Innovating low-cost products for actual use can work wonders for the bottom of the pyramid market
Imagine a refrigerator that runs without electricity, keeps your perishables cool for five to seven days and costs you less than the price of a single meal for one person in a luxury hotel. It’s cool, it’s green and it’s affordable for the people at the bottom of the pyramid. But despite being around for seven years in a poor, tropical country like India, only 4,000 units have been sold so far (including to Africa, Dubai and America). Even today, not many of us know about the eco-friendly Mitticool refrigerator, and if I wanted to buy one myself, I still wouldn’t be able to get it at my local store — it would have to be couriered to me from a tiny village near Rajkot.
Mitticool is built with clay, ingeniously designed by Mansukhlal Raghavjibhai Prajapati, the son of a potter in rural Gujarat, using the same principle of cooling through evaporation that a surahi uses. He has also created a clay water-filter with a 0.9 micron candle (which costs Rs 400), a clay pressure cooker (Rs 350) and a non-stick tawa (Rs 100). And on April 1, he will launch a tandoori roti maker for Rs 250, so that we needn’t depend on the local dhaba for our occasional fix. All his products are targeted at the underprivileged with aspirations — the original untapped “bottom of the pyramid” market that C K Prahalad introduced to the popular lexicon.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then innovation is its daughter and entrepreneurship, its father. The cross-pollination of invention and entrepreneurship is what effectively spawns innovation. And before you think I’m getting carried away in a sea of proverbs, idioms and metaphors, let me explain.
A scientist or inventor in isolation somewhere creating fabulous gizmos as a cerebral exercise is never going to impact the world unless that product (or process) is tested, adapted and transformed for mass use and distributed, usually for commercial gain.
So, an invention may have little or no economic or practical value, despite huge intellectual value. But as soon as an entrepreneur finds an application or targets a market for it, invention converts into innovation and can be monetised. This process of adding value, improvising and refining something new and unique to make it more accessible is what makes innovation so much more interesting.
Now, add an elegant design element and some clever marketing and you have what it takes to transform a boring old MP3 player into the “cool” iPod (complete with an attached virtual iTunes store). Or what makes the Silicon Valley the hotbed of innovation.
In the Indian context, innovation can take on a new avatar: indovation, which is loosely translated to mean innovation adapted to the nuances (and peculiarities) of the Indian market. It is a word that I hear more and more these days. Go to any entrepreneurship seminar and chances are you will hear about indovation even before the morning session is over — and Mitticool products are living examples.
I met Prajapati in New Delhi a couple of months ago, holding a roomful of entrepreneurial millionaires and wannabe millionaires enthralled with his success story – from a poverty-stricken childhood, innovating against all odds – and his still unfulfilled dream of building an eco-friendly, natural light and solar-powered mud home for “every poor villager in India”.
It isn’t surprising that the dapper and confident Prajapati in his shining white suit dominated that entire session on “Ideas that Impact”. It isn’t surprising that he was mobbed after the session since everyone, inspired by his story, tried to buy his product, get his card, set up business meetings and so on. And it isn’t surprising that his dream project then is still just that — a dream.
The unpretentious potter-turned-inventor is stoic as he tells me in a telephone conversation from his village, Wankaner, that he is still waiting for someone to follow up after the initial excitement that his inspirational story always generates at every conference — and he’s attended 10 in the past year.
“I’m not literate, behn-ji,” he tells me matter-of-factly in Hindi. “I can’t do it all myself.”
For all that talk about the bottom of the pyramid, no one has yet come forward to actually partner with him, though he did find a benefactor in the National Innovation Foundation which gave him Rs 6.8 lakh to work on his projects. But what Prajapati needs more than money is some real entrepreneurship. This is possible either through some serious hand-holding for a solo start-up, or a partner who will refine and commercialise Prajapati’s products – he has an obvious, ready-made market – while he keeps innovating. Perhaps someone like Godrej, which is test-marketing its own tiny battery-run refrigerator based on a cooling chip and fan for Rs 3,250 (compared to Mitticool’s Rs 2,500). But Chotukool doesn’t have the USP of Mitticool which needs zero power and uses clean water as a coolant — that can also be drunk ice-cold from an attached tap. Prajapati’s website – www.mitticool.in – shows how far he has come, and how very far he could go with a little bit support.
But this isn’t just about the extraordinary story of Prajapati. There’s probably a Prajapati prototype in every village, with little or no technological training or knowledge, who never intended to design and invent, but had curiosity, persistence and indigenous skills to create simple, innovative and inexpensive solutions. Like Jahangir Painter’s scooter engine-powered mini flour mill or Mohammad Saidullah’s amphibious bicycle. Or the bicycle-powered washing machine invented by rural Kerala schoolgirl, Remya Jose (also independently reinvented as Cyclean in the UK and the Bicilavadora by MIT’s D-lab students — which shows that the same product can be invented by two different motivations: necessity and intellectual curiosity).
But even that isn’t the point. As Microsoft Principal Researcher Bill Buxton says, “Too often the obsession is with ‘inventing’ something totally unique versus extracting value from the creative understanding of what is already known... Innovation is far more about prospecting, refining, mining and adding value.”
And so, the D-lab, which tries to find simple solutions to Third World problems, is testing and refining their Bicilavadora, which is designed around easily available parts like inexpensive plastic barrels and bicycle components, needs no electricity and saves precious water and time. It educates people in Guatemala and Peru about Bicilavadora’s benefits, teaches them basic repair and maintenance and distributes the machine, which costs $125. I’m betting Jose’s indovation will cost even less. But like Prajapati, she probably also needs an angel to guide her.
Actualising inventions for societal benefits through monetising and marketing is what gives innovation an edge and creates wealth, but that is just the corollary. The real story is in the intersection of invention, innovation and entrepreneurship and the role entrepreneurs play in transforming them into accessible products or processes that we can consume.
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