All of us know the pathetic state of healthcare in Pakistan, especially for women whose lives continue to be controlled by societal notions of shame and stigma. Be it the high infant mortality because many of the young mothers aren’t even aware of healthy maternity practices or the taboo surrounding menstruation causing women much inconvenience. A local startup, based out of Lahore, has taken it upon itself to change that.
HerGround.com is online portal selling female hygiene products, with delivery promised within 24 hours. Go to the website; choose a product — ranging from sanitary pads to hair removing cream, select the date and time of delivery and order. Pretty much like how most online retail websites work. As for payment options, they only have cash-on-delivery for now given the small customer base.
They have sort of a subscription-based model, due to the recurring nature of products offered, and sell stocks starting from three-month supply with timely reminders by the end of the period.
Currently, the startup delivers only in Lahore and Okara and holds its own inventory, as do most small retailers. This is not the most scalable model though; especially if you want expand across the country. And Chief Executive Officer Sadaf Naz, a former pharmacist, is well aware of that. “We are trying to broker partnerships with distributors in major cities so we can get away with keeping our own stocks but that’s proving to be quite challenging,” she says. The website also has a blog with content on a number of issues related to female health, such as menstruation cycles or reproductive problems.
The startup was launched in September 2017 by Naz who wanted to address the taboo nature of female health. “I hail from Okara where there is hardly any awareness or availability of sanitary pads or other products but even in cities like Lahore or Faisalabad, buying them is always an awkward experience. The shopkeeper gives you weird looks as if you’re doing something illicit. And this is the issue I wanted to solve,” she recalls. ‘Her Ground’ recently graduated from the Islamabad-based accelerator, Invest2Innovate.
However, Her Ground’s offering is not unique: other online retailers have long promised to make shopping experience better, especially for products considered taboo. Bigger and better funded players like Daraz.pk in the general e-commerce space and dedicated health tech startups like Dawaai.pk already offer female health-related products such as sanitary pads, and their reach is also far more spread across the country. So what makes Her Ground different and how does plan to navigate given the competition?
“For other companies, feminine hygiene is hardly a focus area given the range of products they are offering. But Her Ground is solely catering to women and their health so we can address that particular niche much better. Other than that, we are also engaged in a lot of public awareness campaigns regarding female health in public schools and small towns,” Sadaf says.
As of now, the range of products offered is still quite limited but Sadaf is looking to change that. “We started from just sanitary pads, that too from a single brand but have since added four more categories along with other brands. Now we are working to bring online vitamins, supplements and contraceptives, thus entering the reproductive health area,” the CEO shares while adding that she wants to make Her Ground the women’s go-to portal for all their health-related issues.
Her Ground is still bootstrapped and Sadaf is not yet ready for investment. However, she is looking to score a small grant of up to Rs1 million to expand her outreach and marketing campaign. As for the income, it is made through the markup — the difference between consumer and retail prices.
Given the limited awareness and reach of feminine hygiene products in Pakistan, Sadaf is dealing with a particularly tricky market, especially considering how big a taboo it all is. Figures suggest that only 21 per cent of Pakistani women have access to hygiene products. And this is why the startup is targeting middle and upper class segments that not only have the awareness about period hygiene but also the means to afford such products.
But that’s a niche, not big enough to have the kind of impact Sadaf wants to create by removing the taboo from menstruation and female health issues. “To capture the second and third-tier as well as bottom of the pyramid markets, we first need to familiarise them with issues surrounding female health. So for now, we are addressing that segment offline through our outreach activities. We also offer subsidised products for public schools, funded through a dedicated 5pc contribution from the revenues of one of our product,” she says.
The market is surely underserved with a huge need for private enterprise daring to challenge the taboo society has put on most things related to female hygiene. Now it’s only up to Sadaf how much she can tap on.
The writer is member of staff:
Published in Dawn, February 24th, 2019