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In Jugaad Land

The Week - 31, August 2009

“Taking Jugaad from grassroots to global. The good news is that India now firmly believes that Indians have an innate innovation streak and that it is something worth nurturing.”

The world over, businesses are obsessing about innovation. The developed world worries about disruptive innovations coming from emerging markets and hurting them in their home markets; while the emerging world, despite all the domestic challenges they face, is trying hard to prove them right. But what actually is innovation? A good, simple, working definition is that innovation is about new and unusual ways of thinking which, when implemented, can solve the hard-to-solve problems; or more generally, can help improve the outcomes of actions, resulting in greater financial and / or social value. Really successful innovations, by definition, have a larger impact, and can help transform businesses, societies and countries.

A combination of greed and fear has forced India Inc. to actively worship at the altar of innovation, which they now see as the key to defend their home turf and succeed in global markets where India Inc. mostly cannot compete with the unbelievably low prices at which China produces and sells to the world. They also don't have the deep pockets needed to play the game in the market the way American or European companies do. The Koreans typically fill the gap between the Chinese and their western counterparts by offering in-between quality levels at disproportionately lower prices that doesn't leave much room for maneuver for the Indians, unless they create a new and novel space in the market for themselves. Japan's way of slowly and steadily establishing a unique and large space in global markets, using innovation both in designing products and the business processes to produce them, is the model that Indian companies find inspirational and aspirational. In our domestic market, as products from all over the globe, including China, come flooding in, India Inc. recognizes that the only way to stay ahead is to use its familiarity with Indian consumers and create innovative products that suit their needs far better than anything imported does. Regrettably, this recognition does not always translate into action; innovative products like a ceiling fan with an inverter built into it, is available with a "made in China" label as is the brass diya with little twinkling electric bulbs that look just like a flame, and wired with white wires that look just like cotton wicks! So far, Indian companies have been rather smug in their belief that our very challenging distribution requirements, the price sensitive Indian consumer, the MNC habit of transplanting unsuitable strategies from other markets and the low quality of Chinese products, will keep the Indian market safe for themselves. This is all beginning to change and innovation has become as important in the domestic market for India Inc. as it is in the global market. The small Indian entrepreneur understands this more instinctively than the big Indian businesses. The mehindi, for instance, now comes in a ready-to-use cone, with a stencil added for those who want a do-it-yourself version; the cone contains a black paste for those who want a tattoo, and the service offering includes a special small pattern for the middle of your back if you are wearing clothes with a low back, or on the arm like an amulet if you are a well-muscled male! The saree is forever innovating itself in the way it gets draped over generations - the same 18 feet of material, but always in tune with the times. The pressure cooker that we all use is a uniquely Indian innovation. And not long ago, Hindustan Petroleum decided that the best way to give low income rural women a better and affordable cooking medium was not to innovate a smokeless choola or to wage a campaign against firewood or dung cakes, but to set up community centers (Rasoi Ghars) in a room, provided by the village community, and equipping it with a water connection, many gas stoves on a cooking platform, and a pay-as-you-use metering facility. For those who will dismiss these as minor ideas not worthy of the label, innovation, India already has two very visible examples of mega innovation that has captured the world's imagination, the off shoring of IT and IT enabled knowledge services and the Nano. These are products and services like the world has never seen before, at prices they had never imagined were possible. Both are world changing. And both set the benchmark of what is possible for Indians in India to achieve.

On a less breathtaking but still awesome scale are examples like the ones that won the Marico Innovation Foundation awards in the past two years. Kirloskar Brothers, won an award for designing a pumping system for the Sardar Sarovar damn which could do the job at a fraction of the cost of any established pumping system. The tech folks are active too, and Business Week, the leading US business magazine, has run several articles on tech for the masses coming out of India, how technology is being used to decrease cost while delivering quality, and enabling businesses that were not possible earlier. Distance health care and distance education are good examples of this, where the city-based, expensive and hard to get to the villages, doctors and teachers are visible and accessible in to remote villagers. Vortex Engineering, a Chennai-based company connected with IIT Madras has innovated an ATM that is ideal for rural areas, it costs about one fourth of currently available ATMs. It does not require an air conditioned environment and does away with PIN numbers and other such complexities by using fingerprinting and other biometric means of identifying the user. Gian Shaala, an Ahmedabad based NGO in the education space, has made it possible for two kids to learn on one computer by splitting the screen in two, one half operated with the keyboard and one half with the mouse. The result is lower cost per child but also enhanced learning from each other. The not-for-profit development sector also has its share of successful innovations. The National Dairy Development Board incubated dairy co-operatives like Amul, being the best known. The Trichy police is an innovation award winner for its program to proactively prevent law and order problems, rather than react to them, through engaging and allying with the towns' youth. There are scores of these examples, and a Google search for such innovations is most revealing.

