India's rural inventors drive change

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 knowledge practices.

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 Universities.

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 agricultural waste.

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.

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