place for conversations with inspiring leaders that is all about amplifying social impact. I bring you unique stories of changemakers, stories of people who are contributing to make a difference in society. By showcasing these individual journeys I would like to inspire you to take action if you are tuning in for the first time. My name is Claire Murigande, I am your host on this podcast. In today's episode, I am welcoming a new guest, her name is Ira Guha. Ira is based in London, she is the founder of Asan, a social venture with a mission to eradicate period poverty, which prevents women and girls across the world from participating in essential daily activities, such as going to school and work. In our discussion Ira talks about how she and her team designed a very easy to use menstrual cup that can be safely reused for 10 years, and therefore eliminating over 2500 sanitary pads or tampons. Please take a moment to rate and review our show wherever you listen to your podcasts. This will help other listeners find Narratives of Purpose and further amplify the stories of change we bring on our show. For now, let's get into the fascinating conversation with Ira.
Ira, welcome to the podcast. How are you today?
I am very well. It's lovely to be here, thank you Claire.
It's absolutely a great pleasure to have you, and just a bit of background for our listeners; A few episodes back, I was asking some of my guests, who they would like to hear on this podcast... whose story they think is also very impactful, and you were actually mentioned by my previous guests, so to our audience, if they want to listen again to those episodes, it was with the founders of Miyara Health - about women's health. So they recommended that I reach out to you and here we are today. So thank you for joining me. You are the founder of Asan Cup, and if I could narrow it down to a few words, you're basically fighting period poverty. Now before we jump into that, I'd like you to please introduce yourself to our listeners, what would you like them to know about you?
So my name is Ira Guha and I am originally from Bangalore in South India. I moved to the UK when I was 18 for university, but I've been going home to India a lot over the past couple of years. And my startup Asan, Asan means easy in many languages in Hindi, also Persian maybe in your language. Asan's mission is to really make periods easy for everyone across the world, no matter where they're from, no matter what that income is. So we designed and patented an innovative reusable menstrual cup called the Asan cup, and every Asan cup we sell, we donate one for free to someone in rural India who can't afford period care. So our mission is to eradicate period poverty and also tampon waste, because one Asan cup cuts out the waste of 2500 pads or tampons. And for those of us who can afford period products, billions of pads and tampons are being flushed or going into the oceans every year. And in addition to period poverty, this is a big issue that Asan is trying to address.
So before you tell me more about the cup, tell me about how it all started, how did you begin your entrepreneurial venture with your startup? What led you to create Asan?
Yes, I think like many entrepreneurs, I did not seek out to build a business or be an entrepreneur at all. I was just interested in a problem and trying to solve that problem. So it started when in 2017, I was back home in Bangalore and actually a cook who was working in my mom's house had stopped coming to work. And my mom asked me to follow up with her and find out what was wrong or if she was sick. And when I contacted her, I was shocked to find out that she wasn't ill. She just had a period. She was using really low quality pads that had given her terrible rashes and a UTI. So I said to her, "Can you show me these pads?" and when she showed them to me I was shocked because they were so thick and uncomfortable. I wouldn't want to use them and she shared with me that actually with these low cost sanitary pads becoming available to many women in her community, they were so uncomfortable that many women were actually throwing them away and going back to cloth rags. So at the time, I showed her my menstrual cup, which I was using, and I explained how it works. And I asked her if she would be open to trying it and she was. So I gifted her a menstrual cup from the UK, and she took to it like this; Immediately she was able to do all her tasks at work, and she was comfortable. And she asked me, "Can you bring back some more for my nieces and for my sister?" and it just spiralled from there and every time I was going home, I was literally expending £300 pounds on 10 menstrual cups, it didn't make any sense. Fast forward a couple of years, I was working in the private sector in London and that wasn't a good fit for me and I had quit my job and I was doing a master's in Public Policy at Harvard. And I spoke to a professor there about this work I was doing with menstrual cups in India. And could we do something meaningful out of this? And the two problems we wanted to work on was 1) Designing a better menstrual cup, because I think there hasn't been innovation in the space for some time, and we wanted to make a menstrual cup that was actually really accessible and easy to insert and remove. And the second problem was actually how to make menstrual cups affordable and accessible for people in rural areas, or from low income backgrounds who might not even know that the option of menstrual cups exists. And that's how Asan was born; we designed the Asan cup at the Harvard innovation lab to be the easiest menstrual cup to insert and remove. And then I moved back home to India to work with a local charity on distribution in rural areas and we learned quite quickly that, while it was an incredibly life changing product, the women couldn't afford it, even if we were to sell it at cost. And we also realised there was so much demand for our product among those who could afford it. And that's how the one-for-one donations was born. So sending it to people like you or others who might need a really high quality menstrual cup anywhere in the world. And that allows us to finance the donations for people who can't afford it.
