Till Saturday evening I was, presumably like the rest of the country, overwhelmed with the shocker on the economy that was served up last week. That was till I commenced chairing a panel discussion coinciding with the launch of a book, Jugaad Innovation: A frugal and flexible approach to innovation for the 21st century.
The positive energy from the discussion, thanks to active participation from the audience, and the compelling narrative of the examples cited in the book, simply blew me away. More importantly, it showed how resilient India is, and how it will take more than one non-performing government to break its back. Jugaad is that spirit which empowers all of us; think how missed calls have empowered an entire generation of below the poverty line consumers, or how the mobile phone has doubled up as the music and cinema hub, making entertainment available to an entirely new demography.
It is this spirit of jugaad that enables the populace, not just in India but in other emerging markets and developing countries, to not just survive, but innovate and overcome inclement conditions. As the authors—Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu and Simone Ahuja—say, “When confronted with adversity, they don’t retrench but embrace the difficulties and learn from experience.”
Two examples from the book affirm this compelling argument.
The first is the innovation achieved by a denizen of Ramakrishna Nagar village in Gujarat, about 400km from Ahmedabad, which, like the cellphone, is empowering an entirely new demography; one which operates without electricity and is not necessarily affluent. Mansukh Prajapati, a trained potter and not a scientist, has put together a terracotta box that operates like a refrigerator—it can preserve vegetables for five days and can cool water. And the best part, it consumes no electricity, is biodegradable and produces no waste in its lifetime; water from an upper chamber trickles down the side walls, cooling the lower food chambers through evaporation. Mitticool (mitti means mud) costs Rs 2,000.
The second is an invention that could help 20 million babies born prematurely with a low birth weight each year, mostly in developing countries; many do not survive or sustain disabilities. All this can be avoided by keeping these premature babies warm in an incubator. The problem is that the cheapest incubator costs Rs 10 lakh and, hence, outside the purview of those at the bottom of the pyramid. Four entrepreneurs set up Embrace to come up with an affordable solution.
The tiny infant warmer that looks like a sleeping bag enables mobility for the mother and, at the same time, facilitates intimate contact with the infant. The bag is warmed by a wax pouch, which can either be charged by electricity or activated by heating it in boiling water. It costs Rs 10,000, a price, as the book points out, which is 1% of the cost of incubators available in developed countries.
I can almost see the response (have heard it in the Mint newsroom when we conjured up a series based on Anil Gupta’s pioneering work as the head of the National Innovation Council) from sceptics: “These are quick fixes and can’t be scaled up.” Critics are right from where they come from. But, as Radjou pointed out in the panel discussion, it is because the debate is wrongly focused on quality; instead, it should be on value.
To elaborate from the book: “Thus, unlike their counterparts in the West, they (jugaad innovators) do not typically focus on wowing customers with products that have cool features or the latest technologies. Instead, they pursue functionally minimalist solutions that offer superior value to customers—often transforming their lives in the process.”
Personally, I have acquired two such innovations. One is a multipurpose solar lamp that will wow even the critics for its super finish, but will also amaze you with its versatility in use. It costs Rs 1,600 and would pay for itself in the first year itself—in villages, the price of using one electric bulb, wired up from truck batteries, is Rs 5 per day.
The second is a clunky contraption, which didn’t match expectations. It is a remote-operated switch, which uses a cellphone to turn the switch on and off; so you activate the switch through a call and then turn it off with another. It was acquired to remotely operate a sprinkling watering system for the many plants on my terrace garden; unfortunately, it didn’t have the power to handle the load of turning on a power switch. Yet, it is useful to turn on or off lamps in the house remotely—a nice, urban security tool when you live alone and work late hours.
So, to return to where we began. It is a fact that countries such as India have limited resources to go around; now we also have to deal with the lack of governance. But that is precisely when the spirit of jugaad prospers. The missed calls empowered an entirely new generation of customers in the span of a decade. So clearly the key stakeholder, the customers, are backing jugaad, and in the process, India.
Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
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