The Honey Bee Network taps grassroots innovations.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Three months ago, at a CII symposium on decoding rural markets where rural marketing gurus spoke of their approach to capturing the largely unaccrued volumes of rural consumption, one person turned the entire focus of the meet on its head.

Anil Gupta, executive chairperson, National Innovation Foundation, later said: “I was shocked at how little those marketers knew about rural India. All they could talk about was dumbing down their advertising, and redesigning products for their rural markets, somehow implying rural people are less intelligent, and less desirous of quality products.When we talk of India as a knowledge economy, we assume rural people will be employed only in the lowest value-adding activities and never as providers of knowledge. That is absurd.”

Fast-forward to the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, where a twinkle-eyed, full-bearded Gupta is looking considerably less energetic than the last time we met. “I teach seven courses (that’s four more than the average) and run several organisations sparked off by my interest in rural creativity. I sleep for three or four hours a night.”

Gupta is the founder of the Honey Bee Network which 16 years ago triggered the movement to scout, acknowledge and sustain unaided innovative urges at the grassroots level. “The whole thing stemmed from my guilt that, as academicians, we write about knowledge at the grassroots but offer no acknowledgement or contribute towards it.”

GIVE US AN IDEA: With the help of like-minded volunteers, the Honey Bee network built a database after successfully garnering the trust of people like 76-year-old Uttam Patil with his eco-friendly natural fibre matchsticks that burn longer and more steadily.

And Amrutbhai Agrewat, a serial inventor, who has taken the traditional bullock cart and rebuilt it with a tilting device so that composting need no longer be done by hand. And thousands of traditional herbal and livestock healers, who shared their recycled medical folklore.

Honey Bee today feeds into the nationwide database of the National Innovation Foundation, set up in 2000 by the Department of Science & Technology to scale up scouting activity and build an entire value chain around it. The NIF database has over 50,000 innovations scouted from over 400 districts.

“The key thing for us,” says Divya Sarma, associate editor, Honey Bee, “was to have a publication that mass communicated the excellence of these ideas.” Hence Honey Bee today prints a magazine in 10 regional languages besides Spanish and Bhutanese.

CONNECTING INNOVATOR TO ENTREPRENEUR AND INVESTOR: At an international conference on grassroots creativity at IIM in 1997, Gupta came to the realisation that with all the scouting they had done, they had neither the resources nor the expertise to commercialise a single one of the innovations.

“Few innovators are good entrepreneurs; besides the lack of capital, batch-to-batch consistency is not something they can do,” says Gupta.

He made a note of 23 areas that innovators could use help in, and solicited a fund to start the first Gian (Grassroots Innovations Augmentation Networks) cell that would perform the tasks of value-addition, market benchmarking and business development.

Arvindbhai Patel, an obsessive innovator, is a secondary school graduate and an accomplished technician. “I was tired of people laughing at me when I would look for problems to solve,” he says. “But now that I have sold the rights to my natural water cooler through Gian for Rs 1 lakh, they realise I am involved in ’big’ things.”

Chintan Bakshi, chief innovation manager at Gian Gujarat and an IIM alumnus himself, excitedly reveals their latest venture “We are working very closely with an entrepreneur for developing the first cycle pedal-operated power generation system. Thirty minutes of pedalling of a conventional cycle can produce enough energy to light up a small house for five hours.”

Says Gupta,”Before we set up Gian, we were disillusioned about not impacting the lives of our innovators but, today, 29 technologies have been licensed out; it proves the point that it is possible.”

THE VALUE OF GRANDMA’S REMEDIES: Karimbhai practises herbal medicine from his home. He believes he has discovered a cure for diabetes. His remedy is currently being scientifically tested by the Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (Sristi) to see if it can be patented.

Sristi was formed by Gupta to provide institutional backing to Honey Bee, and mainly addresses traditional agricultural and human health practices. “In the absence of appropriate incentives, traditional knowledge will get eroded and society will lose a very valuable source of local health solutions.” The Sristi laboratory is where active ingredients are culled out of traditional medicine.

Hundreds of vials filled with viscous fluids sit patiently in a refrigerated unit. Leafs, roots and barks dry under the sun. Apart from the impressive research in the natural product lab, a large number of products have been taken for validation through clinical trials.

