Vighnaharta Nano Ganesh

Superbug and Suresh Kalmadi notwithstanding, there is some good news as Independent India begins its 64th year. Face to face with a crisis, this country often comes up with a creative solution.
Four not-so-well-known and randomly selected examples from diverse fields show that “cheap” is not always crass or conniving. Each case has an element of “disruptive innovation” — a term coined by Harvard academic Clayton M. Christensen. Each has, at its core, a simple, transformational idea that improves a product or a service in ways that the market does not expect. And each holds out hope for millions at a time when that commodity is in short supply.
After Tata’s Nano, there is the pe­oples’ fridge. For a little more than Rs 3,000, India’s poorest ho­useholds can now have a re­f­r­igerator. Manufactured by corporate group Godrej, “Chotukool” has already been test marketed in parts of Maharashtra. The formal launch will take place during the festive season later this year. Ch­o­­­tukool is designed for places wh­ich have erratic power supply and for those who have never had a fridge and who want to ha­ve cold water, store vegetab­l­es, mi­lk and left over food. This po­r­table, top-opening unit wei­g­hs only 7.8 kg, uses high-end in­s­u­l­a­tion to stay cool for hours and can work on battery as well as in­v­erter. Sa­njay Lonial, a Godrej official in­v­olved with the project, told me that those who have bo­u­g­ht Cho­t­ukool are using the pr­oduct not only at home but also to make money. The tiny fridge is he­l­ping owners of paan shops, vada pav centres, wayside groc­e­ry stores and flower vendors to sell additional items like cold wa­ter. In the countryside, villa­g­e­rs — the potential buyers — will also act as marketers, earni­ng a commission per fridge sold.
Erratic power supply has inspired another innovation — the Nano Ganesh. Brain child of Santosh Ostwal, a Pune-based entrepreneur, Nano Ganesh allows farmers to use mobile phones to remotely monitor and switch on irrigation pumps. In many parts of India, farmers have to walk miles to switch on the pumps that water their fields. The idea of the Nano Ganesh struck Mr Ostwal while watching his octogenarian grandfather trudge every night for a mile to switch on the pump to ensure that his oranges were ready to ship the next morning. Since the water and electric supply were erratic, he was forced to make several such trips a night.
Nano Ganesh won the Grand Pr­­ize in the Emerging Markets ca­tegory of Nokia’s Calling All In­novators contest last year and is being used by thousands of fa­r­mers in several states across India.
Mr Ostwal, an engineer, whose father was also a farmer, calls it a “techno-commercial success”. The project, he hopes, will lead to employment of 5,000 rural technicians who will be tasked to take the technology to the farmers. “People tell me they are saving on petrol, electricity and also getting more sleep. It is good for family life”, Mr Ostwal told me over the phone.

The third instance of turning a problem into an opportunity is Yes Bank’s partnership with Nokia to create the Mobile Payment Service which establishes a platform enabling transfer of money using the mobile device in a secure manner. More than half this country’s population still lack a bank account. Yes Bank has tied up with Nokia to allow consumers to send and receive money using their mo­bile phones without even owning a bank account. The best thing about this innovation is that it helps the poor to tap financial products and services even if th­ey can’t physically reach a bank.
The last inspirational story is unfolding right here in Delhi. In a west Delhi neighbourhood, an Indian company, Koenig Solutions, is training techies from across the world, shoring up not only their own bottomline but also the profitability of corporations overseas who need to demonstrate that their staff continuously upgrade their IT skills and have the necessary certificates as evidence in order to bag lucrative contracts in an increasingly competitive market. The global cash crunch has helped Koenig become a leader in offshore IT training and certification, as corporates increasingly want more bang for the buck. Value for money is the phrase you hear everywhere. On offer in their Delhi centre are globally-recognised training and certification programmes on software like Oracle, Cisco, Red Hat and Microsoft among others at almost half the price of what it would be in a Western country.
Last week, I met two techies from Greenland and one from Britain at the Koenig training centre. Talking to them it was clear that lower price alone was not the draw. John Alexander, a British techie, was doing an IT course at Koenig’s training centre for the second time: “This would cost a lot more in UK but price alone was not the attraction. The greatest appeal of this package is its flexibility. You can get personalised training and start whenever is convenient to you.” Paul Gronvold and Lars Molgaard, who had arrived in Delhi from Greenland, were hoping for promotions after they went back to work having completed the training. Paul and Lars said they chose India because they could get personalised, one-to-one IT training here, at a relatively low cost.
One of the students I met is doing a course called the Certified Ethical Hacker. It is perfectly legit, and apparently helps folks equip themselves for work in Internet security. With more and more hackers on the prowl, that sort of knowledge can only add to one’s bank balance.
The takeaway message in all four cases is the same. India can be the engine of innovation, ushering in a better tomorrow for millions that can’t afford conventional solutions. The frugal innovator sees a crisis as an opportunity for creative solutions. India can take the lead in innovation that revolutionises the lives of those at the bottom of the pyramid. But will it? That is the million-rupee question.

Patralekha Chatterjee writes on development issues in India and emerging economies and can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee@gmail.com

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