A unique academic network nurtures innovation among India's poor
By Shailaja Neelakantan
Issue cover-dated September 30, 2005
Mansukhbhai Patel, a hard-working farmer with a 10th-grade education, has revolutionized the cotton industry here in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Had it not been for a chance meeting with a college student, the cotton-stripping machine Mr. Patel invented might never have been a success.
That student put Mr. Patel in touch with Anil Gupta, a management professor at one of the country's elite Indian Institutes of Management and the founder of an unconventional academic project. An evangelical supporter of grassroots innovations, Mr. Gupta is on a mission to ensure that rural inventors like Mr. Patel can commercialize their creations. To make that happen, Mr. Gupta founded the Honey Bee Network, a scouting team of sorts, in which academics, scientists, graduate students, farmers, and artisans seek out and nurture the tinkerers, mechanics, and self-taught scientists in villages and small towns across India.
The network, formed in 1987, has discovered Amrutbhai Agrawat and his tilting bullock-cart, which greatly enhances efficiency in spreading manure on small fields; Mansukhbhai Jagani's modified motorcycle, which has attachments for tilling, weeding, and sowing; Kalpesh Gujjar's small, energy-saving seed-oil extractor with a novel gearbox; and Arvindbhai Patel's water chiller that uses no electricity.
All of those men are rural workers whose original goal was simply to make backbreaking work a little easier.
"Poor people have to be inventive to survive," says Mr. Gupta, "and the elite often fail to recognize that the poor are knowledge-rich, and that is a vital resource for any community and economy." Clad in a knee-length, hand-woven shirt called a kurta, white pajama pants, and sandals, he looks more like a zealous social activist than a professor at a university that turns out future corporate executives.
Readers in the developed world may question why a new cotton-stripping machine is needed when Eli Whitney's cotton gin revolutionized the industry more than 200 years ago. But Mr. Patel faced a problem characteristic of this region.
Farmers here grow a tough variety of cotton, called V-797, that does not need much water and can withstand the harsh, arid climate. While most hybrid varieties produce balls of cotton that can be picked directly from the plant, this indigenous variety produces sturdy pods that do not open easily to let loose the fibers within.
Instead, the pods must be picked off the plant and cracked manually to extract the fibers. This is a tedious and time-consuming task performed by women and children, who often cannot pick all of the cotton before seasonal rains arrive. Traditional handpicking methods also force children to work long hours in the field instead of attending school.
Mr. Patel, a self-taught electrician and mechanic, started work on his cotton-stripping machine in 1991. He made three models before selecting the one that worked best, and he finished the first prototype in 1992. The following year, he sold a number of them to local ginners in his village of Nana Ubhada. But after a couple of months, a wire-mesh plate in each machine broke, and the machines failed. Mr. Patel stunned his customers, and the community, by giving the ginners back their money and continuing to work on his invention. His reputation as a dogged technician and an honest businessman grew.
'The Crazy Ones'
In 1995, Hirendra Rawal, a scout from the Honey Bee Network, was touring Nana Ubhada.
"The student scouts are given a clear mandate," says Mr. Gupta. "Go from village to village and look for the oddballs, the crazy ones, the ones who do something different and don't follow set patterns, the ones with curiosity, who have come up with homegrown solutions for various problems.
And Hirendra kept hearing things about Mansukhbhai Patel, mostly about his honesty and integrity, and also about his failed machine."
Mr. Rawal met Mr. Patel and was intrigued by his machine. He wrote up his notes and showed them to Mr. Gupta.
"At the time a professor from the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay was visiting, and I took him along to meet Mansukhbhai, and he said that with some alterations the cotton stripper would work just fine," says Mr.
Unlike many of the self-taught innovators the scouts came across, Mr. Patel was open-minded about getting help.
"Initially, many grassroots innovators don't like to talk about what they do or give away their secrets," says Kamlesh Kumar Tawal, a scout. "It takes a couple of visits to convince them that we are not here to steal their ideas, but we are here to help them take the ideas forward and give them credit for it."