That's a good explanation, because I was wondering, when you're explaining, you want to make it more affordable, but still, because you've improved the product, I would assume that the prices would be more than what you find currently on the market. So you solve that by doing this one-one donations, correct?
Exactly. So the Asan cup is still really affordable, because it replaces the waste of pads and tampons. So even if you look at a woman in Switzerland or the UK you are spending upwards of £1000 on pads and tampons in just a couple of years. And the Asan cup costs £25, and it's gonna last you a decade. So it is still a cost saving even for a higher income person who buys it. But the really amazing thing about our model is, when we sell the Asan cup for £25, we're actually baking in the cost of donating one for free as well.
So you mentioned something about improving the product and making it different from what's on the market. And I was also checking your website and it does say that it's the highest quality. And I don't know if it's the best, maybe you can tell me more about that. What is particularly special with your cup that makes it stand out from the rest of the cups on the market?
So I think just from a product design perspective, the first thing that we did was we bought the highest quality period cups available in Scandinavia in the US, and we tested them. We had a user group, both in India and in the US who were testing the products and they were giving us really detailed feedback. And just trying to understand, what are the difficulties in using menstrual cups and a couple of things we found. Number one, a really big problem was removal. You know, I myself have a high cervix so I related to this, when you insert a cup, it can actually go quite high up and it can be quite difficult to remove after a couple of hours. So at Asan, we actually put a removal ring on the cup, which makes it really easy to locate almost like a tampon, the ring means you can pull it down much, much more easily, so that was the first innovation. The second thing that we found was around sizing. So menstrual cup sizing is incredibly complicated and confusing. If you go on any sort of manufacturer's website, they'll say "Measure the height of your cervix. Have you given birth or not?" And it's a lot of language that's not actually very accessible to people, because even here in the UK, a lot of people don't know what a cervix is or how to measure it, let alone in a village in India. Certainly they don't know how to measure their cervix and we worked with gynaecologists on this and what we learned was the single most important factor in menstrual cup sizing is actually your flow. Just like with pads or tampons; Do you have light flow? Do you have moderate flow? Do you have a heavy flow? So we actually changed the sizing completely and we designed a menstrual cup for light flow and a menstrual cup for heavy flow. So you could be a teenager, you could be a mom of three kids, it doesn't matter just go based on your flow. And that, again, is a simple, easy, accessible language that anyone can understand. If you change your cloth or your pad, you know more often, say every five hours because you have a very heavy flow, then you should go for the heavy flow cup, it's really simple language. And then there were a couple of other design tweaks we made, for example, we learnt that people were very unhappy with their menstrual cup becoming discoloured over time. So we made our cup red, because that's the kind of period so I'd never discolours. So you know, small things like that make the design leak proof. But a lot of thought and engineering actually went into this and also a lot of trial. The Asan cup we have today is the fourth version, because we would make a cup, have people try it out, give us really detailed feedback, and then tweak it. And we only really stopped the design once we were completely confident that it was the best menstrual cup out there. And also very happy to say, in July, so a couple of months ago, the Evening Standard, which is, you know, a really popular newspaper in the UK, their reviewer personally tried and tested 10 global menstrual cup brands and ranked them and found Asan to be the best. So that was awesome!
Oh, really? Congratulations.
Yeah. Thank you.
That's amazing. And out of curiosity, how long did that product development process last? I mean, from the first product they put out up until now the version you have you say you're happy with?
