January 19

Rishabh Kaul

Frugal Innovation: The Case of Zari

Nearly a decade ago, I visited Australia with my mother for a conference that she was to attend, ISCEV. My mother’s colleague, Dr. LS Mohan Ram (he has since then shifted to Singapore) who was a young optometrist at that time, accompanied us and eventually won the Eberhared Dodt Award. This, I presumed was equivalent of the TED Prize (at least in fame, if not fortune) for those engaged in electrophysiology for vision.

To fully understand the impact of his discovery, let’s excavate one of the articles published by The Hindu soon after he won the award:

PART OF the every day duties of an optometrist, working in an eye hospital involves checking whether the retina of the patient is working satisfactorily. This is done by measuring the electrical signals that are generated when light falls on the retina and transmitted from there to the brain by the optic nerve. Called electroretinograms or ERG, these signals are measured using a special type of material called the DTL electrode.

L. S. Mohan Ram, optometrist at the L. V. Prasad Eye Institute, Hyderabad, was concerned about the cost of importing the DTL electrode (Rs. 2500 per metre of the fibre), and set out to find an inexpensive, but equally efficient indigenous replacement.

The replacement Mohan came up with was Zari.

Embroidering silk sarees with zari, which simply put, is the art of wrapping silk threads with flattened gold or silver strips, is an age-old practice in India.

The result? Mohan brought down the cost of the DTL electrode from Rs 2500 ($55 USD) to a little over $1 USD.

Now comes the interesting part. I asked my mother about whether this innovation spurred the growth of the zari electrode industry and she said “no.” Eye institutes even today (a decade since this discovery) still make their own zari electrodes (or import the DTL or alternative electrodes), since there are no wholesale suppliers in this market. Organizations such as LV Prasad are even willing to train folks in zari electrode making (the technique obviously fine-tuned to suit their requirements) who could in turn make this into a business. The technique of making a zari electrode, I’ve been told, is quite simple.

I see this as a tremendous opportunity, not only to provide employment to the unskilled labor force in the future but also add direct value to large eye care organizations such as Arvind, LV Prasad Eye Institute & Sankara Netralaya. The trained zari electrode makers could reap up to 10x the return on their investment.

The reason I say “in the future” is because, the ERGs are mainly used to detect hereditary retinal degeneration, which currently doesn’t have any cure. But with stem cell research in progress, the future will see many more uses for these ERG tests and hence will have a much greater use for zari electrodes. Currently the zari electorde market is about 300 patients/day all over India.

The bigger point I am trying to make is that, there are hundreds such frugal innovations (or Jugaad as we Indians love to call it) that are taking place in India (and around the world).

These frugal innovations interest me for two reasons. Firstly, they are bringing the cost of products and services down, and hence democratizing them. But secondly and more importantly, also expanding the B2B market of the raw/finished materials that are used to drive these innovations. And more often than not, the power of the next billion can be harnessed to drive production of these materials.