Jenara Nerenberg

iBoP Asia: Science and Technology Innovations for the Base of the Pyramid

iBoP Asia recently announced the winners of their first small grants competition and the second competition is coming up soon. I wanted to highlight the grants program for our readers at NextBillion, as I know that many of you have the ideas they are looking for.

A joint collaboration between the Ateneo School of Government (ASoG) in the Philippines and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Canada, iBoP Asia seeks to advance the research agenda on science and technological innovations for the base of the pyramid in SouthEast Asia and does so through policy advocacy, conferences, small grants competitions, and more.

The winners from the first call for proposals can be found on iBoP’s website and include Niti Bhan’s Emerging Futures Lab, which, as a consultancy for BoP markets, will be looking at payment strategies and practices of the BoP with limited and irregular income. Several of the winners focus on improving farming practices, including the Sub-Plant Protection Department of Angiang Province in Vietnam and the Philippine Rice Research Institute, which focuses on building and sustaining the rice economy in the Philippines, through policy advocacy and providing farmers with greater access to technology.

As a BOPreneur living in Nepal, I was grateful to learn about iBoP Asia; an Asian entity such as ASoG that focuses specifically on the BoP in Asia, bringing together multidisciplinary actors across the region, is a welcome addition. I tend to be skeptical of organizations that focus largely on research, but iBoP Asia wants to bridge the research-practice divide with a focus on engaging the public, private, and non-profit sectors in research that leads to better innovations for the BoP.

Interestingly enough and further supporting Francisco’s prediction that the connection between climate change and poverty will be “the” issue of our time, I wanted to mention that iBoP Asia will be hosting a forum on climate change and disaster reduction in early March. We will try to post some insights and reflections from the conference attendees.

I exchanged emails with the Dean of the Ateneo School of Government, Tony La Vina, to learn more about iBoP Asia’s goals, the role of the small grants program in achieving those goals, and the rationale behind the focus on research on scientific and technological innovations. Read closely if you have a great research idea you want to pitch! Below are excerpts from my correspondence with Dean Tony La Vina.

Jenara Nerenberg: What does iBop Asia hope to accomplish with the small grants program and how will the grants program contribute to the socio-economic development of BoP communities?

Tony La Vina: The small grants are primarily intended to catalyze research on how S&T innovations can help address the needs of the poor. We want to know if innovators and businessmen see the needs of the poor as an opportunity to develop targeted products or services; if governments are providing incentives to innovators for developing these products and services; and if the people at the BoP are coming up with innovative solutions to their needs that perhaps needs incentives or investments.

Our small grants range from documentation of innovations to understanding the role the poor play in developing the innovations (e.g. through value chain analysis) and understanding the means by which the poor can pay for various products and services that they need.

Another objective of the small grants is to attract innovators, policy makers and researchers to a forum – iBoP – to interact and share experiences. iBoP will host activities that will bring grantees together to discuss relevant issues.

JN: What is the rationale for the focus on science and technological research? How will the grantees become adequately prepared to turn their ideas into business plans and new ventures?

TLV: We know how powerful technology can be in solving basic problems in an efficient and inexpensive way – for example: getting access to clean water, test kits for certain diseases, alternative fuels, healthier foods. S&T does not necessarily mean “high tech” – it can be simple solutions that the poor can even develop themselves, e.g. farming systems to adapt to changing climate conditions (floods, droughts).

Many of these innovations are developed by the business sector, which sees opportunities for marketing these products, or by NGOs who are helping marginalized sectors. In Southeast Asia, there are not many examples of the private sector looking at opportunities for serving the BoP market with innovative products or services. (there are notable examples in telecoms, but not in other sectors like healthcare). We want to understand what the barriers are and recommend changes in incentive systems, etc.

Government research institutions also conduct R&D. In developing countries, governments have S&T agencies that come up with innovations that are intended to serve the needs of the poor. However, there are problems in getting these innovations off the ground. Another goal of the project is to study the bottlenecks and recommend reforms.

JN: What stands out to you about the grantees you chose? Is there a theme? A quality that made them stand out among the rest?

TLV: In our first call for proposals, there was no theme. We wanted to reach out to as many researchers in the region doing research on any topic relevant to S&T innovations for the BoP market. Despite of the very limited reach of our networks and announcements, we received more than 50 very interesting proposals from 6 countries, including non-SEA countries like India and Pakistan.

In narrowing down the list, we looked at synergies among the proposals – bearing in mind that we wanted researchers across the region to interact. We also chose a range of proposals that will give us insights on: how the innovations actually benefit the poor, how the BoP can access these innovations, how policies have either hindered or facilitate the development of the innovations.

JN: What advice do you have for future applicants?

TLV: Our next call for proposals (to be announced 1st Quarter of 2009) will probably still have no specific theme. We are looking to document new ideas and projects going on in the region. We will be very interested in a proposal that clearly makes a case on how the innovations help the poor/address their needs, what situations the innovators encounter, especially in relating to government agencies or regulators in developing or marketing their innovations (incentives and barriers). Lastly, we will be very interested in a proposal that can be easily adopted or adapted in communities with similar needs.