It took about a year and a half. Because at the very beginning, we were working in the Harvard Innovation Lab, it's kind of like a design studio, and they have 3D printers. So I was working with an engineer to just 3D print different products and see what we thought of the design, different shapes of the ring. But our product is made from class six medical grade silicone, it's the same material that goes into heart stents, and you can't 3D print that material obviously. That takes actual injection moulding. So we 3D printed for about six months and then we actually started working on the real material and making some temporary moulds. And it took another year or so to go through all the different designs. And then once we had our design, we started applying for IP and patents and things like that.
And there's one thing I like to talk about as well on the podcast is the impact of startups or foundations that entrepreneurs come on the show to talk about. And my question to you in terms of impact. I'd like to understand how many lives or at least how many people you've been able to reach in rural India? Because my understanding is you first start in India, but your objective is to go worldwide at some point. So what is your impact there in terms of the lives you've changed? And on another subject as well... Because not only in India, but even here, I can relate being in Switzerland probably also you in the UK or when you were in Harvard, periods still are a taboo subject just like menopause, anything almost related to women's health. I guess it's another topic. But you know, what is your role there with Asan in advancing the awareness and the discussions on this topic?
They're really good questions. And in terms of the number of lives, we have more than 30,000 active Asan users at the moment, the majority of whom are actually in rural India. And we were completely sort of bootstrapped to date. But we are now sort of in a growth and scaling phase of our company and in the next five years, our vision is to have completely transformed the lives of at least 1 million low income women and girls across the world. And when I say transformed lives, the reason I say that is because of period poverty and not accessing products, it's really not just about a solution for your period. It's about empowering people to take part in essential daily activities like going to school and going to work and even doing housework that they are currently unable to do during that period. And estimates say something like $87 billion is lost in GDP just in India, because of period poverty because of women and girls not participating fully during their period. And this is something I really relate to, because in the villages that Asan works in, we can see that an average of two to three days are lost every single period because you don't leave the house, you skip school, if you have an exam, you might even miss it. Right. So it's really about economic empowerment, when we think about impact. And then on your second question about taboos I really appreciate the fact that you said that taboos exist in every society, in rural India, in urban India, in Switzerland in the US, there are just different kinds of taboos around period. And something that was really important to me as a founder and being open about the work we were doing and breaking the taboo was to be very bold with our brand and our packaging. So if anyone has a look at the Asan packaging, it is brightly coloured, it's bright pinks, bright reds, bright yellow, if you go on our Instagram we are literally shouting from the rooftops, about periods in the boldest and brightest way possible. And the reason for that is because if you think of period care as a category, it's always pale blue and pale pink, because it's about being discreet, and hiding in a corner and being ashamed of your period and I completely disagree with all of that. I actually just think periods are a practical fact of life.
Exactly. And actually, without periods, there's no life - So why shame it? Or why hide it?
Exactly. You're so right. It's just normal, it's just life. And that's why we want to be bold, and we want to be proud. The only other thing I would say when it comes to taboos is that it's really important to also respect where other people are coming from. And it's not on me as the founder of Asan to tell other women or people from different backgrounds what they should and shouldn't do during their period. And I know that there are a million different cultural differences of things we do in our period. In some cultures, people don't cook, in some cultures, people don't even go to a place of worship. And I don't practice that and maybe I don't agree with it. That said, I come from a city, my first language is English. I just don't believe that it's my responsibility to change the way other people behave in every case. So again, something that we feel very strongly about at Asan is saying to people, "Look, this is a product that really works for us. For our team personally, it's been so life changing for us, we'd love to give you the opportunity to try it if you're open to it." But there's no sort of conversation of, "You have to use this'' or "You have to behave in a certain way." It's just empowering people with information and access to a great product. And in terms of the impact, what we really find when we work in a rural context is the amazing thing about the Asan cup is how discreet it is. So if you're using cloth rags, you'd have to scrub them and hang them up to dry and other people might see that and there's a lot of shame associated with that. And similarly, with pads, you might have to ask a family member for money, or you might have to travel somewhere to buy the pads, when you're disposing of them, that's very public, you might have to burn them. So the amazing thing about the Asan cup is so tiny, and it's just so personal, it's just for you. And we actually have a few villages in Karnataka where the women call it 'magical cup'. And it's magical, because it almost erases your period, no one knows you're on your period. And that's what they love about it. So I think in terms of taboos, it's also quite empowering that it sort of removes that taboo of the period, because no one knows when you're menstruating. And it's up to you to share that if you want to share it.
