Innovation lessons from the BoP

Mark Vamos, Editor of Fast Company, ends his "Editor’s Letter" for the January 2006 issues with this powerful paragraph,

These organizations are not conventional charities, and they do much
more than merely dole out money. Like their profit-making brethren,
they marshal deep insights into their "markets," they envision
solutions that don’t yet exist, and they demand results. And they, too,
face fierce competitors. The only difference here is that they’re
fighting not the guy down the street, but mankind’s greatest and most
ancient rivals–poverty, disease, and ignorance.

His reference is to their 25 winners of the third-annual Social Capitalist Awards ("Social Capitalists"), those that apply their skills, energy and ingenuity to solving problems faced by those, named by CK Prahalad, at the "Bottom of the Pyramid". The BoP is considered one of the fastest growing segments, in terms of new markets for products and services, for many in the developed world, and much has been written about them and for them. HP’s recent DesignAbout conference focused on this market, "the other 6 billion", they are termed. Understandable and worthy, every advance, each innovation, adds value to the meagre quality of life to world’s poor. My personal favourite is "Plumpy’nut", a simple to feed paste of peanuts, vitamins and minerals that miraculously adds pounds on undernourished and famine stricken infants. However, I want to turn this concept around for a moment and look at it from another perspective.

Prahalad states, in the introduction to his book Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, that:

If we stop thinking of the poor as victims or as a burden
and start recognizing them as resilient and creative entrepreneurs and
value-conscious consumers, a whole new world of opportunity will open

IMHO, the focus of the world, however, has been on the products and services that can be designed for the BoP, they have been recognized as "value-conscious consumers", which is but one aspect of Prahalad’s assertion. The other side of the story, less visible in the public eye, is the opportunity to co-create with those he recognizes as "resilient and creative entreprenuers".

The question, that arose in my mind, after reading this recent article, is "Where is the venture capital, the product development support and the marketing opportunity for the innovations that rise UP from the bottom?" It seemed to me, that all I ever read about were products FOR the BoP.

Now there is an opportunity to really make a difference. As Prahalad says, four billion* poor can be the engine of the next
round of global trade and prosperity, and can be a source of

* Disclaimer: there’s a numerical discrepancy between 6 Billion and 4 Billion in the direct quotes, not an inaccuracy in my research.

A moving snippet from the above referenced article, Meet India’s rustic knowledge providers,

[Anil] Gupta gives himself a modest four out of 10 for
his 16 years of fighting the flow. "Who I really need now are
tinkerers, to help us make prototypes and value-add. There are surely
enough people who as children broke toys and re-made them," he asks

"My regret is we are not
able to do as much as we should, especially in the areas of
value-addition and business development. The MoU we signed with the
Council of Scientific and Industrial Research gives me hope that the
linkages between formal and informal knowledge systems will become

And some examples of innovations that Professor Gupta has supported through the National Innovation Foundation. Plus a link to his blog.

Shakti – motorcycle driven plough
(Mansukhbhai Jagani)

What’s available in the market: Tractors. Bullocks!

What is this?
A low-cost attachment that performs a number of agricultural operations
like inter-culturing, sowing and spraying. It is easy to attach the
unit to a motorcycle and by using the 5.5 HP motorcycle engine, it is
capable of becoming an energy-efficient alternative for high powered

Cost:Rs 25,000.

Status: Bullet patented.

Auto compression sprayer
(Arvindbhai Patel)

What’s available in the market: Conventional sprayers with manually operated lever.

What is this?
This sprayer uses the jerks experienced by the body of the user when
walking, to transmit pressure that activates the sprayer. It does not
require any extra energy/torque for spraying. There is scope to provide
two spray nozzles to double simultaneous output.

Cost: Rs 3,500.

Status: Patent applied for. Technology has been licensed out.

Vanraj – mini tractor
(Bhanjibhai Mathukia)

What’s available in the market: 24 HP tractors that cost Rs 225,000 lakh

What is this?
A 10 HP tractor ideal for small farmers due to its cost-effectiveness
and easy maneuverability. The tractor is interchangable from three
wheel to four wheel and is capable of performing all agricultural
operations with attachments. It is also extremely fuel efficient.

Cost: Rs 190,000.

US patented. A technology transfer agreement has given exclusive rights
to Pramal Farmatics to manufacture and market it in MP, UP, Gujarat,
Maharashtra and Rajasthan.

