Jan 18, 2008

The shepherd of indigenous Indian Innovation

There are some people whose name equals innovation in India. And a lot of them are unsung. However, a lot more of them might have remained unsung if it were not for Prof. Anil Gupta and his HoneyBee network. His former student and CEO of Naukri.com Sanjeev Bikhchandani writes:

In the last twenty years HoneyBee has documented in its online database more than 70,000 inventions by innovators in rural India. These include – a cotton stripping / plucking machine, a manual milking machine, a coconut tree climbing device, a garlic peeling machine, a device to draw water from wells, herbal remedies, a cowdung powered cell phone charger, a plow and weeding device that can be attached to a motorcycle, a low cost cell phone based switch for household appliances and farm pump sets, a beach cleaner made from an adaptation of a groundnut separator, and a walnut peeling machine among others.

The Network has filed for more than 142 patents and more than twenty have been awarded.

HoneyBee gathers ideas by staying in touch with people in rural India. Apart from a continuous stream of ideas that now walk in through the door the Network conducts Shodhyatras every six months. Basically a group of Networkers led by Prof. Gupta travel through selected parts of rural India over several weeks meeting people, uncovering innovations and recognising and rewarding inventors.

Several companies have come forward to license some these innovations and commercialise them. The Network thus is able to disseminate the innovations while protecting the intellectual property rights of the inventors and ensuring that they get a financial reward.

So how did the Network come about. Prof. Gupta was working in the area of agricultural economics and rural development at IIM in the mid eighties. He spent a lot of time in villages talking to farmers to gather data for his research studies. He would publish his research papers and would travel all over the world to speak at conferences. However he was always plagued by a sense of guilt – he was doing all this but the farmers who gave him the knowledge were getting nothing out of it. He wanted to rectify this injustice.

When I was his student at IIM around that time Prof. Gupta once told me that there is a lot of indigenous knowledge in rural India that is undocumented and may be lost to future generations with the advent of modern technology from the West and he was planning to document it. At that time I did not realise the importance of what I dismissed as a noble idea casually suggested over a cup of tea in his home.

Over the years however from a small beginning in a cubicle at IIM Ahmedabad, the HoneyBee network has created an entire ecosystem where indigenous knowledge and rural innovations are documented, inventors are recognised and rewarded and innovations are marketed to companies.

My earlier post on Indian Innovations.

Prof. Anil Gupta is doing a remarkable service to document and share the Indian's traditional way to innovate - which some call jugaad. A work around - because resources are scarce and work needs to be done. In a world which some say is going to be characterised by a scarcity of resources, are Indians better prepared because of our "jugaadu" ways? Here's something I wrote on a similar topic around two years ago.