Business Today

Innovators Inc.

Paul Basil and his Rural Innovations Network are helping grassroot innovators bring their ideas to fruition—and the market.

Nitya Varadarajan | Print Edition: February 24, 2008

J. Meghanathan Innovation: Brick-making machine
J. Meghanathan
Adversity produces the best innovators, they say. Anna Saheb Udgave, 75, is a farmer from Belgaum district in Karnataka but that no longer is his sole claim to fame. A victim of severe drought from 2002 to 2004, Udgave created a rain gun that could simply harness groundwater and spray it across fields covering a particular distance in all directions. That’s not all: The rain gun uses 50 per cent less water than the regular irrigation mechanisms. Called the Varsha Rain Gun, the instrument has since become a huge hit with the receptive farmers in the region and made Udgave a household name.

Or take the case of J. Meghanathan, 30, a resident of Pinayur, a small village 55 km from Chennai. A history graduate, Meghanathan has three acres of land. Sheer interest in mechanics (he had some work experience with packaging industry) had helped him design a low-cost packaging machine for water and other liquids, a design which to his chagrin, was “lifted” by a bigger company four years ago. Wiser after the incident, the compulsive innovator has now made a brick-making machine. His idea: to make a machine that increases productivity through some form of automation and yet keeps it simple, resulting in better efficiency and profits. Meghanathan’s brickmaking machine has found more buyers for technology transfer than he ever imagined.

J. Meghanathan
Brick-making machine
A history graduate, Meghanathan has developed a semi-automatic brick-making machine. This would reduce labour drudgery while increasing production. This machine is awaiting technology transfer to an SME before it goes into full-scale production. 
Both Udgave and Meghanathan had great ideas but without one common factor, they would have remained just that. The ideas needed modifications to make them work effectively—and then they needed to be sold. That’s where Rural Innovations Network (RIN), a non-profit NGO, came into the picture and turned such innovations into viable products.

That, though, has been a complicated task, vouches Paul Basil, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, RIN. A mechnical engineer, Basil was busy working on development programmes for improving agricultural productivity in Kerala before zeroing in on the idea of RIN. “For this, RIN had to develop a sustainable model for itself, which would in turn be useful to the rural community,” says Basil.

While Basil decided to target innovations and innovators, it was a journey from the scratch with the idea of keeping it simple. “We decided to focus on areas relating to water, agriculture, dairy and energy, while other areas were looked on case-for-case basis,” he says.

RIN’s role was anything but simple in translating ideas to reality. “We had to first search for the innovators, identify those innovations which could work. Then we realised that we needed the resources to incubate them, before we help with patenting and technology transfers.” Also, the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that undertake the manufacturing of the product themselves wanted help after the technology transfer for the initial sales push.

Paul Basil, CEO & Founder, Rural Innovations Network
Paul Basil
“In such cases, we find venture capitalists that could partner the entrepreneur and sometimes ensure that the retail buyer has enough money to acquire the product,” Basil points out.

This learning came through stages, but Basil got a good hindsight into the cycle. Innovators were identified through business plan competitions for social entrepreneurs organised by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS); through innovation patent gazettes; the more recent Lemelson Recognition and Mentoring Programme (L-RAMP) Innovation Awards Programme by RIN-IIT Madras advertised in local language papers and scanning databases of other social networks. For instance, Udgave was identified through the last route, while Meghanathan approached L-RAMP after being guided by a friend.

Paul Basil, CEO & Founder,
Rural Innovations Network
Basil is standing in front of a display counter in his office. The products on display are those that have been mentored by RIN at various levels. One of these is the rain gun, which is extensively used by farmers in the southern states for irrigation. 

Among the most successful SME entrepreneurs that have partnered with RIN is Servals Automation that helped popularise the Vincent burner for kerosene stoves, which sells 25,000 units a month and the Varsha rain gun. This company is one of the contenders for Meghanathan’s semi-automated brick-making machine.

RIN, meanwhile, has also worked out feasibility of such projects. “If the machine is sold for under Rs 10 lakh, it would become feasible,” says Zubaida Bai, Associate (Innovation Incubation), RIN. “Sometimes we have to educate our innovators on market conditions or they think they could price their invention anyhow,” she says.

Yet, another product which has reached prototype is P. Kumar’s (a farmer in Dharmapuri district with a 50-acre holding) self-driven, fuel-run Weeder. Developed at a cost of Rs 45,000, this gadget is a great substitute for labour and it runs about 80 minutes on one litre of kerosene or petrol. Kumar is busy fine-tuning the product with the help of IIT Madras to bring the cost down to a more affordable Rs 30,000.

Once products like these are in place, RIN contributes its might towards sales through its village-level retail stores called Samriddhi. There are live demonstrations of products with help close at hand for trouble-shooting. “The field-level demonstrations are very important— it is not enough to showcase a product,” Basil says.

A farmer using the rotary extraction machine 

At a small village near Madurai, a family that was once below poverty line, now sucessfully uses the rotary extraction machine to take out herbal extracts for hair oils, face packs and other cosmetics for direct selling to beauty parlours. 

That’s not all. RIN has also introduced a talent development programme— for students who are interested in working on innovations but are currently held up on account of financial constraints.

It is also shortly launching a programme for mid-level managers of companies.

“NGOs have a heart but lack professional approach, while corporates have the latter but lack the former. We want to bring in a marriage of both,” says Basil.

The programme is already popular with the young and restless executives wanting to add rural experience to their portfolios.

“Many are willing to work with us for a year or two before their next big break,” says Basil. For now, RIN innovators continue to thrive and there’s recognition at hand as well in the shape of L-RAMP recognition awards, constituted jointly with IIT Madras.

P. Kumar
Fuel-driven weeder
Kumar, a farmer in the Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu, developed this weeder on account of acute labour shortage in the area. It runs for 80 minutes on 1 litre of kerosene or petrol and is ideally suited for cultivable land of 5 acres and above. 

Quite often, necessity makes them invent—like an innovator who developed paralysis spraying chemical pesticides, which prompted him to develop a herbal pesticide. Or the person who invented a stem injection route for banana plantations as an alternative to spraying medicines.

But there are others like the more ambitious K. Murugan of Tuticorin who plans to scale up his banana synthion separator (this removes silky thread from the banana stem)—and is waiting to put up a factory costing several crores. “I would like to do my bit for rural employment,” he says.

That, by all accounts, will help the spread of Rural Innovators Inc.

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