Wow, that's impressive. And you talked about also expanding and having broader reach. So right now you're in India, can you tell me about which regions you're covering? And looking forward, what is your outlook? And do you have specific partners? How do you want to do this when you grow Asan?
so Asan has obviously two sides to our organisation, we have the commercial side, which is where we sort of sell the Asan cup. And then we have the social impact side, which is donations and partnerships with foundations. So at the moment, our more commercial side, our sales are UK, Europe and India, and our social impact has been completely in India. For example, I'm from Karnataka, it's a state that I understand well, we have amazing partners doing really, really thorough work there. And when we distribute the Asan cup, it's really not about just giving people a product, because there's so much training and education that goes into how to safely use the Asan cup. And there's so much effort that goes into follow ups, because our target, which we always had, is that 90% of a community should be able to safely use the Asan cup. And it doesn't happen overnight. It takes a lot of effort and training and education. We have a six month behavioural change model. And because of this education component, we are very careful about who we work with because every day we have organisations reaching out to us who are happy to sponsor Asan cups, they don't need the donations. But if they don't have the capacity or the capability to do that education and monitoring and following up, we don't end up partnering together because my worst nightmare as a founder is an Asan cup lying on a shelf unused, because the person didn't receive the right education or doesn't feel confident enough to try it. In terms of expansion, the number one challenge is we want to scale, of course, we want to eradicate period poverty. That is a huge mission: there's a billion women and girls across the world who need access to a product like this, but we also want to scale in an extremely sustainable and authentic way where we know that everybody who we're reaching is really able to have all the information that they need to safely use the product. So we are actually establishing some partnerships outside of India as we speak. But again, they are with organisations who have very deep roots in a certain community. So we tend not to work when, say, volunteer networks where someone lives in a city, but then they just travelled to a village and do some kind of social work and then travelled back to the city because for us, it's very important that the trainers and project managers of any project are actually embedded within their community and come from that community. So even if we look for a partner in, say, Kenya, or a partner in Uganda or any other country, the first thing we will analyse is, "Is your team actually embedded within this community? And can you give them the correct education and follow up for the next six months, or one year or three years, however long it will take?" And if we feel confident that that is being met, then we would love to partner with you.
You talked about a programme, so I wrote down 'training, education, follow up'. Can you describe that a bit? How long does it take? And do you have people within the Asan team, or as you were saying before, is it the organisations you're working with, who do this work?
Yeah so we call it the Asan behavioural change framework, which we've come up with, after a lot of practice and trying and testing different methods, I would say it usually takes six months, but it could definitely be a little longer or a little shorter, depending on the community's response. But how our behavioural change programme works is, we start really, really small to build trust with the community. So we actually start with maybe just 10 or 20 women, and they are usually change makers or influencers within a community. So they could be the staff of the charity, or NGO who they were partnering with. Or they could be maybe school teachers, or nurses who live in that community who are quite influential in changing behaviours. And we have a really small group. And what we do is, we conduct the Asan team, conduct training for them, where we... Again, we always come from a space of "Our team has made this product we are using it, would you like to try it?" and maybe out of the 20, only 15 want to try it, and that's fine, but we start with them. And we actually have a sort of one-to-two month really close knit group that are in communication with each other, usually over WhatsApp and following up and what you'll see is the first two or three people try it, and they love it so much that they might share a video or testimonial on that group. And then very quickly, people are inspired that, "Hey, my friend is using it," and then everyone else tries it. That's the very first stage. Once we have those 20 women on board and loving it, they come to us and they actually say, "We would love to take this to our community, we would love to distribute this for you, how can we partner together?" At that stage, Asan has a "Train the Trainer" module. So we essentially equip them with all of the medical information and all of the training tools they will need; that could be local language videos. We always give illustrated user guides in the local language as well. We develop all of that content, and then we do the trainer curriculum for them. And then when they feel confident, that's when we get to the stage where they take it to the community, and again, that takes a couple of months. Because first you have an awareness session where you might not even distribute the product, you're just talking about it. And again, they will go to their community saying, "I use this, it's coming from me, it's not any sort of outside influence. No one is forcing this product on you, I use this, would you like it?" And then that's how it spreads. And honestly, to go from 20 women to 1000 can literally happen in the space of a few weeks. If those 20 women are motivated enough and talking about it.
