India's rural inventors drive change
By Raja Murthy
MUMBAI - Mansukh Prajapati invented a first-of-a-kind refrigerator that is made
out of terracotta, works without electricity, costs US$53 and is selling in the
thousands. It's a sample of an innovation wave from rural and small-town India
enriching the world with common-sense products.
Anil Gupta, a professor at India's premier business school, the Indian
Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, leads a pioneering tribe of technocrats
working for no-frills change at the mass level, by harnessing knowledge wealth
from economically weaker sections of society.
"Being economically poor does not mean being knowledge-poor," Gupta told Asia
Times Online. "But the poor who are at the
bottom of the economic pyramid are often considered as being at the bottom of
the knowledge pyramid as well. Nothing could be further from the truth."
To prove the truth that wisdom does not depend on university degrees, Gupta's
21-year-old Honey Bee Network has compiled an unprecedented database of 140,000
innovations created by farmers, villagers and small-town inventors. Many have
no formal education or technical training. Teams of Honey Bee volunteers scout
across India to hunt out local innovations, inventions and traditional
The Honey Bee Network of rural and small-town inventors, academics, scientists,
entrepreneurs, policymakers and volunteers gather, pool, develop and share
know-how from a mass-based, much-ignored source. India's heart beats in its
villages, and the country is entering a phase of listening to its heartbeat.
Gupta, who is also a visiting professor of innovation management in emerging
markets at the European Business School, Frankfurt, Germany, coordinates the
Honey Bee Network. In turn, the network connects with other supporting agencies
in India, such as the National Innovation Foundation, Society for Research and
Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions, the Grassroots
Innovation Augmentation Network, Innovation Club and the Network of Rural
The inter-connected agencies help test grassroots inventions, file for patents,
find investors to develop, produce and market eco-friendly, cheaper new
products. The small inventors have a chance to profit from their creativity.
"Most of the innovations in our database are open source and shared freely,"
said Gupta. "But if needed, we help innovators file for patents for innovations
that are commercially viable." He points to Honey Bee inventors even procuring
patents in the United States, with its strict patents regimen, proving the
quality of technical talent available at the grassroots level.
Prajapati, a clay potter from the western state of Gujarat, is a typical
success case from this new tribe of innovators with supporting angels to guide
them to commercially producing their inventions.
Prajapati invented low-cost refrigeration in a country where the fridge remains
out of reach of lower, middle-income groups and the poor. The Mitti Cool, made
out of terracotta, an unglazed clay-based ceramic, uses an age-old practice
still common in India of earthen-clay pots keeping water refreshingly below
room temperature. Prajapati developed the earthen pot-cooling effect to produce
a fridge that keeps food, vegetables, even milk, fresh for days, requires no
maintenance, needs no electricity and costs $53, with shipping charges extra.
Prajapati's bigger success is his $1 non-stick frying pan made out of clay.
It's a healthier, safer, cheaper version of non-stick utensils compared with
the conventional teflon-coated chemical variety.
Gupta, who in 2007 became an honorary professor at China's Tianjin University
of Finance and Economics, says cost-effective, locally sustainable grassroots
innovation is the way forward to source new technologies and ideas in a global
economy, to serve more people.
"It is now realized that mere reliance on market forces will not work to fill
innovation gaps or to disseminate innovative ideas, products and services among
disadvantaged segments of the population," says Gupta's nine-page paper
"Grassroots Green Innovations for Inclusive Sustainable Development".
Such sustainable, ready-to-order inventions from the Honey Bee database range
across 34 categories. They include agricultural tools and techniques, water
conservation, health, education innovation, food and nutrition, traditional
medicines and industrial and household goods.
Farmer Mansukh Jagani invented a motorcycle-driven ploughing machine for fields
in a drought-hit region where most farmers can barely afford tractors or
bullocks. Uttam Patil invented matchsticks made of natural fibers sourced from
Bachu Thesia invented a long-lasting electric bulb that withstands
short-circuits. When thieves began pinching the cost-saving bulbs from
households and fields, Thesia inserted a slip of paper with the name of the
owner into the glass bulb to help identify those that were stolen.
The Honey Bee Network, which has a presence in 75 countries, aims to prevent
exploitation of traditional knowledge; multinational biotechnology
corporations, for example, are accused of patenting traditional Indian
medicinal knowledge such as neem and turmeric.
"Honey Bee, true to its metaphor, has been the source of pollination and
cross-pollination of ideas, creativity and grassroots genius, without taking
away the nectar from the flower forever," says the introductory note on the
Honey Bee website.
Thousands of such ideas and products are feeding other innovation networks
across India. The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chennai, part of the
globally renowned IIT centers established across India, operates the "Rural
Technology & Business Incubator" agency to "design, develop, and bring
about innovations that would fit to most of our rural needs".
Digital Green, a Microsoft Research India project, helps increase the
productivity of small farmers through low-cost information exchange, such as
personal interactions among farmers and with experts. Digital Green videotapes
agricultural improvements by farmers in a village and shares the innovations
with other villages. The You-Tube-like information sharing aims to help small
farmers across the developing world.
Highly qualified technocrats work with farmers for mutual benefit.
Bangalore-based Digital Green's chief executive, Rikin Gandhi, for instance, is
a computer engineer with a master's degree in aeronautical engineering from the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Born and brought up in the US, Gandhi
represents a reverse-migration back to India, to help serve the country at the
Such change could happen faster with greater corporate common sense. Gupta said
one of the major challenges was convincing big companies to invest in research
and development in grassroots inventions and benefit from them.
Companies that take the plunge are making their investors happy. Mumbai-based
Marico, makers of the popular Parachute coconut oil brand, found a farmer in
the south Indian state of Kerala who invented a device to more safely and
quickly climb coconut trees to pick the lucrative nuts.
Marico chief executive Harsh Mariwala teamed up with India's Coconut Development Board to turn the prototype
into a commercially viable machine, according to a Harvard Business Review posting dated April 13, 2009. Marico then used its nation-wide network to
distribute the machine to its hundreds of coconut oil suppliers. Coconut oil
productivity increased, as have Marico's profits, which surged to $40.6 million
last June from $12.6 million five years earlier.
Other innovation networks with a rural base are thriving across the country.
The Chennai city-based Villagro calls itself a "mass transformation movement
with singular objective: to create a prosperous rural India, buzzing with ideas
for growth, and transform rural lives through innovations". Villagro says it
has activated nearly 1,500 innovations since 2001, and benefited more than
130,000 lives in rural India.
Navi Radjou, executive director of the Center for India & Global Business
at the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, in the United Kingdom,
noticed the innovation wave during a recent trip to India. "What struck us most
during this field trip is that most Indian innovators - both large and small -
are now single-mindedly targeting the rural market, which accounts for 70% of
India's population," Radjou said in the Harvard Business Review this month.
Radjou, who previously led the Forrester Research team on global innovation,
calls for "turbocharging" India's growth by building a National Innovation
Network, with public-private partnerships between grassroots entrepreneurs and
Innovation gurus such as Professor Gupta are emphatic about grassroots
knowledge bridging social and economic divides. "Some people think in terms of
surviving the next day, while others have the luxury of being able to plan for
the next century," he says. "When these time horizons converge, we will have a
society in which the skills, knowledge and resources in which poor people are
rich are validated more fully."