WITH its vivid green leaves and striking flowers, it is a common sight on the rivers of rural India.
Now, the ubiquitous water hyacinth is being touted as an ingenious new solution to a problem that bedevils village women - the lack of affordable sanitary pads.
The idea of using the leaves as an environmentally friendly alternative was the brainchild of Singaporean undergraduate Ho Yen Yee.
"I was having my period and feeling uncomfortable from the menstrual cramps," said the 22-year-old. "So when reading about how women in India could not afford pads and had to resort to alternatives that seem inhumane to me, I was very affected."
She confided in her friend Mr Andrew Yin, and they came up with the idea of producing cost-effective biodegradable sanitary pads for women in developing countries using unwanted water hyacinths.
The idea kills two birds with one stone as the species is so common in Indian rivers that it sometimes clogs them up, causing environmental and economic damage. Ms Ho said: "Water hyacinth plants contain highly absorbent pulp fibres which makes them an effective material for sanitary pads."
Only 12 per cent of India's 355 million menstruating women use sanitary napkins, according to a report by market research group AC Nielsen. More than 88 per cent of them turn to alternatives including ashes, newspapers and dried leaves.
Ms Ho and Mr Yin submitted their idea to the Singapore International Foundation's Young Social Entrepreneurs programme.
As part of the scheme, they went to India in June to see first-hand how social enterprises there are run.
"Our conversations and experiences there really made us see and understand how real the problem is and made us all the more committed to this cause," said Ms Ho.
She and Mr Yin, 22, came up with their idea despite the fact that neither has a background in science or engineering.
Ms Ho is a linguistics major while Mr Yin majors in accountancy and business. Both are in their final year at Nanyang Technological University.
"Being a guy, I do feel awkward at times when talking about this," said Mr Yin. "But unlike the older generation, people my age are more open to new ideas. This issue is not just a woman's issue, but a humanity issue - about basic human dignity and the right to lead a healthy life."
The undergraduates' ideas were given a chance to go beyond the drawing board when they were awarded $10,000 in seed funding after pitching their concept at a forum.
Their project - called Innovative and Manageable sanitary Pad (I.M.Pad) - emerged as one of the four winners of this year's Young Social Entrepreneur programme, which was launched in 2010 and has provided training and mentorship for 115 young people from 11 countries.
The duo are using the money to come up with a prototype of the product and start a social enterprise in India to produce and sell the pads. After completing their exams in May, they will head to India to scout for a location for their factory and discuss how to market and distribute the pads.
A design company in India is helping them to come up with the prototype. Negotiations are under way with another firm to acquire the machines to produce it.
The duo estimate that their pads will cost 14 rupees (30 Singapore cents) for a pack of eight, about 10 times cheaper than ordinary versions.
Asked what drove her to take on such a unconventional project while pursuing her studies, Ms Ho said: "I feel strongly about this as it is also about human dignity and access to education. Some young women even miss school or risk reproductive tract infections because they are too poor to buy pads. Yet this is such a taboo topic that little has been done about it. It's time to do something."
Those with good ideas can register for the Young Social Entrepreneur 2013 programme at www.sif.org.sg/programme_details.php?id=6 Applications close on Dec 21.