Check dam
(Bhanjibhai Mathukiya)

used the idea of the semi-circular arches under railway bridges to come
up with the unique structure for this check dam, built with locally
available sedimentary rock. Unlike the conventional gravity dams, this
check dam holds back water in the reservoir formed, solely due to its
structural strength.

As the check dam
has its strength in its structure and not in its weight, the dam does
not require a deep base. Construction of several check dams would
improve the level of underground water.

Cost: Rs 10,000.

Status: The Moraraka Foundation in 2003 constructed a similar check dam in Siapur (near Jaipur).

Amphibious bicycle
(Mohammed Saidullah)

What’s available in the market: Standard bicycle.

What is this?
Modifications on the conventional bicycle to attach four rectangular
air floats, two on each wheel, that can be folded when the bicycle runs
on land. Fan blades arranged radially on the spokes of the rear wheel
propel the cycle forward in water. Saidullah cycled from Pahelaghat, in
Bihar, to Patna, crossing the Ganga.

Cost: Rs. 3,000.

Status: Sanctioned Rs 33,000 from the Micro Venture Innovation Fund for prototype development.<hr>

Bicycle sprayer
(Mansukhbhai Jagani)

What’s available in the market: Hand-operated sprayers�- too time consuming to use on large farm holdings. Mounted sprayers on tractors�- too expensive.

What is this?
This sprayer can be mounted on any bicycle and covers four times the
area covered by a knapsack sprayer. The forward and backward movement
of the bicycle generates pressure for spraying. The sprayer is also
height adjustable, and the width of the spray can be controlled.

Cost: Rs 2,200, plus cost of bicycle.

Status: Prototype ready.

If anything, this is where voluntary design services, design thinking and business development support and energy should go towards. Wonder what I can do to help? Something to seriously think about.

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5 Responses to Innovation lessons from the BoP

  1. Niti –
    This is a great post. I recently came across a PBS program Small Fortunes [] that made me also think we can learn a lot from innovation from the BoP. What struck me was the way small business ideas seem to come from using other businesses/people’s waste material – like cement bags, drinks cartons or hair. As well as how resourceful and adaptive these very small businesses were. While this is on a different level than what you write about here – activity in business, microlending and innovation from the BoP is really quite interesting and naturally worth taking notice of.
    So there was this concept some five years ago, set up by frog design, to match intellectual property with manufacturers, bridging the gap between ideas and getting them on the shelf. I think the Disney phone they designed was a case study for this. In a way it seems a similar concept could work here – to create a market place, where design firms, consultancies and entrepreneurs here and in Europe – to work with these types of innovations that are coming from countries like India.
    Firms here ‘co-create’ for their clients here – whether it be a 16bn dollar retailer or technology start-up, so there’s no reason why a scenario couldn’t be designed to allow the same firms to work with these ideas. I don’t think it has to be voluntary – but perhaps a new model for professional services should be considered.
    What is also brilliant, is that many of the ideas developed aren’t exclusive to just the PoB, many are likely to be relevant here in the West with only minor alteration. Or so I’d like to think.
    Do you know anything about Gershenfeld’s (sp?) experiment Fab Labs in India?
    I’m rambling. My apologies.

  2. neeraj says:

    just wanted to mention that your post has been picked up at

  3. Niti Bhan says:

    Please ramble, it’s a comment packed with much to think about. My only addition to your statement that many of the ideas can be relevant to developed nations would be to say that these ideas are mostly geared towards using less fossil fuels or human energy, being more sustainable and thus more eco friendly. Also, expanding their use to other developing nations – the continent of Africa, less developed parts of SE Asia etc
    I’ll look up Fab Labs, haven’t heard of it.

  4. jolly2k says:

    I liked the little innovative things done by people at different parts of India. I am doing a research with my Professor at ICFAI Business School, Hyderabad (India) to develop a holistic Business model which can be used by corporates, NGOs, Govt agencies or entrepreneurs to harness the opportunity that lies at the BoP (Bottom of the Pyramid). Till now I am struggling with deciding the basic parameters and the road map to my research.
    Any Ideas?
    J S Jolly

  5. Niti Bhan says:

    Why not contact Professor Anil Gupta at IIM Ahmedabad through his blog or website, he’s doing a lot of work through the National Innovation Foundation and various NGO’s. He has actually spent many years in this area and would be far better aware of various business models, parameters and road maps.

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