Tanvi Johri (right) and Rikshav Borah believe the only thing that brings customers back to Carmesi’s sanitary pads is the product Image: Amit Verma
Thanks to the myriad awareness campaigns led by activists and celebrities, periods are not as much a taboo as they used to be. Yet, even as we discuss menstrual hygiene and make sanitary napkins more accessible, we may have ignored ancillary problems that are nowhere close to being solved.
In India alone, about 12 billion sanitary pads are used, and discarded, each year, according to recent data from Menstrual Health Alliance India, a collaborative of organisations working on menstrual hygiene. The environmental stress that plastic-based sanitary pads causes has always been a huge concern. Now, two young entrepreneurs aim to take it on.
Tanvi Johri, 26, and Rikshav Borah, 29, are co-founders of New Delhi-based Carmesi (Spanish for crimson), which makes premium sanitary pads from biodegradable bamboo fibre—an ultra-absorbent with anti-bacterial properties—and corn starch.
With more than 50,000 customers since its November 2017 launch, Carmesi raised $500,000 (about ₹3.5 crore) in a pre-series A funding round in August, led by Samrath Bedi, managing director of the luxury ayurvedic beauty brand Forest Essentials. “There is a gap in the market in addressing female hygiene through an environmentally conscientious approach; this space has huge potential going forward. Not only should we endeavour to remove the taboo associated with menstrual cycle, we should also do it in a manner that is not detrimental to the planet,” says Bedi.
The purpose of Carmesi is two-fold—to make comfortable, safe and absorbent sanitary pads that are biodegradable; and to elevate a woman’s period experience with a luxurious touch.
Carmesi also addresses the issue of hygienic disposal of used pads as each of its sanitary napkins comes with a thick disposal bag. “Most pads come packaged in thin, polyethylene film,” says Johri. “This film is barely enough to cover a soiled napkin, which makes it not only inconvenient, but also unhygienic.” Carmesi’s solution does away with the need for a woman to carry a tissue or newspaper to wrap soiled pads.
Carmesi pads come in a stylish, black-and-white box made to look like a gifting product. “We chose black-and-white because our target audience wants subtle sophistication, and should not be afraid to have a box of sanitary pads on their desks, for instance,” says Johri. “The boxes are purposefully elegant and understated.”
These added luxuries come at a price, though. At ₹749 for a box of 30 pads, it costs about 2.5 times that of common brands such as Whisper or Stayfree. “One of our biggest challenges is to convince women to pay the premium,” admits Johri. “Women often ask us why we’re turning sanitary pads into a luxury. We are not, but we do want to attach an experience to it. Any product that uses superior raw material, premium packaging and added features [such as the disposal bag] is likely to cost you more, in any segment. We want women to focus as much on menstrual health as on skincare and beauty.”
The idea of a premium sanitary napkin for menstrual health dawned on Johri after a prolonged struggle with rashes and allergies caused by the pads she used. “Plastic is terrible for your skin and the more people I spoke with, the more common I realised these problems are,” she says.
While Johri worked on the idea of a natural, biodegradable sanitary pad, she approached Borah, an old friend, to partner with her. Borah had a startup called DudeGenie that was acquired by travel firm Yatra in November 2015. He continued to work with Yatra for a few months even after joining Johri’s venture, so that they would have one source of income to help seed the business. Now, he works with Carmesi full-time.
Users seem to be happy with the product. “I’m not really a green warrior, but what caught my attention was the beautiful box. I thought I would try it once, just to give myself some self-love on those cranky days, but ended up enjoying the super soft pads, which do not rash. I’ve stuck to Carmesi for heavy flow days despite the high price because of its quality, and I use other store brands for low-flow days to balance out the cost,” says Prerna Trehan, 27, a PhD student in Chandigarh.
The company’s pads are manufactured in China and then packaged in India. “We’re currently too small to have a manufacturing unit of our own, but it’s in our plans for the future,” Johri says. “To make ultra-thin pads and super-absorbent pads out of the material we’re using, we needed the sophisticated machinery and tight quality control that China offers.” The pads are certified by India’s Food and Drug Administration, and the material is tested by the Bombay Textile Research Association.
Presently, sales are entirely through the online route—via Carmesi’s website and e-stores like Amazon, Flipkart, Nykaa and Purplle—but the idea is to be a click-and-mortar company. “This is an off-the-shelf product and visibility is key. However, thus far, all our marketing has been organic and by word-of-mouth. Now that we have the funds, [offline] retail is a priority. Later this year, we plan to begin offline expansion,” says Johri.
Along with the investments, the revenue counter has also started ticking. Carmesi is growing its topline at 25 percent month-on-month. While 60 percent of its customers are from tier-1 cities, a large chunk of demand also comes from smaller cities like Ludhiana, Jaipur and from the Northeast. “As demand increases and volumes rise, we hope to be able to bring prices down,” adds Johri. “However, now our focus is on maintaining margins and building a business that can sustain even without investors. That’s why we’ve never offered discounts, not even to acquire customers.”
The duo also plans to expand its product line with the additional funds. At present, Carmesi products come in two sizes, regular and XL. Women can subscribe to home delivery as per their period cycles, and can customise the number of XL pads in their box according to their period flow. “We have a 65 percent customer-retention rate, and many of the women who don’t come back prefer longer pads. We want to be able to service them,” says Johri.
Did the Akshay Kumar-starrer Padman help their cause? “Not really,” Johri smiles. “Padman was about accessibility, and as a premium brand, we’re going the opposite route.” Carmesi donates part of its proceeds to NGO GiveHer5, which provides period products to the underprivileged. “Our purpose is to establish a brand that educated Indian women can trust, one where they are absolutely confident of materials they are exposing their bodies to,” she adds. “The only thing that brings customers back to our product is the product.”