Published on 12:00 AM, August 24, 2021

Hi-tech relief from perennial pain

Working women getting sanitary napkins through local startup’s IoT-powered vending machines

Easily accessible and inexpensive sanitary napkins made available through IoT-enabled vending machines, such as this one at Fakir Fashion’s Narayanganj factory. Photo: Collected

Getting her period at work has always made garment worker Roksana Aktar uncomfortable.

Sanitary napkins had never been an affordable option for her. She only knew of using rags or sometimes garment waste called "jhoot".

Aktar saw the unhygienic substance being used by many of her colleagues at different factories she had worked in the past 18 years. Some skipped work for the day altogether.

But relief has come for Aktar and her current 6,300 female colleagues, thanks to Fakir Fashion installing three sanitary napkin vending machines at its Narayanganj factory in May.

"Now when I get my period, I just touch my office ID on the machine and a sanitary napkin comes out," Aktar told The Daily Star recently.

"It is similar to or easier than withdrawing money from an ATM," she said. Moreover, the price of the hygiene products is subsidised by the factory, so an employee has to pay just Tk 12 to avail one packet containing five menstrual pads.

Fakir Fashion says it plans to introduce them on all their premises.

The internet of things (IoT)-based dispensers were built and installed by local tech startup Vertical Innovations.

"It is completely locally made. So our production cost is very low," said Rezwan Ahamed Noor, the startup's CEO.

Branded "Jyoti", the machines come in three models: lite, pro and standard.

The startup charges Tk 15,000, Tk 20,000, and Tk 30,000 respectively for installation and supplies and replenishes stocks. All their vending machines are connected to a cloud server, sending data such as inventory status round the clock, which does away with the machines ever having to run out of products, and enabling remote operations.

"All users with ID cards are registered at the central system. We can allocate weekly, monthly, daily consumption limits. Only authorised users can make purchases," said Noor.

"There are over three million women garment workers in the country and they have been facing a lack of availability of sanitary napkins at their workplaces," he said.

Setting up the vending machines solves this problem and provides the opportunity for female garment workers to easily avail inexpensive sanitary napkins, he added.

The startup aims to go beyond garment factories to other workplaces and educational institutions as well.

Launching in 2020, Vertical Innovations first installed one machine at Banchte Shekha, a Jashore-based development organisation for women and children, in November that year.

This year it installed 11 more machines at Zaheen Knitwear's, Riyadul Muslimat Shishu Shikkhaloy, WaterAid Bangladesh, Fakir Fashion, YWCA Higher Secondary Girls' School and Sajgoj.

The company, comprising 12 persons, including embedded system and software engineers, is in the process of deploying three more machines in three schools in Rangpur by this month.

"The IoT is one of the major driving forces of the 4th industrial revolution," said Noor, who is also one of the company's three co-founders.

The entity's future plan is to set up the country's largest IoT-network of sanitary napkin vending machines, reaching all workplaces where women are present.

It is also planning to provide another machine named "Nityo" that would dispense grain.

This will facilitate programmes such as the government's open market sale of daily essentials, with customers simply having to use national identity cards.

Vertical Innovations also provides industrial automation solutions using IoT.

Based on sensor-collected data such as of temperature, pressure, flow control, pH and arsenic concentration, the startup can provide a complete analytical dashboard to industries to monitor and manage their industrial processes.