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India’s frugal innovations

Mar 25, 2011

India’s National Innovation Council’s newly coined ‘frugal innovations’ envisions low cost and highly competent products and services for the poor. Senior editor Latha Jishnu however cautions on basic investments in research and education to make such ideas venture friendly.



Of all the words that have been coupled with innovation, “frugal” must rank as the most intriguing—and it is an Indian invention. “Frugal innovation” is a term coined by the Planning Commission, which proffers it as a radical solution to finding more appropriate processes and products to tackle the development gaps in our society.

Here’s how the Planning Commission envisions it: “India needs more “frugal innovation” that produces more “frugal cost” products and services that are affordable by people at low levels of incomes without compromising the safety, efficiency and utility of the products. The country also needs processes of innovation that are frugal in the resources required. The products and processes must also have “frugal impact” on the earth’s resources.” For a government organisation that is steeped in the old ways of looking at development issues, you cannot get more innovative than this.

From the strange motorised contraptions on the roads to the skilful adaptations of farm implements and electronic appliances, we have learned to make do with little funds and a lot of skill

The touchstone is inclusive growth. The PlanCom’s argument is that the conventional innovation paradigm, based on the number of scientists deployed and huge research and development (R&D) funding, will produce expensive innovations whose costs have to be recovered from the pricing of the products they turn out. A good example, it says, is the pharmaceutical industry which finds it uneconomic to develop low-cost solutions for ailments that affect the poor. Ergo, innovation with fewer and less costly inputs.

Driving this concept will be the National Innovation Council (NIC) headed by Sam Pitroda, adviser to the prime minister on public information infrastructure and innovations, and its task is ambitious. It hopes to re-trigger an innovation culture across the board, in government, institutions and society, to meet development challenges in practically every sector, from health, agriculture and urban infrastructure to public service delivery and governance.

Frugal innovation is not exactly a new idea in jugaad country that is India. Jugaad is a cheap, improvised solution to a problem or a need, and we excel in it. Not having enough resources has forced us to innovate in weird and wonderful ways. From the strange motorised contraptions on the roads to the skilful adaptations of farm implements and electronic appliances, we have learned to make do with little funds and a lot of skill. And not just at the bottom. On a more sophisticated level, Indian surgeons and hospital administrators have perfected the art and technique of providing hi-tech eye and heart surgeries at a fraction of the cost in the developed world.

Examples of native innovation are thick on the ground. You only have to go to the website of the Honey Bee Network started by IIM-Ahmedabad professor Anil K Gupta to learn how prolific Indians are in using traditional knowledge and practical skills to solve day-to-day problems. The “barefoot professor” has been doing a great job of scouting for rural innovation and has recorded around 10,000 of these.

Social enterprise innovations that produce socially useful outcomes for the poor are less likely to attract private capital because returns would be harder to guarantee

When I first met him 13 years ago I had been sceptical of his ability to make much of an impact since funds were tight and institutional support was minimal. But carried along by his passion and the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), set up by the Department of Science and Technology with a tiny corpus of Rs 20 crore, the unique Honey Bee Network has been able to commercialise some of the innovations.

NIC appears to have been largely inspired by the Honey Bee philosophy. Gupta is one of the 17 members of NIC along with NIF founder-chairperson R A Mashelkar. But NIC is thinking big. In two-three months, it hopes to create a Rs 1,000-crore fund that will provide venture capital for new ideas that could solve problems in the health, education, urban and rural infrastructure, transport and sanitation sectors. It seems an overly optimistic expectation since the fund, barring a small contribution from the government, will be a private one.

Would angel investors or venture capitalists be willing to risk their money in such ventures unless they are sure of returns? The PlanCom briefing paper admits this could be a serious problem since private equity funds, although swelling in India, are channelling investments into large and “safer” investments. It also admits that social enterprise initiatives, innovations that produce socially useful outcomes for the poor and which appear to be the heart of the innovation programme, are less likely to attract private capital because returns would be harder to guarantee.

While trying to create appropriate ecosystems to foster innovation, NIC could get trapped in its own rhetoric. Can the “Indian model of innovation” afford to ignore what developed countries think are the best way to boost innovation? OECD, the grouping of rich nations, believes it is through investment in education, R&D and “knowledge-supporting infrastructure”, such as broadband. Can India do without these basics?

Latha Jishnu is Senior Editor of science and environment magazine Down To Earth. Her concerns relate to the way power structures in society – business corporations, governments and lobbies – impact the lives of the powerless.

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