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Last Updated: Friday, 8 July, 2005, 05:11 GMT 06:11 UK
Successes in rural inventions

By Santosh Sinha, BBC News

Enfield Bullet motorcycle field cultivator
The motorcycle field cultivator is brilliantly simple

Mansukhbhai Jagani is not your typical inventor.

He dropped out of school at the age of 10 due to financial hardship.

After working at the family farm in India's western state of Gujarat, he moved to Surat to work in the diamond-cutting industry there.

At 18, Mr Jagani returned to his village without much hope for the future.

But in the 22 years since, he has chalked up three inventions - a motorcycle-driven field cultivator, a seed-cum-fertiliser dispenser and a bicycle-mounted sprayer.

The appeal of the products lies in their simplicity.

Grassroots innovations are in response to a problem that the innovators feel themselves or see other people facing
Anil Gupta, Indian Institute of Management

Take the field cultivator. The powerful Enfield Bullet motorcycle - a regular sight in Indian villages - is modified with a cultivating device costing just $450 that replaces the rear wheel.

Compared to a tractor, which costs almost $6,000, Mr Jagani's invention is not just cheaper but can be shared among farmers with smallholdings.

"The striking thing about grassroots innovations is that they are in response to a problem that the innovators feel themselves or see other people facing," says Anil Gupta of the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad.

He points to the pulley designed to allow women to draw water from wells.

"Another rural inventor, Amrutbhai Agrawat, added a lever which stops the bucket from rushing back down the well if the rope slips. Now, women can catch a breath as they know the bucket will stay where it last was," Dr Gupta says.

Mansukbhai is not a farmer. He was visited by one worried about how to cultivate his field with bulls that do not get enough fodder in a drought-affected region.

Mansukhbhai looked at the villager's motorcycle and said "I'll make something to work with this".

Limited

In the late 1980s, Dr Gupta set up the Honey Bee Network, to create a database of grassroots technology innovations and traditional knowledge.

Arvindbhai Patel
The idea came to me while lying on bed with a fever
Arvindbhai Patel, inventor

Through voluntary efforts, the database now has 51,000 ideas and innovations from different parts of the country.

However, most of the innovations were limited to the communities that created them. The lack of financial and technical resources meant they could not be marketed more widely.

To make this possible, Dr Gupta set up the Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network (GIAN) in 1997 and followed it up with the National Innovation Fund (NIF) - a venture supported by India's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

GIAN identifies promising innovations, does the market research, develops business plans and provides risk capital.

The efforts are paying off. A "natural water cooler" - which uses a copper base to cool water by almost eight degrees - is being manufactured by a private company.

The cooler's inventor - 50-year-old Arvindbhai Patel - received $8,000 for the rights to manufacture and market the product in Gujarat.

"The idea came to me while lying on bed with a fever," he says.

"My wife applied a water-soaked cloth to my forehead which brought down the fever. This became the basis for my initial product. It had a 10-foot copper pipe, wrapped in wet cloth, carrying water to a container. Within a few minutes, the water was chilled."

Another product, the Varsha Rain Gun - developed by 70-year-old Anna Saheb of Karnataka - was licensed to a Madras-based company. The water sprayer cuts down water used in irrigation by up to 50% - extremely useful in areas with water scarcity.

The product attracted India's first ever venture fund - Aavishkar India Micro Venture Capital.

Early days

Aavishkar's chief executive officer, Vineet Rai, says: "People don't expect villagers to create new products. And the reason is not a lack of ideas. It is the lack of funds to support these ideas and develop them into marketable products."

Anna Saheb
Anna Saheb's rain gun has been licensed to a Madras company

Aavishkar has collected $1.3m over the past four years to support such activity.

"We spend anywhere between $10,000 and $100,000 developing an idea. All we want is that the idea should be rurally relevant, should have a social upside and have a strong commercial model."

Last August, the US Lemelson Foundation joined hands with the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras and the Rural Innovations Network on another collaboration, the L-Ramp project.

Over three years, the foundation will provide close to $2m to create, test and develop new products.

However, these are still early days. While small-scales companies have shown an interest in the products and bought licenses for some, big companies are still staying away.

Paul Basil, of Rural Innovations Network, says only about 5%-10% of the ideas meet the basic criteria of innovation, impact on rural lives and technical and business viability.

For every successful motorcycle-driven field cultivator, there are many that find no buyers in the mass market.

Both the National Innovation Fund and Rural Innovation Foundation are trying hard to improve the success rate.

"Rural innovations help rural households save on costs, enhance incomes and offer entrepreneurial opportunities that weren't available to rural Indians almost a decade ago," says Mr Basil.


SEE ALSO:
India wins landmark patent battle
09 Mar 05 |  Science/Nature
Poverty fight 'neglects science'
06 Jan 05 |  Science/Nature
Indian villagers tame floods
28 May 04 |  South Asia
Neem tree patent revoked
11 May 00 |  Science/Nature


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