Mr. Patel had no such misgivings. "Taking help is a good thing, and I don't consider it beneath me. I knew things would get better when they came to me," he says about the Honey Bee Network.
Soon after he met Mr. Patel, Mr. Gupta heard from Ahmedabad's elite National Institute of Design that a German exchange student wanted to work on design innovations in a rural area. The student ended up staying with Mr. Patel as they worked together on a new machine. A final model, built in 1999, worked perfectly.
"It was interesting working with a professional but also a bit strange,"
recalls the genial Mr. Patel. "I visualize a model in my head and then I make it. But the professionals sit at their computer or with pencil and paper and draw and redraw things before they actually make something."
Before he started the Honey Bee Network, Mr. Gupta was a consultant for the Bangladesh government and helped farmers there use technology to improve yields and working conditions. He says that job left him dissatisfied. "I wrote all these papers, having used their grassroots knowledge, and I got this ... [very high] salary, but I never gave anything back. I felt quite guilty. Maybe it is the Indian mentality."
So he decided to help rural innovators by securing intellectual property rights for them and publicizing their inventions. He explains how he came up with the name of his network: "I had in mind the metaphor of honeybees that collect nectar from flowers without impoverishing them, and in turn, the bees aid pollination and diversity."
In 1993 the Honey Bee Network was renamed the Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions, or Sristi.
Students in the society write case studies of particular inventions and publish them in Honey Bee magazine, which was initially supported by the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, but now operates independently and is published in eight languages.
Set for Life
In 1997 Mr. Gupta and his organization helped form the Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network, or GIAN.
"We realized that we were cataloging all these innovations and helping the grassroots innovators, but we weren't equipped to take these innovations forward," says Mr. Gupta, who convinced the government of the State of Gujarat, where his institute is located, to contribute $230,000 to what eventually became a business incubator. "Back then we called it a trust, but turns out it was India's first microventure incubation fund," chuckles Mr.
Gupta. "All these concepts became buzzwords much later, but we were thinking about them even before that."
GIAN gave Mr. Patel $5,100 to start commercial production of the cotton stripper, and the first sales were made in 2000. Three years later GIAN helped Mr. Patel obtain a U.S. patent. Last year he won India's National Research Development Corporation technology award for best innovation.
Today this former amateur technician, who was once chided by his wife for his "crazy pursuits," earns nearly $7,000 a year -- a lot of money in India, where the average yearly income is $350. To ensure that sales don't stagnate, he has made energy-saving and capacity-enhancing improvements on his machine twice since 2000.
Ginners now are replacing their old machines, so sales remain steady. Mr.
Patel has moved out of his village house and built a home about 40 miles from Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat. His new house has air-conditioning, and he has also bought a car.
"I have a computerlike mind. If I had become an engineer, I would be working with microprocessors today, but I am happy," says Mr. Patel, beaming. "My children are now set for life, and my wife doesn't scold me anymore."
The ginners are equally pleased. "Before we had the machine, we could produce only 20 kilos of cotton in an hour; now we can do 350 kilos in an hour," says Prabhubhai Thakkar, a ginner in a nearby district, who owns six of Mr. Patel's machines. "I used to produce only 400 to 500 bales of cotton, but now I produce 30,000 bales a year."
Mr. Gupta has been productive as well. Five years ago he convinced the Indian government to set up the National Innovations Foundation, with an endowment of $4.6-million. The interest on that money is used to support his network and finance grassroots innovations throughout the country.
"There is a lot of work to be done," says the professor, who, in addition to coordinating these multiple ventures, teaches four courses at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. (Most professors teach only two.) "I need to have more work to do than there is time to do it, " he says with a smile.
He has his wish. The foundation has so far documented 51,000 mechanical, technical, and herbal inventions and practices in more than 300 Indian districts. "Now we have to keep scouting and enabling all these innovators,"
says Mr. Gupta. Mr. Patel and his ilk will no doubt keep him busy.
Volume 52, Issue 6, Page A43