Business Today

Hinterland heroes

Grassroot innovations that haven't taken place in the fancy laboratories of big corporations and research institutions are ready to change the life of people in India-and abroad.

twitter-logo Manu Kaushik        Print Edition: May 30, 2010

Many of them have just about completed school- and a village school at that-if they were lucky. Their ideas were born out of necessity in the unlikeliest of places, without the help of government grants or subsidies. But people like A. Muruganandam or Mansukhbhai Raghavbhai Prajapati are what India needs: Grassroots innovators with simple yet revolutionary products that people want, products that sell readily without the aid of a PowerPoint spiel.

They have one thing in common: A burning desire to change the way things are done and the innovative bent of mind to translate their ideas into products. Best of all, their products, mostly fashioned out of locally available inputs or parts, are not only patentable or patented, but also yield a profit for the innovator. BT profiles some grassroots innovators and their products. Note the sales numbers for each: Though still small, they prove that these products do have commercial value.

From Rags to Hygiene
His machine has made sanitary napkins affordable.

Why don't you use sanitary napkins instead of rags, A. Muruganandam of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, asked his wife. Her reply-that buying a pack would mean halving their milk budget- got him to take apart some napkins. Ha! It was just some cotton in tissue. So, he made some of his own. Failure. It took him months to learn that the stuffing was not cotton, but pinewood fibre, from the US. He imported pinewood board and made some napkins by hand.

Hit! Putting to use his skills as a maker of iron gates and grills, he built a machine. The Rs 75,000 machine turns wood into pulp, extracts fibre from this, forms the core, seals it and sterilises it. It costs around Re 1 to make one, and it can be sold for Rs 1.75. The national brands are priced upwards of Rs 4 per pad. He has sold 228 machines to self-help groups and women entrepreneurs. The future? "Only one out of four women use branded sanitary napkins in urban India. The figure is much lower in rural India," he says.

The other innovators

Milk Master Machine
Helps farmers in milking cows and buffaloes hygienically. Easy to operate. Launched in 2006, around 1,000 pieces have been sold so far in India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, The Philippines and Nepal. The manual one costs Rs 10,605.
- Innovator: Raghav Gowda

Air-driven Car Kit
Sends pressurised air into the cylinder of a car to drive the pistons and the transmission. Not available commercially. It is yet to overcome some issues regarding storage and availability of pressurised air.
- Innovator: Puli Ravi Kumar

IP Green Switch
You can use this over a telephone line-mobile or landline-to operate home appliances, security devices and water pumps from other locations. The basic equipment costs Rs 1,500. The mobile handset is extra. Ten devices have been sold.
- Innovator: Prem Singh Saini

Biomass Gasifier
Gasifier generates Producer Gas from biowaste and uses it to run an engine. Price: Rs 1,25,000 for 10 KW unit, Rs 3,25,000 for 35 KW one. Over 50 units sold so far.
- Innovator: Rai Singh Dahiya

Portable Multipurpose Fruit Processing Machine
The device can sterilise, pulverise, boil and extract gel/oil from the fibrous husks of leaves, flowers, herbs, fruits, vegetables, groundnut, spices, etc. The unit can process 100 kg of aloe vera in an hour. Priced at Rs 1.2 lakh a piece, 12 units have been sold so far.
- Innovator: Dharamveer Singh

The Sixth Sense

This stick for the visually-impaired has a sensor and can talk.

On September 21, 2000, while sitting in his electronics repair shop in a town in Karnataka's Tumkur district, 78 km from Bangalore, Wazeer Hayath saw a blind man tapping his way down the road with a stick. Recent heavy rains had created too many potholes and the man fell into one.

Hayath started thinking of a stick that would sense potholes and obstacles and alert a blind user via a built-in speaker or headphones. In 10 days, he had built one. But it evoked more complaints than praise from students of a blind school. It finally took him six years and 18 attempts to make one that satisfied blind users.

The battery-powered stick alerts the user about an obstacle more than an inch high or depression greater than a foot within a diametre of one metre from the tip. Also, when in a crowd, the speaker warns passersby in the local language. Hayath asks the buyers to send across a text or audio file of the warning in their preferred language. He has sold over 800 sticks to date- costing between Rs 1,050 and Rs 3,500 depending on features.

"India has around 15 million blind people. There is a vast untapped demand for this product," says Hayath, adding that he is getting enquiries from Australia and the US as well. The profit margin is 7-12 per cent. Hayath is now developing a transmitter-based device that will guide the blind people to key locations such as station platforms, post offices, police stations and government offices.

