Initiating social work for a better society with self-sustainability is what Vivek Singh Thakuri, Executive Director of Mitra Samaj, believes in. As such, Vivek, along with his team, initiated a special idea called “Mitini”. This initiation basically focuses on disposing of the sanitary pads in a hygienic method and solves an important issue of reducing menstruation taboo along with saving the flush from being clotted. Follow along to find out how.
1. Can you start with yourself and how and why are you in the field of social development?
I had started my career in the development field. As such, the most prominent organization that got me to start on Mitini is Population Service International (PSI) which is a U.S. based INGO funded by USAID. I started there as a Communications Officer and in two years, I was promoted to a managerial position. Fast forward a few years, USAID decided to withdraw funds from PSI so I, along with other colleagues, initiated an NGO called Mitra Samaj in 2006. However, getting funds was a major challenge for us in 2012 which caused an administrative crisis for almost a year. That’s when we started thinking of an initiative for self- sustainability and came up with three ideas viz. volunteering, leadership training, and Mitini.
2. So, what’s the story of Mitini? How did it actually come about?
I came across the idea of Water Aid that mentioned that 40 percent of girls in Nepal miss their school four days a month. This struck me to do research on a larger scale with the national representative. Although the actual number came down to 21 percent, it was still high since the girls were missing 31 percent of the class in their academic calendar which ultimately would land in inferior grades.
Another side of the story happened in our office. We had an incident where someone had flushed a sanitary pad and clotted it. It was really expensive and challenging to fix. This incident clicked my mind in designing sanitary bins and providing it to various organizations and cleaning up the bins every month with a nominal charge.
We started looking for interested clients and that’s when we approached Trisara (a restaurant in Kathmandu) with our idea. It turned out that they had faced a problem of clotted flush several times and enthusiastically accepted our proposal. Then, we began to search for disposable bins and purchased a second-hand cargo vehicle through personal loans. This is how we initiated a so-called Dirty business. We even called our media friends and buzzed about it in the market and launched the initiative on International Women’s Day (8th March 2015) with 15 clients. We then hired a woman to help us clean the bins. Since I am working in media for the last 15 years, I was able to give this initiation a push.
2. So, Mitini is actually an initiation and not a company. What is the policy of Non- profit organization with regard to self- sustainability?
Mitini is one of the initiations of our company named Mitra Samaj. But I am thinking of making Mitini initiation as a separate company.
I think the policy is not clear in Nepal. Being a research-based organization; we do research for other organization which is beneficial to us as well. After doing some rigorous research, the NGOs should be registered in a VAT. We faced a problem with the Mitini initiative since we were not able to provide them a bill. Then we had to register Mitra Samaj in VAT although the non-profit companies do not need to register in a VAT.
4. Mitini, as a concept, is a taboo subject. People are not comfortable talking about it even today. How easy or difficult was it for you to communicate and operate the concept?
Yes, it was very difficult at first. We couldn’t get an employee who could take care of cleaning the bins. As such, our first employee quit the job within two weeks because she felt like the work was degrading her. However, we were finally able to hire an employee who is proud to do this work and has been with us for the past three years. We also have a female driver who is happy to work with us.
I never felt uncomfortable with the work even after hearing the criticisms because I am initiating the work which is better for the society with a positive transformation. This initiative is itself a hybrid initiative. When we approached private organizations such as banks, restaurants, and theaters, we convinced them by explaining the problem. Our clients get convinced since the prices are nominal and see the benefits that we are providing them.
We also conduct school programs on menstruation and disposal, create sanitary pads bank and monitor them to make sure that the bank is refurbished in time. We have reached more than 200 schools by now. We are trying to increase two schools every month and we continually make sure that it remains as an institutional knowledge throughout their life. This way, we are informing people that menstruation is a natural phenomenon and the best way to deal with it is to accept and talk about it.
5. In terms of disposing of the sanitary pads, how do you go along with operating the business?
Disposal is still a big issue globally. In the initial days, the bins were just the aluminum vessel and people hesitated to touch and open the lead. But now we import the bins from India which is working really well. We preferred insulator as a sanitary pads disposal method and have partnered with Civil Hospital to dispose of the sanitary pads in their insulator. Lately, we realized that insulating the sanitary pads was not recommended by WHO because it is health hazardous. We now autoclave the sanitary pads for disposal.
6. In terms of impact measurement, do you work in impact measurement for Mitini? Or, have you thought about it?
We have a full-fledged research department and we do a lot of impact measurement. We have some sort of checklist but I am not sure if it qualifies the impact measurement or not. We have our output monitoring system as well.
7. When it comes to services that Mitini provides, has there been an instance which made you realize that it can bring about a social change?
There are lots of examples. The individual feedbacks are very encouraging. I never heard from any of my clients say that this is an inappropriate service. We are never demotivated because we get positive responses and support everywhere we go with the idea.
Apart from that, it has always been an enchanting experience. Another inspiring thing I want to share is about the orphanage named “Balmandir” who approached us for sanitary pads. We promised them to provide sanitary pads as per their requirements.