Rishabh Kaul

Using Knowledge from the Informal Economy to Create Sustainable Ventures

If something isn’t broken, do we still fix it? This is something one hears quite often and it’s importance in Base of the Pyramid contexts is often neglected. A recent talk at BITS Pilani by (Retired) Brigadier P. Ganeshan, Andhra Pradesh head of Honeybee (we have earlier covered Honeybee here), focused on just that. In a nutshell, Honeybee is a digitized compendium of rural innovations and local practices implemented by rural communities in Indian villages. It currently houses over 100,000 innovations from all over India. Talk about an idea pool huh?

The crux of his talk was the need for knowledge-based growth. Despite India being a knowledge-based economy, he said, it is surprising to see how the knowledge possessed by BoP populations is being neglected and not given the attention it deserves. He stressed that many social entrepreneurs, though willing to spend vast amounts of time lending an ear to the problems of villages, aren’t as willing to accept that these villages have come up with solutions to their own problems. The critical part, he believes, is optimizing these solutions to maximize their output.

He spoke of how India’s farmers usually follow 30-35 farming practices, but no initiative is in place to optimize these practices and introduce appropriate technologies. According to him, villages are the oldest and most natural and form of open source knowledge, with potential to be further improved for the benefit of the entire nation.

The best thing social entrepreneurs could do is understand local technologies already being used and optimize them with local knowledge gathered from the insight of their users. Local solutions in the villages are often the most eco-friendly and sustainable, and they are also locally made, cutting down on operation costs.

This video further simplifies the point he was making.

Moses Lee highlighted the notion behind the above in a previous post, calling it “survival entrepreneurship”. Similarly, Fast Company has referred to the overarching trend as “trickling-up innovations”. The sheer simplicity of this particular example amazed me. It doesn’t require any electricity, it is sustainable and, hey, it even keeps one fit. Ganeshan added that for a nation like India, it is production by the masses and not mass production which will alleviate poverty. Hence it’s critical to involve the community from where the idea is taken in the manufacturing of a product. This would ensure inclusive growth.

What about the innovators themselves? This question led Prof. Anil Gupta, founder of the Honeybee Network, went on to found the National Innovation Foundation, which then started the Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network (GIAN). GIAN allows entrepreneurs to take ownership of technologies, commercialize products and scale production. As far as innovators are concerned, some want to simply be compensated for the technology while others are more entrepreneurial and desire venture funding. More about that can be read in their Business Opportunities section (North, West).

It’ll be interesting to see how entrepreneurs can utilize this goldmine. There’s huge potential for the knowledge of informal sectors to be leveraged and introduced into the formal economy. Once entrepreneurs and investors start realizing this and giving it due recognition, I’m confident that we’ll see India’s villages achieve growth at a much faster rates.