Empowering Women, Transforming Lives

Market failures happen; social enterprises fix them! Traditionally, the prevailing mechanism for correcting market failures has been government intervention. However, social entrepreneurs and their organizations are now emerging as corrective forces that can fill the gaps not met by government. This has been the case for social entrepreneur and fellow LKYSPP student, Ravi Vedam (MPA 2009/2011). Ravi recognized this gap, decided to act, and thus began his inspiring story as a social entrepreneur.

Ravi’s experience in medicine, both as a GP and from having established his own public health clinic, drew his attention to some appalling problems that plagued rural areas of South India. In his very own state, Tamil Nadu, the average number of girls in rural areas with no access to appropriate supplies when menstruating was disturbing. Ravi decided to take on the task of providing basic sanitary care to such girls. A needs assessment analysis clearly demonstrated the requirement for such a provision and, consequently, the idea of providing a vending machine in schools for sanitary napkins with an incinerator for proper disposal caught momentum.

More recently, Ravi and co-founder Dawn Kor Poh Leng (MPA 2010), who Ravi credits as being instrumental in getting the project off the ground, have been looking at ways of making the project more sustainable and continue its expansion. They began to see the potential of turning the project into a social enterprise and, more modestly, seeing themselves as social entrepreneurs.

The following is an interview with Ravi to find out more about his project and its future as a social enterprise:

How have you raised interest for this project for potential donors?

The need for this project has been there all along. The inclusion of this program gained momentum after its incorporation into the Total Sanitation Scheme and School Health and Hygiene Program. While this has been established in some schools in the state, it is yet to be rolled out successfully on a larger scale. Hygiene is a personal issue and the lack of solutions for the basic problem of using sanitary napkins needs to be addressed. It would also serve as a pillar upon which the management of menstrual hygiene is based. Finally, the conducted needs assessment showed these children want it and early studies have shown that it does change their lives.

Who are the key stakeholders in this venture?

I would not classify them here as external and internal, but would just say that the target group (the children who would benefit), the state government, UNICEF, volunteers, philanthropists, NGOs, academics, and the project initiators are all stakeholders.

How sustainable do you believe your current project is?

Initially, we were confined to the model of donating and establishing a supply chain for the napkins. We may have to tweak the program and possibly also look at the social enterprise method, which would then make the project very different.

What are the greatest problems that you have faced while setting up this project?

Conceiving a project, forming a team, sustaining the interest, planning and convincing the donors would be the initial issue. Having got that far, the next hurdle would be executing the project.

Why did you choose to focus your project in the Tamil Nadu district?

Simple, you start where you are comfortable. You need to know the collector, the District Education Officer, the Project Officer of the rural development program of that district and the Minister in charge of the district. The manufacturer of the vending machines is from that district and there are a few functioning models working well here.

How many people do you project this will affect or is affecting?

The ones who would benefit would be school-going girls, who number between 45,000 to 60,000 in that district. The women who benefit from manufacturing the sanitary napkins would be in the range of 50 to 100 women from the self-help groups.

What is the cost structure of the project?

We estimate that the cost of the entire program is in the range of $S250,000 for the entire district. This includes the cost of both the vending machines and the incinerator. However we have not factored in the other costs that may be incidental.

Eva Riddell (MPP 09-11) conducted this interview as part of the Frontiers of Social Innovation class along with group members Aarushi Sinha (MPP 09-11), Fabian Suwanprateep (MPP 09-11) and Katherine Jaress (MPP 09-11).

Having completed his Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) in 1992, Ravi Vedam continued postgraduate training in general surgery before deciding that, due to his affinity for community health, he was destined to become a General Practitioner (GP). Ravi completed a postgraduate Diploma in Tropical Medicine and Hygiene at Liverpool University, followed by a Masters in Public Health from the National University of Singapore. After spending several years working as a GP, the lure of working directly in public health led Ravi to establish his own modern integrated clinic in rural India, which expanded to established women’s empowerment programs including a nurses training program and nurse-run clinics in ten villages. Ravi still oversees the functioning of the clinics but spends the majority of his time providing health care consultancy services and being a part-time Masters in Public Administration (MPA) student at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP).


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