It's amazing. I really love this concept of saying, "I've used it. And it's my own experience". And that's what everybody is looking for when you put a product out there. You look at customer feedback and all these things. And this is direct, it's so powerful to say, "I've used it, maybe you can try it." So I think it's a very powerful approach.
Absolutely. And I think the really sad thing is that this approach is lacking in the way we do a lot of what they call sort of 'development work', with other menstrual health initiatives, for example, where people say, "Oh, I personally use tampons, but I'll give you this low quality pad" there's always this idea that, "Oh, if I'm donating something, let me go for the cheapest option," for example. And then that's where trust gets lost. Because why would you donate something that you wouldn't use yourself?
Trust is really key here, as you say. And now I'm curious to know for you personally, as a founder, as an entrepreneur, can you tell us a bit about your own personal journey? What was the most challenging for you and what keeps you going as well?
Yeah, absolutely. So I think having the university environment to support you is incredible because to develop a product is really expensive, hiring an engineer, having access to a 3D printer, all of these things cost a lot of money. And I think what was so fantastic was having the ecosystem at Harvard where they had, basically, patent lawyers and all of these other things completely for free. So that was an amazing support in creating the product. But in terms of what's been challenging, I think, at every stage of my business, whether product development, acquiring customers acquiring investors, it's always been the constant challenge of behaviour change, because I'm tackling an industry where people have been so used to the same products for honestly, 100 years - pads and tampons, and just the idea that period products should be disposable, use it once and throw it away - that's 'hygienic'. Trying to break into an industry where the consumer habits are so set is a challenge. But that said, I think what's amazing is that times are really changing. After the COVID pandemic, we really saw that supply chains were disrupted for pads and tampons. So people were in some cases forced to try something new, and awareness about the environment and also about our own health and what we're putting in our bodies has really gone up. So I'm really happy to see sort of the changes even in the market environment in the UK, we see that tampon sales, I think, have fallen by 12% in the last five years. So I think the winds are sort of in our favour now.
I was wondering now, if you look ahead, it's been only two years since you have the product on the market, but you've been working on it for four years now. And you also have competitors, you see how things are moving forward, and how mindsets are changing. What is your vision in this area? How do you see things being different in let's say, five years from now?
I think we're going to see a huge amount of change because of the kind of market conditions now post COVID. I think there is a huge opportunity for reusable period products, because reusable period products are maybe 5%, maybe 10% In some markets. I honestly see in the next five years, this shifting maybe 50% because of the rapid change in consumer behaviour and I think the really interesting thing about the market in which we operate is every single year a teen joins the market, or a young adolescent joins the market, and a menopausal person leaves it. And what's really interesting about that dynamic is if you look at a woman going through menopause, she's used pads or tampons for the last 20 or 30 years, it's really hard to get her to break out of that habit. But if you look at a teen who is getting their period for the first time there's a whole world of options available, and social media is incredible. All teens are on social media so pads aren't being forced on them because they're saying, "Hey, I just saw my friend is using a period cup" or "My friend is using period underwear." So I think there's this really interesting dynamic, where you're getting really open minded and really eco conscious teens entering the market every year is what's going to drive it towards reusable. And when we talk about competitors I really think that the biggest competitors here are the established pad and tampon brands who occupy a large part of the market. And I actually think reusable and sustainable challenger brands are actually working together in tandem to create a whole new space. And that is very exciting.
Absolutely. And quite interesting, because I would have thought otherwise. Right? Because if you say all these new companies or brands coming on the market, they're all, it's true, competing against the established ones, however together with reusable products, there must be some competition between these brands.