Easing Pochampally's Pain
This gadget's boon? More craft, less pain.

Chintakindi Mallesham's 'asu' machine has revolutionalised the age-old Pochampally weaving tradition of Andhra Pradesh, which produces saris that look the same on both sides. The silk yarn has to be wound by hand in a process called 'asu', before the patterns are woven on the loom.

This process involves moving one hand up and down around pegs arranged in a semi-circle, 9,000 times for each sari. When Mallesham joined his family tradition of making saris after completing his studies in Sharajipet village, Nalgonda district, 88 km north-east of Hyderabad, he was moved by his mother's complaints of pain in her shoulders and failing eyesight.

He tried to mechanise the process, but often ended up wasting money buying the wrong parts as he had no formal mechanical knowledge. He went to Hyderabad to work for an electrical contractor to make ends meet. In 1999, while working at a machine shop in Secunderabad, he noticed a movement that was just what he needed for his asu machine. He got the part made and tried it.

Today, his machine has slashed the time required for one sari from four hours to 90 minutes, and instead of two saris per day, six can be made, and in a wide variety of designs. The running cost is Re 1 spent on electricity per sari. "It does not need much supervision, so women in many homes have added a loom and increased production," he says.

He has so far sold 300 machines, at Rs 16,000 each. The Central Silk Board has agreed to subsidise 100 machines a year, and the State Bank of Hyderabad is giving soft loans. "There are 33,000 families engaged in Pochampally silk work. With this, I expect to sell a minimum of 100 machines annually," says Mallesham, who filed for a patent in 2008 and got a provisional one in March 2009.

No Fly Zone. Sans Chemicals
Biogas attracts, device traps, sun's heat kills.

Mosquitoes and houseflies are an inescapable fact of rural life, where people don't usually stay shut indoors. Repellants are not only expensive, but have irritating chemicals. So Mathews K. Mathew's solar mosquito destroyer, launched in 2007, is a simple device.

Connected to a septic tank through a narrow tube, the device attracts flies with the smell of the biogas, and traps them. Then they perish in the heat of the sunlight entering through a clear plastic cover. The idea of using the sun's heat to kill mosquitoes came when he noticed that they avoided heat and were more sensitive to light than to air.

A resident of Kanjirappally in Kerala's Kottayam district, 112 km from Kochi, Mathew was ready with a prototype in 1999. But it needed some design changes to become commercial. In 2005, he was assured a patent by the patent examiner at Chennai and he went to Coimbatore to meet a design engineer and stayed there to supervise the manufacturing of the machine. This was ready in 2006, and he made some 300 units.

So far, 500 devices have been sold to hospitals, hostels, oldage homes, seminaries, monasteries, convents, military compounds and houses. Once installed, the unit, priced at Rs 1,450, doesn't require any costly refills. He is now working on indoor models for city dwellers, and a different idea for mosquitoes that are not attracted by biogas.

How Cool Can You Get?
This modern-day potter married tradition with modern needs.

Apotter by caste, Mansukhbhai Raghavbhai Prajapati grew up with clay. After completing his studies in Morvi tehsil, 64 km north of Rajkot in Gujarat, he worked in a factory making roof tiles. Then, in 1988, after quitting his job, he borrowed Rs 30,000 to buy some land and put together a production line to make earthen tawas.

"The first feedback was not good, so I tried out various mixes of clay," he says. His next item was a water filter with a terracotta body and a ceramic candle. The filter did well and his turnover soon crossed Rs 1 lakh. The turning point came in 2001, when the Gujarat earthquake shattered his business.

"I saw a picture in a newspaper of one of my filters, broken, with the caption 'broken fridge of the poor'," Prajapati recalls. "I thought, why not build a rural fridge that would not need electricity?" he says. After three years, he came out with the Mitticool fridge in 2005. The Mitticool fridge uses the same principle of cooling as the clay pots in which villagers store drinking water.

At the top is a storage chamber for 10 litres of water, and the bottom compartments can hold 5-7 kg of vegetables, fruits and milk at a temperature that is 8-10 degrees lower than the room temperature, irrespective of the location. Vegetables and fruits stay fresh for around a week, he claims.

Prajapati has sold over 1,200 Mitticool refrigerators. On every fridge priced at Rs 2,500, he earns a profit Rs 400. In 2009, he launched a Mitti cooker. He has also sold over 20,000 non-stick tawas priced at Rs 100 each. He has filed a patent for the Mitticool fridge.

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