Simone Ahuja: Learning from the Frugal Mindset
*Asia Society, Jan 2010
Dr. Simone Ahuja is the founder and principal of Blood Orange Media, a vertically integrated media company based in Minneapolis and Mumbai.
Most recently, she produced and directed the upcoming Best Buy-supported television series, Indique | Big Ideas from Emerging India, which takes a deep dive into innovation in India from the grassroots to the MNC level—and examines its relevance to the West. The series was created in partnership with the Centre for India & Global Business at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, where Ahuja currently serves as an advisor.
Ahuja was at the Asia Society New York to participate in a talk entitled INDOvations: Driving Global Innovations from Emerging Markets. In this exclusive interview with Asia Society New York's Titania Veda, she discussed her work with grass roots innovators in India featured in her upcoming television series Indique, the jugaad mentality that propels these innovations, and the role the media plays.
ASIA SOCIETY: Why focus on the grass roots? Why is it important to go down to their level and meet them instead of just consulting the experts or doing research?
SIMONE AHUJA: We felt it was critical to go to the grassroots level because innovation really isn't just about having a tremendous amount of resources, a lot of energy, and a lot of capital. We feel that innovation is really about a mindset, and if I use a new word in the English lexicon but is actually an old Hindi word called jugaad, that is a kind of a mindset, a kind of mental flexibility, the ability to adapt, and the ability to identify and find solutions in a creative way, in spite of limited resources. So it's creative improvisation, finding solutions within limited resources. And that's something we saw very often in the grassroots level. And that's why we think that's so important to share that message because if people who have very limited education, have limited natural resources, or any other resources, are able to knock down all the barriers that have been put in front of them over and over again, to find creative solutions, it's pretty inspirational. It's something we can all look at. Hopefully, it's something that those of us who may not have been confronted with severe resource constraints can learn from.
For example, we met with Mansukhbhai Prajapati. Prajapati identifies himself as being from a community of potters. So this is in rural Gujarat, in hot desert. So Mansukhbhai was working with clay. His family had worked with clay for generations. He stopped doing that and became a tea seller. It's not a very lucrative business for him to be in. And it was very interesting because when he described how he came to creating his clay refrigerator. When he was a tea seller, he asked himself, "How can I move forward? What can I do to get to the next level?" which was the classic entrepreneurial statement. He didn't care that he didn't have education; I think he was 10th grade educated. He had no money. So it was quite inspiring. So what he did was he took this millennia old material, this clay that his family had been working on for generations, and he decided to make a refrigerator out of it.
He had seen in a newspaper after the Gujarat earthquake about a matka. And the headline said: "A poor man's fridge destroyed." A matka is a clay vessel that water is kept in to keep it cool, to provide some filtration. That was his Eureka moment; again, a very classic entrepreneurial moment. He's still not bothered that he's not educated, he doesn't have any money, and his resources were very limited. He has the Eureka moment. He said why can't I make a refrigerator out of clay? So he proceeds to make a refrigerator out of clay. And not only has he made the refrigerator, we tested it and it's actually pretty cool. It's not like an electric refrigerator. The best part is this is totally off the grid. It does not require electricity, which is really important because these people didn't have electricity. And even if they did, they couldn't afford it. So this is hugely life-changing for his entire community because the market comes to them once a week to bring fresh fruits and vegetables and whatever they have they have to consume within a day or two. It's a very, very high-impact contribution to his community.
Now he's also starting to scale it up. He starts to create an eco-system. This is another classic thing we saw in India. We don't have necessary all the technology and the capital. You replace that with end customer insights and eco-systems. And it's a beautiful model. It means you go to your customer and find out what their needs are. It sounds obvious but that's not how it always works, at least in the West. What you do is you try to find a market or create a market. And that's not what's happening here. You find what people really need and you work from there, that's one. Two, is the eco-system that support a process, a business model, etc. In this case, he employed people within his community and trained them about how to make these clay refrigerators. He brings employment; he creates some financial benefit to the community. He works with the government to help them get government certification. So that gives people a tremendous sense of pride as well. And he's starting to scale up. And that's something that's also relevant to us in the US because it's a green refrigerator. So potentially with some improvements it might be viable in a market here.
Do you think these innovations would be easily accepted outside? Or would developed nations be hesitant in accepting innovations from emerging ones?
