From extra-long carrots to a self-driven wheelchair: frugal tech from India
Award-winning inventions are getting support to scale up from India’s National Innovation Foundation
Santosh Pachar wasn’t happy with the carrots growing on her land. Through natural selection she came up with a longer and more nutritious variety certified as original. Photograph: National Innovation Foundation
Far from the world of aid, a movement has been gathering in India to support inventors using limited resources. A clay fridge that runs without electricity and a pedal-operated washing machine are among the star products of this grassroots creativity. The use of cheap and easily accessible material has earned it the label “frugal”.
Anil Gupta, founder of the Honey Bee Network, champions this type of DIY tech. “Thirty years ago, I realised that many of us intellectuals learn from people, particularly the creative and innovative ones, but never give back anything to them,” he says. “They remain anonymous, they are often short-changed, they don’t even know what we did with the knowledge they provided. The Honey Bee Network was a response to these paradoxes and contradictions in my own conduct.”
Gupta’s philosophy works on the principle that the world’s marginalised people are not just mouths to feed, but minds that, with the right support, can create the conditions to lift themselves out of poverty.
“Traditional models of aid induce dependence and reinforce asymmetry in knowledge and learning,” Gupta says. “Mutuality of learning about frugal, inclusive innovation is an opportunity to redefine models of globalisation. Reciprocity is one of the compassionate ways to be responsible.”
This concept was celebrated at the Festival of Innovation in Delhi last month, attended by business leaders and the country’s president and education minister. The inventions were evaluated for originality by a network of experts at the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), who will help the innovators develop, patent or market their ideas.
Among this year’s winning innovations are a modified combine harvester that minimises grain loss and damage, a herbal medicine that boosts rates of conception in domestic livestock and a simple motorcycle-operated machine to replace manual salt farming. Here are five other frugal innovations that have received awards.
Fridge without electricity
When a major earthquake hit Gujarat in 2001, Mansukhbhai Prajapati was a clay craftsman steeped in debt. Sixteen years later he’s the owner of a thriving business called MittiCool, making clay products that keep food and water fresh without electricity.
It all began with a line in a newspaper article: “The poor man’s fridge is broken”, it said, referring to the earthen pots that Gujaratis use to keep water cool at home. For Prajapati that was enough to spark the idea of making a fridge out of clay that villagers could afford in rural areas off the grid. It’s now his flagship product. You can also buy a MittiCool water filter, a frying pan for making chapattis and a clay pressure cooker.
Prajapati worked alone, experimenting and turning a deaf ear to anyone who said he was attempting the impossible. In five years he had a prototype but no money to market it. That’s when the NIF came in, helping him secure a patent and offering an advance without the obligation to repay it. The gamble paid off. The business now has two factories, several showrooms, dealers across India and an online store.
In the part of state of Himachal Pradesh where Hariman Sharma grows his fruit, there are plenty of mangos but hardly any apples – it’s too warm and not hilly enough.
One day Sharma noticed that apple seeds thrown in his backyard had started to germinate. He grafted branches from this plant onto a plum tree, eventually creating a small orchard of trees that fruit in temperatures as high as 45C.
This “tropical apple” helps Sharma and other farmers boost their income because they can harvest in June, when no other native apples are available on the market, and by adding another crop to what they sell. He has supplied the new variety to 29 states in India, shared the plant with hundreds of farmers and won 31 awards for his invention. Scientific tests are ongoing, showing his plants can fruit in other parts of the country.
But before tests confirmed his variety was unique, not a single scientist believed him. So he packed his fruit into a box, knocked on the door or Himachal Pradesh’s chief minister and offered it as a gift – convincing proof that an apple that grows in tropical India did exist.
Electronic wheelchair for quadriplegics
People with disabilities have few options to move around with dignity in parts of the developing world. That’s especially true for quadriplegics.
Nabajit Bharali has invented a self-driven automated wheelchair that works by sensing pressure. To turn it, all you have to do is shift your weight and it will move in that direction.
Bharali, a 23-year-old philosophy student, made a prototype with parts from a children’s bicycle for just 5,000 rupees (£62). His inventiveness, obvious from an early age, is driven by social need and relies on practical and observational skills – there are no books or formal learning involved. The design is being improved with help from NIF [pdf]. A new version of the chair can now be controlled with smaller body movements and has detachable parts that can be easily packed.
More nutritious, extra-long carrot
In a small village in Rajasthan, Santosh Pachar wasn’t happy with the carrots growing on her land. Different sizes and unpredictable taste weren’t great for the market. She decided to collect and plant seeds of the best roots, judging by their length, sweetness, colour and softness.
Through this natural selection Pachar eventually came up with a carrot variety certified as original and was awarded a prize in 2013. The 1.5-ft long root she created was sweeter and more nutritious. Crucially, it fetched a better price in the market – up to 7 rupees per kg, 2 rupees more than other varieties.
Pachar shares what she’s learned to help others – her confidence was boosted by the award and she set up a cooperative account with Grameen bank for women farmers to support each other.
Most farmers in India don’t cover their costs, she says. Seed quality is often poor, environmental conditions are not right, or money is too tight for fertiliser. She is setting up a lab with simple tools – thermometers to check temperature, wet papers to check humidity – where fellow farmers can minimise the risk by testing conditions for their seeds before they cultivate them in the field.
Portable biogas-bottling machine
Farmers in India use cow dung to make biogas, which is then stored in a digestive tank. A pipe takes that gas from the tank into a kitchen, where it can be used as fuel for heating or cooking. Sitting in one of those kitchens a few months ago, Ajay Kumar Sharma noticed that much of the gas was being wasted as some was always left at the bottom of the tank. So he invented a machine that extracts and bottles it.
With a school education and no engineering background, Kumar Sharma spends 16 hours a day experimenting, supported by money he earns from offering tuition. The portable bottling machine he built is now ready for the market. It works manually and on electricity or solar power for high-pressure compression. It is designed to help farmers use biogas more efficiently and give them the option of selling the surplus.