Innovation in India: Getting more, from less, for more

Connect to grow blog

This blog was originally posted in The Practitioner Hub by Parvathi Menon.

I am just returning back from an exciting set of conversations with innovators and entrepreneurs from several African countries who participated at the SEED Symposium in Nairobi.

We were launching the CONNECT TO GROW platform, with the aim of facilitating enterprises in Africa and South Asia, who see large market needs in healthcare and agriculture solutions, to find potential partner enterprises in India with innovative solutions in these sectors that can be scaled or replicated.

The contexts are very similar in these regions: large volume of underserved population, primarily rural, several living in subsistence ecosystems, seeking rapid change and development, at low cost. The essential idea of the CONNECT platform is to help enterprises in Africa and South Asia adapt innovations that have already been developed in similar conditions, reduce the cycle time of early development, and focus much more on piloting, building contextual, relevant customizations so that development impact can be achieved faster.

India’s challenge over the last 6 decades, has been to find innovative ways to get more output, from the few resources available and ensure that benefits reach many more than traditionally possible, since there is a large population to cover. This context has set the ground rules for inclusive innovation and Gandhian engineering- getting more, from less, for more – an approach that is now widely followed by the innovators, entrepreneurs and change makers, both in India and globally.

Dr. R. A. Mashelkar, Chairman of India’s National Innovation Foundation, and the former Director General of the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), summarized the essence of these ideas when he said:

“The challenge of inclusive innovation is to deliver high performance products, processes and services at an ultra low price for resource poor people, from housing to transport and from medicines to computers. Such innovations should not just be affordable but extremely affordable. For achieving this, one cannot rely on just incremental innovation but extreme innovation or disruptive innovation.” Are these inclusive innovation solutions scalable and relevant beyond India?

I would like to explore this question through a few examples that illustrate the basis for the social innovations developed in the Indian context and their relevance to other similar socio-economic contexts .

Shantha Biotechnics is a pioneering Indian Biotechnology Company that took up the challenge of developing a low-cost, high-quality vaccine for the recombinant Hepatitis B Virus. By the early 1980s it was clear that countries needed to ensure that children were vaccinated for the deadly Hepatitis B virus. However, a few multinational pharmaceutical companies held the monopoly on the Hepatitis B vaccine. Priced as high as USD$23 a dose, most Indians families could not afford vaccination. Founded in 1993, Shantha Biotechnics saw an unmet need domestically, and developed novel processes for manufacturing Hepatitis B vaccine to reduce prices to less than $1/dose. Recognized by UNICEF, the vaccine was then used to fight the deadly virus across the developing world. In 2009, Shantha sold over 120 million doses of vaccines globally.

Perhaps a more familiar and popular case is that of the Aravind Eye Hospitals, where Dr. Venkataswamy innovated on the process of implementing cataract operations, integrating an ‘assembly line’ approach that significantly changed the medical team’s ability to do cataract operations in large volumes. Globally, an ophthalmologist does approximately 225-250 cataract surgeries per year. But in India, with that kind of efficiency, it would take a really, really long time to reach out to the millions of poor people who had no access to the doctors and hospitals. With an innovatively re-designed process, today, a Doctor at the Aravind Eye Hospitals can implement more than 2400 cataract surgeries each year; 70% of all the patients coming to Aravind Eye Hospitals get the service free of cost, and yet, the organization runs its operations at a 40% operating margin. A great example of getting more, from less, for more.

Another example to illustrate the opportunity and scope for innovation at the grass root level is the case of Kissan Dharamvir. A major challenge for small holding farmers in India has been the lack of low-cost processing units that can help pulp, juice, steam or paste some of the farm produce, reducing the wastage from farms. Over 35-40% of all horticulture farm produce in India gets wasted due to the lack of such facilities and tools in proximity to the poor farmers. Kissan Dharamvir saw the challenge of his farming community and created a multi-purpose machine that works across plants like aloe vera, and many fruits and vegetables. He began life as a poor rickshaw puller, making ends meet by pulling a cycle rickshaw all day through Delhi. An unfortunate accident sent him back home to his village in Haryana from where he started working on little tools and techniques to help the farming community. With some relentless piloting, experimentation and innovation, today, Dharamvir is recognized by the National Innovation Foundation for his processing technology. His lost-cost, easy to assemble processing products sell across India, East Africa and South Asia helping small holding farmers to increase production, value and subsequently, their incomes.

Institutes like the National Innovation Foundation, platforms like the Ashoka Fellowship have worked to develop a large community of disruptive social innovators in India; Building further on that, several impact funds, philanthropies and bank schemes have helped fund the development of entrepreneurs. Many innovative teams have now scaled their solutions across Indian States and across national borders. The entrepreneurial ecosystem has grown rapidly over the last 20 years and several ideas are now scaled, mature and ready to be replicated across other regions that have similar challenges and a need to develop inclusive solutions.

From the conversations with entrepreneurs and innovators at the SEED Symposium in Nairobi, I took away a great deal of positive energy. It’s a good time to be building connects between entrepreneurial teams that wish to leverage socially relevant, financially sustainable innovations in agriculture & healthcare across our countries. This is especially possible if cohesive, collaborative and sustainable partnerships can be developed between innovative teams in India, Africa and South Asia working on similar challenge areas. The CONNECT TO GROW platform is an ambitious experiment and step in facilitating these partnerships.