Well, I also think competition is really, really healthy in this space. I also think another big difference in market trends and startups is, period products were always designed by men or companies that sold period products were always owned by men. Now, again, that's changing, women are getting more funding, they're getting access to innovation, you have women engineers, so women are also making products for themselves. And that's why you see better period products being created, a man wouldn't have put a ring on the Asan cup because they wouldn't have even known it was difficult to remove. And so I think a level of healthy competition also leads to innovation in the space. And let's not forget how big this market is. I mean, we have billions of menstruating people across the world who need access to really good period care and the opportunity is honestly limitless.
And in terms of adoption, you mentioned that women who are probably going through menopause or perimenopause, they've been used for decades to have these other disposable products. Have you seen if you're in touch with your customers whether there is a difficulty in adopting cups for this age category compared to teens, for instance?
I would agree with that. Absolutely our more popular base, and the people who are most ready to use the Asan cup are actually teens. We have a chat function on our website where people can speak to our team. And the number one question we get is, "I really want to use the Asan cup, how do I convince my mom to buy for me?" Because the teen girl is ready to go for it, but her mom hasn't heard of it. And she's a little bit nervous. And we have actually invested so much in creating amazing resources on our website about that conversation between teens and their parents and picking a period product for your teen for this reason. I think, in any age group, you have people who are a bit nervous about new products and who are early adopters. So even in the sort of perimenopause age group, we absolutely have some early adopters, because what happens at perimenopause is your flow can become very irregular and unexpected, you can suddenly have very, very heavy periods for a shorter period of time. So we do have women going through perimenopause, who say "This pad is not enough at the Asan cup, actually who was three times more than a pad and you can wear it for longer." So they actually find the benefits amazing, but they just might need that extra push, or they might need to hear about it from a really trusted source like another friend going through perimenopause, before they decide to try it.
I think all these reusable products have so many arguments going for them that it's almost a no brainer today, irrespective of your age group. So I think you're really in the right area at this moment. Do you have anything that you would like our listeners to know about Asan? How can we support you?
Well if you're listening today, I would say one thing I would love you to do is just to head to Instagram, and type Asan cup "ASANCUP" and give us a follow, because that's really where we have all our content about our social impact. We're a very transparent brand. So in terms of all of the donations we do, we have so many testimonials about the people that's reaching and their experiences. So please stay in touch with us on Instagram. And we also have some amazing sort of FAQ content on there about actually how to use a menstrual cup because I think one thing we didn't address today, which is always on people's mind is "Oh, how does that work? It's so big. How will it fit inside me? Will it get stuck there?" All these sort of really simple questions and if you're just new to this entire concept, and you're wondering how it works, have a look at us on Instagram and you'll actually see that it's like Asan's name, which means easy. Menstrual cups are actually really easy.
Thank you so much. Thank you for taking the time and thank you for sharing about Asan and your journey on the podcast. I hope to stay in touch with you and see how Asan evolves through time.
Yeah, thank you for supporting social impact entrepreneurs and for having me here today. Take care.
What a great conversation with yet another female founder making waves in women's health with her social enterprise. Ira's startup ASAN ensures access to safe period care across the world and provides menstrual health education to women and girls in India. You will find a wealth of useful resources and articles about menstrual cups, period poverty, periods and health as well as sustainability on the Asan website at us asancup.org. If you are more of a social media person, then simply follow Asan on Instagram at @asancup. All these links are available in the show notes. Thank you so much for tuning in today. I appreciate you taking the time. That was episode 64 A Conversation with Ira Guha on eradicating period poverty. Join me again in two weeks for our final episode of the season. And believe it or not, this season finale will coincide with our three year anniversary so don't miss this last episode. Make sure you leave us a review everywhere you listen to podcasts. And if you like what you're listening to, remember to share this episode with a friend, a colleague or even a family member. You can also connect with us through our website at narratives-of-purpose.podcastpage.io. The link is available in the show notes or through our social handles @narrativesofpurposepodcast.
Until the next episode, take care of yourselves. Stay well and stay inspired