The ability of the West to accept ideas from emerging markets is a mixed bag. Everybody doesn't have—to use the Zen metaphor—the empty-cup philosophy. And having said that, in the scenario of the clay fridge, we actually presented this at the University of Cambridge a few months ago and there was a journalist there from the Economist who wrote about it and the inventor of the clay fridge was ultimately contacted by two major appliance makers in the West. So we'll have to see how it works. The people who are forward-thinking and the people who really understand this—that blending is what is going to drive innovation globally—those people are open.
You mentioned the benefits of the jugaad, but are there problems that you can foresee with the jugaad? Or does the end justify the means? Have there been much opposition against it?
I surveyed hundreds of people across India about the word jugaad and what it means to them. And what I got was a pretty varied response. It depends on the region and the variety of other factors. But why we included jugaad in our TV series, Indique, a guide [on] emerging India, is because I learnt about jugaad. I learnt to practise it in a way, as I had been working in India over the last several years. And cutting corners to me, if you look at the definition to me is just finding an easier or a cheaper solution to get to a same or similar result. I don't see what's wrong with that. To me, that sounds like frugal innovation. What I would say to folks who have trouble with the word is, let's focus on jugaad potentially as a concept. My colleagues and I conceptualized jugaad to mean "creative improvisation in a framework of deeper knowledge." So if we look at it that way and stop focusing what exactly does it mean to everyone. Meaning of words change, shifts over time, and improves. For some people it might just make them feel more comfortable to say fine, we're re-contextualizing jugaad.
But the core of jugaad, according to me, is still brilliant. I love it. I have learnt, to an extent, that mindset.
There's definitely been some pushback but I think it's because people have been focused on the exact meaning of the word in its original context. That's okay. All I'm saying is, let's give it a new context, let's take the elements of jugaad that are really valuable and let's talk about the real mindset, the innovation mindset; whether it's called jugaad or something else; whether it's a fad or not, time will tell.
But the mindset of people in India and many emerging markets, and to a lesser extent, the US—but then we just aren't faced with extreme resource constraints—that innovation mindset is something form which we can all learn. And that's why frugal innovation is so hot today because we have to do more with less for more. So we have to deliver more value for less cost to more people. And that's what jugaad is. That is what frugal innovation is.
Can you give an example of what have been the challenges encountered and barriers faced by these entrepreneurs?
SELCO provides solar light, clean energy. Theirs is a really unique model. It is about the end customer insight and the eco-system. Most vendors can't afford to pay and prefer to pay on a day-to-day basis, which is the best lesson Harish learned from a street vendor. Harish employed the community and used micro entrepreneurs. He rented out to individual vendors. That's how you engage the eco-system. And the eco-system has been pretty effective. SELCO, for example, provides light but there are other elements, such as their unique repair model. If the light is broken, SELCO promises to repair it within 24 hours. Now, that's impressive in an urban area but in a rural area, that's amazing. I've visited customers of SELCO and some are them are in places so remote. So when you're asking about the challenges; for SELCO it is how do you deliver this kind of service? I think that remains a challenge for them.
Have the public accepted these innovations with open arms?
It's very end-customer insight driven. When we talked to the vendors who are using these solar lights (by SELCO) for example, they talk about how they had purchased the solar light, paid it off, and for the last two years have been getting free light. So for those people it's very broadly accepted. It's also made so affordable that it's competitive with electricity, for example. It's modular. So it might be available in an area where it's not already. Here in the US, a lot of sustainable practices are not affordable. Solar, even with a lot of the incentives that are provided, is still very expensive. So what he did was he took it to a level where it's not only desirable, it's almost the only option.
How can we help the other, lesser-known innovators market themselves and getting them known to the public?
It seems like the best marketing has always been how readily your consumer base welcomes you or brings in your product. So the more critical, the more readily accepted, whether it's a product innovation like the MittiCool clay refrigerator, whether it's a system like Harish Hande's where he provides modular solar lights to underserved populations, whether it's remote healthcare, or whether it is telemedicine.
Those people who get the most publicity tend to be those who have very well-received models. But even within that, there are entities like the National Innovation Foundation and Honeybee Network, at least in India, who are trying to elevate the status of these entrepreneurs, in identifying them and making them more known to the broader community, because a lot of times what happens, and I would say a bit challenge of what we see in India specifically, is that a lot of these entrepreneurs have great ideas, and they can even execute all the way through into developing a product that's an important development, but there's a problem in scaling up.
