Frugal Innovation: Key to India’s Healthy Future?

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Way back in 2009, watching the Bollywood movie ‘3 Idiots’, I remember scoffing at one of the movie sequences where the protagonist Aamir Khan facilitates the delivery of a baby using a vacuum cleaner and an inverter made from a car battery. I somehow could not relate with the idea that a vacuum cleaner could be used as a suction pump to deliver babies. However, at that time I settled down to thinking that after all it’s from a Bollywood movie where anything is possible.

Fast forward to 2015, in October, I attended an innovator’s exhibition at Somaiya College Campus in Mumbai where around 100 students from various institutions across the country had gathered to demonstrate their innovations in areas of healthcare, art, consumables and more. There were some cool healthcare innovations such as a blood flow analyser made using laser technology, a virtual navigation stick for the blind created using ultrasonic sensor, diagnostic protocols for malaria developed using fluorescent microscopy etc., all made at a very low cost using simple technologies. This got me hooked to the subject of frugal innovation or ‘Jugaad’ in the Indian parlance. On further research, I found a host of whitepapers that spoke about people in remote villages of India converting polystyrene boxes into infant incubators to save life of babies born with low birth weight, medical technology giants creating ultralow-power screening devices to suit local conditions, so on and so forth. These citings have made me realise that India’s acclaimed resourcefulness can lead to great home-grown innovations with the potential to solve the country’s unmet healthcare needs and become a globally relevant business methodology.

For instance, the Jaipur Foot. First invented in the 1960s, it was developed to suit the needs and requirements of the people seeking it. This innovation changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of amputees. But, what makes this innovation stand out is its cost effectiveness that earned it international acclaim. Today, a complete Jaipur Foot limb costs less than $40 including a prosthetic foot made of wood and sponge rubber, which itself costs less than $ 5 and can be made in under three hours. Today, employing a hub-and-spoke delivery model, the makers of the Jaipur Foot, Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti (BMVSS) reach out to patients through 22 centres across the country and more than 50 mobile camps are held in remote rural areas. This highly coordinated network allows the organisation to divide its resources efficiently, reducing overhead and human capital cost, without limiting the reach of its services.

Another similar example is Arunachalam Muruganantham’s low-cost sanitary pad making machine which played a pivotal role in improving menstrual health for rural women, not only in India but also in 17 developing countries including the African states. Muruganantham is successfully running a self-sustaining sanitary napkin business, called Jayashree Industries. It has over 2000 units across India, including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, employing 21,000 women. He was also named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2014 for his innovation and efforts. Like these examples, there are many stories that speak of India’s frugal engineering skills and its tremendous capabilities to disrupt various market. But is India’s healthcare sector equipped to drive this growth and sustain it in the long run?

Express Healthcare, in this article, seeks to find answers to this question; however, in the process finds two important aspects to the issue. One that helps in meeting the unmet healthcare needs of those at the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) and the other that bears witness to the changing business scenario. Let’s first understand how frugal innovations can serve the underserved.

Driven by needs

Necessity is said to be the mother of all inventions and it perfectly describes the case of India’s healthcare scenario currently. Driven by factors such as resource scarcity, rising cost and lack of access to health services in the rural areas, India is looking at frugal innovation for deliverance in every spectrum of healthcare.

Says Vinayak Nandalike, CEO, Yostra Labs, “India imports more than 70 per cent of the medical equipment which is designed for healthcare setups of developed economies. From clinical needs, patient affordability, accessibility and healthcare setup perspective, India presents certain unique challenges that makes it difficult for the global medical device manufacturers to go with a ‘one size fits all’ approach to medical device development. Growing need for affordable healthcare in India is opening up new avenues for entrepreneurs, and established medical device manufacturers alike to employ frugal innovations which will disrupt the market and at the same time have significant societal impact”.

Source: The Financial Express (link opens in a new window)

Health Care
healthcare technology