SINGAPORE: Mr Peh Thian Hock may be 75 and retired, but he prides himself in the strength that he amassed as a foot masseuse for more than 10 years.
But there is one thing that gets him huffing and puffing - changing diapers for his partner of 20 years. Mdm Tiah Ah Chiang suffered a stroke seven years ago and has been bedridden ever since.
“She looks frail and skinny but it takes me a lot of strength to do it because she has no control over her legs,” he said. On top of that, diapers leave a hole in his wallet too.
Mdm Tiah needs three to four diapers a day, which add up to about 12 packs of 10 diapers a month. The S$200 spent on the diapers has been a financial burden.
“It doesn’t seem like a lot of money when you buy one pack at a time. But when it’s accumulated over the month, it’s actually really expensive,” he said.
But things got better when Mr Lawrence Ng visited Mr Peh’s flat while doing volunteer work at their rental block last November. Little did Mr Peh know, Mr Ng was the owner of a local diaper company, Audela.
The 44-year-old ex-civil servant started the company last year with the mission to provide adult diapers at affordable prices to people like Mr Peh. He noticed that it was “not uncommon” for the lower-income to scrimp and save on diapers.
“There was one time I saw an old lady walking really fast in my estate - I was curious and wondered if she needed help with something, so I went up to her,” he recalled. To his shock, he found her relieving herself at a corner.
Feeling awkward, he plucked up his courage to approach her when she was done with the deed. “I asked her, why don’t you go to the toilet? She told me she really had no choice, she can’t control her bladder.”
“And diapers are really too costly, so she has to make do - if she can’t find a toilet in time, she would just pee in public,” Mr Ng recalled.
Unfortunately, she was not the first, nor the last person Mr Ng had encountered who had to urinate in public due to incontinence, or even stay home so that they did not soil themselves outside. Often, it was the cost of diapers that rendered them helpless.
“I feel that diapers actually represent a person's dignity. If a person wants to go out like you and me, then we should give him or her the confidence to do so,” he said.
Before developing his own prototype, Mr Ng spent about six months studying various brands of diapers from other countries such as Taiwan and Thailand. “I extracted portions that I found to be comfortable in each diaper, mixed and matched them to form the present product.”
When Mr Ng had his first prototype, he lived in them for five days to put himself in his users’ shoes - or rather, diapers. “I also got my whole family to try it - by knowing how it feels, we can design diapers that are really comfortable for users,” he said.
“We tried it in all positions - sitting, normal walking, lying down - to make sure it’s comfortable from all angles. I also monitored the amount of water I drank to know what’s the maximum capacity of the diapers and how it feels when it overflows.”
The experience made him empathise with individuals who resort to changing diapers less regularly due to the strain on finances. “By right, you should change the diapers after you pass motion once or twice, but I’ve seen people who use one diaper the entire day to save cost.”
“I don’t know how they do it. The stench would be so strong and it is definitely uncomfortable. I could already feel the load after the first pee,” he added. Wearing soaked diapers for too long would also cause rashes and bedsores.
The absorbance of his diapers was also an important aspect that Mr Ng took time to get right. “I realised that if the absorption is not fast enough, liquid can leak from the sides of the diaper when I move.”
However, producing thicker diapers for greater absorbance was not ideal due to Singapore’s already warm and humid weather. “The thicker it is, the more absorbent it will be but the comfort would not be there,” he said.
“I spoke to suppliers from Japan, the US and Germany to source for a material that can provide quick absorbency and still be breathable for our weather.”
He also improved the cutting of the diapers due to “Singaporeans' body type”. “We actually have wider bottoms and are more curvy compared to other Southeast Asian countries.”
“Compared to other brands manufactured in Thailand, Philippines or Indonesia, our cutting is bigger and customers have told us that it’s more comfortable.”
KEEPING DIAPERS AFFORDABLE AMID RISING COSTS
Recognising that the cost of diapers may be a burden to some individuals and families, Mr Ng takes a personal approach in getting to know his customers. He personally delivers diapers to new customers to find out more about their needs.
“I will identify needy families or individuals and help them by selling at cost price or supply them diapers for free.”
Audela provides 500 to 800 packs of diapers to “at least seven households and two nursing homes” for free on a monthly basis. Part of the cost is covered by private and corporate donors, who reached out to Mr Ng through word of mouth.
What keeps the business afloat is Audela’s presence in retail outlets such as Prime supermarkets, HAO Marts and online platforms like qoo10, Lazada and Shopee. Mr Ng said his diapers are cheaper than other household brands in the market by about “10 to 20 per cent”.
CNA found that most household brands retail at about S$1.20 per piece, while Audela’s cost about S$1.
The company keeps prices low by sourcing for materials directly from raw material suppliers in Japan, the US and Germany, rather than going through a third-party supplier, said Mr Ng. He then ships the materials to Hong Kong for production.
“We are a small enterprise with low overhead, so we pass savings on to consumers.” Mr Ng also runs a transport business at the side that helps to “cover costs” and allows him to continue giving diapers to needy families.
“I just make sure we can still get the minimal profits to keep the business sustainable,” he said.
However, that has been difficult ever since the COVID-19 pandemic, due to the rising costs of raw materials.
“The outer and the inner layer of surgical masks are made with non-woven fabric, which is used in the production of diapers as well.” Even with an estimated 50 per cent increase in shipping rates and 30 per cent increase in raw materials cost, Mr Ng has yet to increase the price of his diapers.
“We still want to be able to provide affordable diapers to those in need. Ever since the “circuit breaker” measures, we had to outsource most of the delivery to protect our staff, but we cover the cost of that as well.”
Mr Ng also reported a drop of monthly donations in this period and hopes more companies “can come forward to contribute”.
“With everything that’s going on right now, there are even more seniors who will need diapers - especially when they are encouraged to stay at home.”
As for Mr Peh, he has been receiving free diapers from Audela ever since his chance encounter with Mr Ng. Even though the diapers are just left at the door these days, he is grateful.
“Without him, I would have to head out to buy a pack every three days - it’s very ‘heart pain’ to spend that money,” he said.
“This makes me so happy and relieved.”