But two larger questions remain - Are these just stray examples or do we have a groundswell of capability to make India the powerhouse of innovation that we dream it will become? What needs to be done, for these to move from show-cased award-winning projects to things that transform the country, visibly and powerfully? Since self belief is a major ingredient in making dreams happen, the good news is that India now firmly believes that Indians have an innate innovation streak and that it is something worth nurturing. Thank you, Pavan Varma for your book. Being Indian, you have formally purified the idea of Jugaad and transformed it from something subversive to a positive attribute of national character. In fact, Jugaad even has its own brand ambassador / symbol, the ugly little ingenuous transport gizmo of the same name, typically used in North India. But this is India, and we are like that only. So, even as we celebrate our Jugaad, there are voices being raised in caution and protest. Opined a popular Indian business magazine - Ways have to be found to take this intrinsic ability for small time Jugaad into high value, high impact innovation. But wait! Before we throw the baby out with the bath water, we need to ask, what is wrong with Jugaad? I work with large businesses trying to grow and profit through identifying innovative products that really solve consumer problems. And even as we struggle to innovate, we find that our consumers and smaller, unorganized competitors seem to do it all the time. Big business, for instance, struggles to come up with something to mechanize small farms and has not got much further than developing a poor cousin of the existing tractor. Yet there are enough examples out there, in Jugaad land, created by grassroot innovators. Srishti, the Ahmedabad based grassroot innovation development organization, lists innovations ranging from tilting bullock carts, bicycle hoes, motorcycle ploughs, a tree climber to help climb palm and toddy trees, even a pomegranate peeling and deseeding machine. Rural farm products store are importing and trying to sell sprayers from China. But a grassroot innovator in Gujarat has developed four different types of agricultural sprayers which, I am willing to bet, do the job in a more relevant fashion. Also innovated by Jugaad Indians are pedal operated washing machines, wind mill operated power generator, and a Rs. 1.6 lakh 10 HP tractor (as compared to Rs. 3.5 lakhs tractors commercially available), used by small groundnut farmers. There are also examples of international companies licensing some of these. An implement to extract cotton manually has been patented in the US too. Prof. Anil Gutpa of IIM-A, founder of SRISHTI, says that if our innovation has to go from grassroots to global, then the task is to convert innovators into entrepreneurs. Srishti has set up a venture fund called GIAN, along with the National Innovation Foundation, to do just that. My sense is that we will need many more such venture funds and find ways to forge partnerships with big business to make these innovations achieve larger scale impact. The good news is that this journey has well and truly begun and the take off point will happen soon. The same grassroot innovation story is being repeated in the social sector. India has several social sector innovations that are brilliant and proven, and come from both government and NGOs, but unfortunately they are usually restricted to small geographic pockets. The problem statement is clear, though the solution is quite hazy. We need to build institutional mechanisms that can harness the Jugaad energy of a billion people to create big, bold social solutions that work for us. Does the rest of the world acknowledge that India harbours the capability to be a potential storehouse of innovation? Does it believe, as we would like it to, that India will create an unassailable position for itself in the new world order by using brains and creativity to do things differently, while China plays the low price and brute force game to secure its dominance. The jury is still out on who is more innovative, India or China, and the evidence on the ground is not yet plentiful. The developed world however does worry about the rise of Asian innovation and India is seen to be a part of it. An article in The Economist online says (CORRECT)[America], which has long been a global powerhouse of innovation, is now in danger of losing its lead in commercial innovation to India, China and other upstarts. The article adds that rather than getting more involved in directly sponsoring innovation projects, the best thing a government can do is to ensure that the creative juices of residents and its companies are allowed to grow as freely as possible, creating a better framework in which human ingenuity can flourish. On that count, successive Indian governments have done exceedingly well! Indian innovation, be it from large corporations or aam admi, has been well parented by the license raj years - as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of innovation, and scarcity the father! So what's our innovation dream going forward, if we want the Jugaad saplings to grow up into a beautiful forest of strong trees? Dr. Mashelkar, Chairman of the National Innovation Foundation, an autonomous body created by the central government, says we should think of innovation as a movement. "The I in India has stood for imitation and inhibition for far too long", he says. "It is high time it stood for innovation". And the best thing about this movement is that we have the Jugaad energy of a billion of us to power it forward. (eom)

Some Jugaad For You
The mehindi now comes in a ready-to-use cone, with a stencil added; the cone contains a black paste for those who want a tattoo. The saree is forever innovating itself in the way it gets draped over generations - the same 18 feet of material, but always in tune with the times. The pressure cooker is a uniquely Indian innovation. HP decided that best way to give low income rural women a better and affordable cooking medium was to set up community centers (Rasoi Ghars) with many gas stoves on a cooking platform, and a pay-as-you-use metering facility. The off shoring of IT and IT enabled knowledge services and the Nano are products and services like the world has never seen before, at prices they had never imagined were possible. Kirloskar Brothers designed a pumping system for Sardar Sarovar damn which could do the job at a fraction of the cost of any established pumping system.

Vortex Engineering has innovated an ATM that is ideal for rural areas, it costs about one fourth of what currently available ATMs do, does not require an air conditioned environment and uses fingerprinting and other biometric means of identifying the user, so goodbye to pin numbers. Gian Shaala at Ahmedabad enables two kids to learn on one computer through an innovation where the screen is split into two, one half operated with the keyboard and one half with the mouse. The Trichy Police, innovated a program to proactively prevent law and order problems through engaging and allying with the youth of the town.

Rural Ingenuity
Innovations range from tilting bullock carts, bicycle hoes, motorcycle ploughs, a tree climber to help climb palm and toddy trees, even a pomegranate peeling and deseeding machine. Grassroot innovators in Gujarat have developed four different types of agricultural sprayers. Also innovated by Jugaad Indians are pedal operated washing machines, wind mill operated power generator, and a Rs. 1.6 lakh 10 HP tractor (as compared to Rs. 3.5 lakhs tractors commercially available).

Going Forward
The problem statement is clear, though the solution is quite hazy. We need to build institutional mechanisms that can harness the Jugaad energy of a billion people to create big, bold social solutions that work for us. Making the world believe that India will create an unassailable position for itself in the new world order by using brains and creativity and doing things differently. We will need many more incubator venture funds and find ways to forge partnerships with big business to make innovations achieve larger scale impact.