Home / Opinion / Online Views /  Anil Gupta |The grassroots innovators

Inclusive development requires meeting the unmet needs of bypassed sectors, spaces and social segments. Affordability of solutions, whether developed by local people or outsiders, will influence the extent to which these needs can be met. There are problems in our society that we have decided to live with almost indefinitely. The result is a feeling of alienation among the affected people. The cost of keeping order in a fractured and fragmented society often is far more than the cost of generating inclusive, innovative solutions. And yet, both the state and the market and sometimes even civil society become complicit in this persistent neglect. Grassroots innovators try to solve some of these problems through their own genius, though not always optimally. There are times when they struggle for a decade or more to find a manageable solution.

Natubhai, from Gujarat, has been trying to develop a machine to pick cotton from dryland varieties of the crop for more than 10 years. To maintain his experimental spirit and to find the right answer to various questions, he has had to go through multiple iterations. In the absence of support from organizations such as the Honey Bee Network (a network of organizations that work on rural innovation) and the National Innovation Foundation or NIF (an autonomous institution of the Department of Science and Technology, that promotes grassroot innovation), it will be difficult for innovators such as Natubhai to persevere. Every need innovators identify is a signal to society about a gap in the ecosystem. For example, a double weft loom in Manipur, a magnetic bobbin by an inventor in Assam, a multipurpose food processing machine by another in Haryana and at least five different variants of bamboo incense stick making machines out of Mizoram, Manipur and Gujarat by different individuals.

What can firms do to learn from these examples to develop low-cost solutions? They can join hands with these grassroots innovators and help improve the last-mile look and feel of the products and services without losing the affordability advantage.

They can create an open innovation platform that will acknowledge, attribute and reciprocate the knowledge and ideas obtained from the informal sector. They can contribute towards building capacity of the informal sector so that they can come up with more low-cost solutions. After refining them, they can help in commercializing them. Tata Agrico, a leading farm machinery maker, identified the potential of a sugarcane bud chipper developed by Vishwakarma (an inventor who goes by one name) from Madhya Pradesh and then tested its effectiveness in the field. Once convinced, it signed an agreement with him mediated by NIF to make 3,000 bud chippers.

A pharma company tied up with NIF to make and market a herbal drug to treat eczema developed by Sadbhav Sristi Sanshodhan, Sristi’s natural product laboratory. Sristi (Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions) works on making marketable products out of grassroot inventions. Manufactured under licence, part of the profit went to six communities whose knowledge was pooled by Sristi to develop the drug. There are tens of thousands of herbal, mechanical and other solutions waiting to be scaled up in this manner.

There are many ways in which one can learn from these innovations. My regret is that hunger for truly low-cost innovation is missing not only in the private sector but also in the public systems. Several outstanding, grassroots inventions are not even in the reckoning for a recent initiative by the National Innovation Council (an expert body that looks at ways to execute innovation projects across the country), which is proposing a special fund for incubating new ideas—for preliminary proof of concept funding. It is only in India that an inclusive fund can be designed by excluding the young people who are the hope for the future.

Anil Gupta is executive chairman of the National Innovation Foundation.

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