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Strength of the soil

IF you have a bright business idea in some high-tech field today, it is very likely that venture capital will chase you. But if you are a villager, perhaps a farmer, with a small local-use innovation that can become a business, you will have to chase the capital. This may change if there is greater public recognition for grassroots technological innovators.

The presence of brilliant technological innovators in India's villages, slums and small urban centres is itself "news" for most people. We tend to look towards the big-city elite, and its Western counterparts, for technological breakthroughs. Now an annual competition for scouting grassroots, technological innovations attempts to break this stereotype. This competition, organised by the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), may also help to generate a more socially engaged and unusual kind of venture capital.

"The absence of micro venture capital shows a consensus in our society that there is no creativity taking place at the micro level, but nothing could be further from the truth", says Prof. Anil Gupta of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad. Gupta is also executive vice-chairperson of the NIF, which has been founded by the Government of India's Department of Science and Technology.

Gupta's confidence is based on the decade-long experience of a creative quest called "Honey Bee" which is housed at the IIM, Ahmedabad. Honey Bee is a concept, a network and a journal that serves as the voice of creative farmers, artisans, pastoralists and other grassroots innovators. This network has a wealth of experience in helping to sustain the spirit of innovation and encourage experimentation among the "knowledge rich economically poor people".

Can such innovations and grassroots energies help India to thrive in the fiercely competitive global economy? Gupta insists that this is the key to building sustainable prosperity for all Indians. "Innovation, incubation and information" is the formula for opening the gateways to that long elusive prosperity, says Gupta who teaches economics at the IIM and heads the Honey Bee team.

Let us look at some of the innovators who have featured on Honey Bee's annual Honour List. There is Amrutbhai Agrawat, who has designed a tilting bullock cart which vastly enhances the efficiency in spreading manure on different parts of the field. This tilting cart was developed through the support of the Honey Bee network and venture promotion fund of SRISTI, or Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions in Ahmedabad.

Elsewhere, two farmers have developed low horse power tractors that are far cheaper than the commercially produced tractors. One person has modified the back wheel of a motorcycle to make it work as a ploughing machine. Honey Bee has also honoured a holy man who distributes herbal pesticides as prasad to his disciples. Yet another farmer on the honour list has developed a new pest- resistant variety of groundnut which matures carly and has a high yield. According to the Honey Bee journal, this is the first farmer bred variety to be taken up for all India trials by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.

Honey Bee's database now has documentation on over 5,000 innovative practices. These range from machinery to agricultural practices. there is emphasis on organic pesticides and practices that preserve bio-diversity. SRISTI, a key body of this network, has organised several "Shodh Yatra", journey of exploration, in Gujarat. The purpose of these yatras is to walk through villages, learn from local experts, honour them and share the experience of innovators traveling in the yatra. The yatra also holds competitions among children about biodiversity knowledge, and among women about recipes and other local crafts. Farmers who see this group in action for the first time are usually fascinated by its computerised multi-media database and the textual literature available in Gujarati.

The problem is that most innovators are hard pressed to find the monetary and technical back-up support needed in the "incubation" period of any new product. Their access to information about such work in other parts of India and the world, is also limited. Many of them are still working virtually in isolation. Even though the Honey Bee journal is published in six languages, its total circulation is still only 10,000. This means a readership of about 50,000 people, while the potential audience for this material runs into several crores of people.

Thus the National Competition for Scouting Grassroots Technological Innovations is a way of spreading the word far beyond the direct reach of the Honey Bee network. The competition, jointly sponsored by Honey Bee and the IIM- Ahmedabad, solicits entries about: "environmentally benign technological innovations attempted by small and cottage industry entrepreneurs and workers, farmers, artisans, fishermen, and women, slum dwellers, workshop mechanics, local communities and/ or individuals in managing natural resources, biodiversity, developing new farm implements, herbal pesticides, curing diseases, construction of low cost houses or any other aspect of survival in urban and rural areas."

Individuals and groups can send their entries by writing about the genesis of the innovation and the background of the innovators. The last date for entries in January 31, 2001. This competition will also help the NIF to add to the national register for grassroots innovators which it has created, are the key to successfully meeting the challenges posed by the competition unleashed by new trade rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

"Today our neighbour is not our competitor. Our competition is now global," says Gupta. Therefore "knowledge networks", serving the information needs of the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, will be a vital tool for the mass of Indians to survive and thrive. The need of the our is for such knowledge networks to pool the "best practices" lessons on a global scale. The same networks could also help to provide patent support to the innovators where ever that is needed.

These needs will not be met simply by giving lower-income groups cheaper and easier access to the Internet through kiosks or "cyber-dhabas". When they get on-line they should be able to easily access information on both global and local innovation in their own language. There is also need for related information on local ecology, information about local experts and the availability of local varieties of crops, trees, fruits and vegetables, recipes of uncultivated crops etc.

This gigantic task will need a multiplicity of inputs from a wide variety of sources. Honey Bee's efforts on this front, like much of their work, can serve as an example and inspiration. But Honey Bee alone cannot hope to meet these needs. There is thus an urgent need to carry the insights, acquired from grassroots innovations, into the formal education system. At present the awareness about such innovations is making a class than negligible impact on mainstream institutions.

This could change if grassroots innovators can readily find venture support to expand the reach of their products and services, both through commercial and non-commercial channels. Gupta is of the view that the private sector should provide this venture capital and access to this resource should remain free of bureaucratic controls. The first annual competition for grassroots technological innovations is merely a small step towards working on this gigantic mission.


Those interested in more information about this Award can write to the National Innovation Foundation, PO Box 15051, Ahmedabad 380015 or email:

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