--BY MANISHA BALAMI
In 2014, Pratima Thapa Karki was working with the High Powered Committee for Integrated Development of the Bagmati Civilization and was also engaged in the Bagmati River cleaning campaign which is held on every Saturday. While collecting waste, her team noticed sanitary pads on the banks and in the river in large numbers. “People were hesitant to pick up such rubbish, but it is also one of the most important and necessary things to do,” recalls Thapa who is the founder of Free Wheel Pvt Ltd. She then felt a sense of urgency to find an alternative to the use of disposable sanitary pads available in the market to tackle the problems related to environmental pollution while also keeping up with the menstrual hygiene needs of women. As a result, Karki came up with the idea of producing eco-friendly sanitary pads.
Growing up in a family with an enterprising environment, she was interested in doing something on her own from an early age. Her father started a trading business in Kathmandu and expanded it to international market. As a kid, she showed eagerness to learn new things which led her to get ideas about business from her father.
According to Thapa, she was brought up in a liberal environment. “My parents let me do things on my own. They never forced me to study a certain course or wanted me to work in areas of their choice,” she says. She adds, “My mother has always been my inspiration, someone who taught me to be capable and independent.”
After completing her high school from V.S Niketan Higher Secondary School, she joined Tri-Chandra Campus to study for a B.Sc in Environmental Science. In 2014, she completed her post-graduate degree in Environmental Science from the College of Applied Science.
Being a student of environment science, Thapa wanted to do something which suited her academic background. Before starting anything of her own, she decided to work and gain some experience. Hence, she worked as an environment consultant and researcher on a contract basis in government agencies, UN agencies, World Wildlife Fund, and other I/NGOs as well.
As soon as Thapa completed her master’s degree, she got married in 2015. Her husband, who is also her school friend, supported her idea of starting a business and the duo established Free Wheel Pvt Ltd as an import/export venture. The company commenced its operations by importing cosmetic products, seafood and gadgets. “The company is also the sole authorised distributor of renowned Thai cosmetic and pharmaceutical skincare brands such as KA, Explor and Polka Healthy," shares Thapa. The company also started exporting handicraft goods such as wool products, jewelries made of glass beads, pet food items to the United States and Thailand.
Everything was going well as per her expectations. But the Covid-19 pandemic impacted her company as import/export and other trading activities got severely disrupted for many months in 2020. “Our business got completely halted at the time,” she expresses.
However, taking the situation as a challenge, Thapa decided to realise the idea of venturing into the commercial production of environment friendly eco-pads which she had deemed as being viable and important years earlier.
Thapa is among the very few producers of such types of sanitary napkins that are made of pure cotton, are reusable and decay quickly when disposed. According to her, eco-pads are cost effective and much more comfortable than the sanitary napkins available in the market. “While buying our sanitary napkins, customers might feel it to be a bit costlier than the ones available in the market. But the important thing to consider here is that our napkins are cost efficient in the long run,” she says.
To start her company Free Wheel Pvt Ltd, Karki had received financial support from her family members. As there were good returns from the business later on, she was able to start production of eco-pads on her own investment. Initially, she invested Rs 200,000 which has now reached around Rs 1.5 million for her sanitary napkin business.
During the lockdown period last year, she produced around 100 sample pieces by herself and sold the eco-pads to her family members, friends and neighbours and requested feedback about the products. “At first, many of them were hesitant to use the sanitary napkins. But I convinced them to try them once,” she shares.
The feedback she received from the users of the sanitary napkins was positive. Many did not bother to reuse the pads, but they told her how comfortable and easy-to-use product the napkins were compared to those found in the market.
Thapa then outsourced the work of sewing the eco-pads to the local tailoring shops operated by women located at Jadibuti, Chabahil, Balkot, and Babar Mahal. She is currently working to install a production plant to fulfill high demand of the pads. According to Thapa, more than 5,000 customers are using the sanitary napkins. She also says that a big order of around USD 10,000 is in the pipeline.
She started selling and promoting her products online. Now the sanitary pads are available at online marketplaces such as UG Bazaar, Thulo.com, Daraz, Dhuku Store alongside some local physical stores. She has also been selling the products using Facebook and Instagram. “We are also working to promote our products through the global e-commerce platform Amazon as well,” she adds. At present, she has customers from Kathmandu, Lalitpur, Bhaktapur and Chitwan. Soon, her products will be available in Pokhara.
Monthly, she gets orders for around 30 pieces of eco-pads from a store. Moreover, different organisations working for awareness related to menstrual health management are also buying eco-pads in bulk.
According to Thapa, the sanitary napkins are available in different sizes and women can choose them according to their needs. Likewise, customers can also purchase packs which are enough for a one-month cycle and can be reused after washing. A pack of eco-pads costs Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 whereas a single cloth pad costs a minimum of Rs 240.
Besides this business, Thapa also runs another company called Pratibimba Industries which produces sun dried vegetable and fruits such as dried spring onions, dried tomatoes, dried apple, Gundruk (dried fermented leaf), Masyaura (dried lentil nuggets), Cauli ko Sukuti (dried cauliflower) and Mula ko Sukuti (dried radish pieces) etc.
The company also sells local products like Jimbu (a dried aromatic perennial herb), Timur (Sichuan Pepper) Bay leaf, turmeric powder, Bhang (Hemp Seed), lemon grass, and Lapsi (Nepali hog plum) powder collected from different places of the country including Salyan, Bhaktapur, Chitwan, Dolpa, Baglung and Jumla. According to Thapa, Pratibimba Team is working to launch a special type of sweet that is prepared from solar dried fruits.
A member of the Federation of Women Entrepreneurs Association of Nepal (FWEAN) since 2015, Thapa says that being part of the organisation has benefitted her on a personal and professional level. “This platform has not only helped me expand my business network, but I have also gained business knowledge through different trainings and workshops organised by FWEAN,” she mentions.
In August last year, she was selected for online business promotion under the ‘MA-UDHYAMI’ campaign, a part of the project called ‘Revitalising Women’s Businesses Amidst COVID-19 Pandemic’ implemented by FWEAN, together with EMERGE and Thulo.com and funded by USAID, which has further helped her in promoting and marketing her products.
Thapa says that balancing both the personal and the business side is the greatest challenge for woman entrepreneurs. However, she feels fortunate to have a inspiring husband and supportive family and does not have to face such a challenging situation. “I appreciate my husband for standing with me in my good and bad days as a motivation to move forward,” she says.
According to Thapa, the difficult government rules in business create challenges for women entrepreneurs. “From registering a company to applying for bank loans, there are so many things during documentation that are very difficult to comprehend even for educated people. I can imagine how difficult it becomes for rural women,” she expresses. Also, the existing arrangements related to concessional loans are not so effective and friendly to women entrepreneurs.
As people now-a-days are attracted towards using environment-friendly products, Thapa plans to expand the business of eco-pads and export the napkins to foreign markets. Besides sanitary napkins, she is also looking to produce other eco-friendly products and launch more food items in the market.