The West is highly innovative as well, but an area where the West really shines is in scaling up. So that could be a great partnership for some of these entrepreneurs in India or elsewhere.
What role does the media in perpetuating or hindering this?
The media has a certain obligation to share the work of grassroots entrepreneurs. It's not something we can feasibly do all the time because it's not necessarily well supported but I think we have a responsibility to make that a part of our repertoire or part of our journalistic practices because you have to give a voice. I believe you have to give a voice to people who may not have a voice otherwise. What's really important is not giving a voice just for the sake of giving a voice. It's actually because in these cases, there are really valuable lessons these people have to teach us. If I go back to Mansukhbhai Prajapati, the inventor of the MittiCool, he's got some really important lessons to teach.
In addition to the clay refrigerator, he invented clay frying pan that was non-stick. Non-stick surface comes off in our food and that's what makes it controversial but actually in his case, apparently, the non-stick coating will go down the pores in the clay. So it's apparently a healthier version of a non-stick pan. And if you don't get the handle, he'll sell it for 50 rupees. That's just over a dollar.
He invented a new industrial process—how do you put a nonstick coating onto clay. These people have fantastic lessons. Even the coconut climber, we were taking a look at some folks who had created a climber to help climb coconut trees. What I didn't realize before we started researching this is that the coconut industry is in trouble because no one wants to climb coconut trees anymore. Everybody wants to work in a call centre or go to Bombay and be a Bollywood star. I'm exaggerating but it's true a lot of the next generation doesn't want to climb coconut trees for a living. And it's a very taxing, very difficult job, and not necessarily the safest job either. So somebody took some old bicycle parts and some other things they came across and put together this climber to help scale these coconut trees. And again, if I bring in the eco-system, the Coconut Development Board in Kerala and a private company called Marico, which is actually India's largest producer of coconut oil, also got involved to help educate farmers about coconut, about farming, about climbers, and it became this giant eco-system. It started with one person. That person needed a platform and that platform became an eco-system that's actually changing the coconut industry inside of India. And I think those are being sent outside of India as well, those climbers.
Point being is it's an important story to share and that climber actually lay dormant for 20 years before it was picked up again. So that's part of the reason it's important for us to tell these stories.
How has creating the Indique television series affected you as an Indian-American?
It has been a very interesting ride. First of all, I realized how all these innovations can have a relevance to the West. That's a large part of my context. I live in the US. I work very often in India but I was born and raised in the US. So I see a lot of potential for knowledge sharing and not just this reverse innovation people talk about necessarily. I think there's a potential for a lot of rich ideas to flow from India to the US to Europe, in all different directions. That's pretty exciting.
I would also say, though, there's been some pushback when I talk like that. As an Indian American, potentially, I'm more interested in that. Now whether that's going to be universally accepted, that multi-channel knowledge flow, that I think is really important and is the future of innovation and the future of even this country, this kind of blending that's happening, remains to be seen. But for me as an Indian American, it just makes me really proud and really excited.
Do you think this may go over to other emerging nations who are more impoverished or smaller in scale?
If we talk about a jugaad mindset or that mindset that allows you to creatively improvise in spite of constrained resources, I think that happens very broadly in emerging markets. I think it happens in pockets in the US as well. I think it happened in the US all the time, pre-Industrial Revolution, with farmers especially, who been the best innovators this country has ever produced.
There are definitely people doing this here but I believe this is not unique to just to India. It's just that India, as a resource-constrained environment, and if I can add a really important piece—India's democratic, so there's liberty, like we have here and there's diversity, as we are here. Those two ingredients make it a little more relevant, potentially than, let's say, in China because we have those ingredients.
In the future, will you be moving your TV series into other emerging nations?
There has been a lot of interest in expanding the series. We had a limited period of time and there was so much research and so many innovations were discovered that we weren't able to address in this series. Within India, there's potential for another series, or exploration and documentation in innovations for other platforms. An ideal scenario would be documenting innovations globally, particularly in [brick] nations—outside of India, Brazil, Russia to a lesser extent, China, but definitely South America, even some African nations. There's a lot left to be explored.