The lab has just transferred its first technology to Ahmedabad-based Troikaa Pharmaceuticals, and a mosquito repellent cream, a wound healing ointment, and an anti-diarrhoeal formulation are all ready for licensing. The benefits accrued are shared with the native healers.

WALKING THE TALK: On December 27, Gupta along with Sristi volunteers will undertake a 10-day, 150-km walk they call Shodh Yatra, through the rainforests of the Idukki district in Kerala.

The walk, the 16th of its kind, originated as a celebration of creative ingenuity at the grassroots level, but has developed into a journey to protect biodiversity by involving women and children to display their ecological knowledge through various competitions.

“We’ve come across children who, by the age of 12, have been able to identify the main uses for as many as 300 plants,” says Gupta. These contests mean that imbibing this knowledge from grandma is suddenly seen by people as important – not least because you get a prize for it.

Incidentally, Gupta has introduced the Shodh Yatra as part of the first year optional course curriculum for IIM students. “There is great demand for it,” says Gupta with the pride of a patriarch; “it’s a bidding war each year.”

WHOSE RIGHTH IS IT ANYWAY? It’s hard to miss the footnote on every page in Honey Bee magazine – ’Will you stand by the IPRs of peasants?’ In a country where moving copycats to court is an unviable proposition and the process of filing for patents is notoriously slow and lengthy, rural innovators stand little chance of enjoying intellectual property rights. Yet Gupta is ready to put up a good fight for it.

In the new knowledge economy, the protection of intellectual property becomes very important. “Why should intellectual property merely benefit big corporations?” asks Gupta. The National Design Policy, due for approval in Parliament, re-opens the issue of patenting.

“We are working on protection mechanisms that are easily actionable,” says Naresh Nandan Prasad, joint secretary, ministry of commerce and industry. “Only if you offer protection will people have the incentive to create.”

Predictably, 62 patents lie uncorroborated at the Indian patent office. Patent firms in the US have proved more efficient – three of six patents filed in the US have been awarded.

SMALL IS BIG: “Incidentally,” says Gupta, “all technologies we licensed out have gone to small entrepreneurs; not one single large corporation has put in a request for a technology.”

He recounts a trip to Ludhiana where he asked a room full of the largest cycle manufacturers: “Does it matter that rural innovators are developing so many alternative uses of a cycle and you are not?”

According to a recent survey conducted by the Confederation of Indian Industries and the Boston Consulting Group, nearly 83 per cent of the Indian executives surveyed said innovation was among their top three priorities for their manufacturing companies in order to develop competitiveness.

Seventy per cent also said their companies would be increasing spend on innovation in 2006. Does this spell good news for rural innovators? Dr Darlie O’Koshy who chairs the CII national committee on technology and innovation, also the executive director of the National Institute of Design, doesn’t think so.

“Companies today are looking for a marriage between great design and technology, and the Indian design industry is extremely cut-throat,” he says. “Moreover, rural innovation tends to be vernacular, ethnic and highly contextual; it needs to be far more generically applicable. The other issue is consistency, and the long period of incubation.”

“Constructive resistance is good,” says Gupta, albeit disappointedly.

NEW CYCLES OF CREATIVITY: “Five years ago a student asked me why I don’t work on innovation with my students just as I did do with rural innovators. I had never thought about it. Now we have a class every year, where every one of 300 students has to come out with a new idea or an improvement in an existing product or service.”

Since last year Gupta has been visiting all the IITs, conducting ideation workshops. “I try to work with technology and business students as much as possible; we need their energy,” he explains.

In 2001, Sristi set up a workshop on the NID campus to involve students in the improvement of design and technology. Gupta is now wooing pharma colleges.

TINKERING WITH SUCCESS: Gupta gives himself a modest four out of 10 for his 16 years of fighting the flow. “Who I really need now are tinkerers, to help us make prototypes and value-add. There are surely enough people who as children broke toys and re-made them,” he asks rhetorically.

“My regret is we are not able to do as much as we should, especially in the areas of value-addition and business development. The MoU we signed with the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research gives me hope that the linkages between formal and informal knowledge systems will become stronger.”

There is a sudden stream of phone calls to confirm changed lecture timings. He scratches out previously made notes on his calendar to accomodate new scribblings.

And yawns. It’s a tough job, sitting at a seat of influence that reaches out to both the cream of future knowledge providers and the people at the bottom of the pyramid he believes are actually the tip of the iceberg.

Source: Business Standard (link opens in a new window)