Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Learning from the Frugal Mindset

Simone Ahuja at Asia Society New York on Jan. 28, 2010.

Simone Ahuja at Asia Society New York on Jan. 28, 2010.

How can we help the other, lesser-known innovators market themselves and getting them known to the public?

It seems like the best marketing has always been how readily your consumer base welcomes you or brings in your product. So the more critical, the more readily accepted, whether it's a product innovation like the MittiCool clay refrigerator, whether it's a system like Harish Hande's where he provides modular solar lights to underserved populations, whether it's remote healthcare, or whether it is telemedicine.

Those people who get the most publicity tend to be those who have very well-received models. But even within that, there are entities like the National Innovation Foundation and Honeybee Network, at least in India, who are trying to elevate the status of these entrepreneurs, in identifying them and making them more known to the broader community, because a lot of times what happens, and I would say a bit challenge of what we see in India specifically, is that a lot of these entrepreneurs have great ideas, and they can even execute all the way through into developing a product that's an important development, but there's a problem in scaling up.

The West is highly innovative as well, but an area where the West really shines is in scaling up. So that could be a great partnership for some of these entrepreneurs in India or elsewhere.

What role does the media in perpetuating or hindering this?

The media has a certain obligation to share the work of grassroots entrepreneurs. It's not something we can feasibly do all the time because it's not necessarily well supported but I think we have a responsibility to make that a part of our repertoire or part of our journalistic practices because you have to give a voice. I believe you have to give a voice to people who may not have a voice otherwise. What's really important is not giving a voice just for the sake of giving a voice. It's actually because in these cases, there are really valuable lessons these people have to teach us. If I go back to Mansukhbhai Prajapati, the inventor of the MittiCool, he's got some really important lessons to teach.

In addition to the clay refrigerator, he invented clay frying pan that was non-stick. Non-stick surface comes off in our food and that's what makes it controversial but actually in his case, apparently, the non-stick coating will go down the pores in the clay. So it's apparently a healthier version of a non-stick pan. And if you don't get the handle, he'll sell it for 50 rupees. That's just over a dollar.

He invented a new industrial process—how do you put a nonstick coating onto clay. These people have fantastic lessons. Even the coconut climber, we were taking a look at some folks who had created a climber to help climb coconut trees. What I didn't realize before we started researching this is that the coconut industry is in trouble because no one wants to climb coconut trees anymore. Everybody wants to work in a call centre or go to Bombay and be a Bollywood star. I'm exaggerating but it's true a lot of the next generation doesn't want to climb coconut trees for a living. And it's a very taxing, very difficult job, and not necessarily the safest job either. So somebody took some old bicycle parts and some other things they came across and put together this climber to help scale these coconut trees. And again, if I bring in the eco-system, the Coconut Development Board in Kerala and a private company called Marico, which is actually India's largest producer of coconut oil, also got involved to help educate farmers about coconut, about farming, about climbers, and it became this giant eco-system. It started with one person. That person needed a platform and that platform became an eco-system that's actually changing the coconut industry inside of India. And I think those are being sent outside of India as well, those climbers.

Point being is it's an important story to share and that climber actually lay dormant for 20 years before it was picked up again. So that's part of the reason it's important for us to tell these stories.

Next: "All these innovations can have a relevance to the West."