Celebrate native innovations with social vision
Innovations are key to development. We know some of the innovations at the corporate level leading to cheaper products and services such as low cost cars and cheap mobile calls. Of late, one could observe many Indian companies engaged in innovation to make better products at cheaper rates for wider markets.
Prahalad and Mashelkar note that this is more prevalent in India than the other countries. To quote: “Nowhere is this more evident than in India, which was not exactly famous for innovation till recently.”
But almost all of us are completely unaware of the innovations taking place at the local levels, in distant lands far away from the limelight. They are all due to the native intelligence and efforts of the ordinary sections of the society. Of those who won awards from the National Innovation Foundation set up by the Department of Science and Technology, 30 per cent were not even fully literate. Invariably all such innovations are cost effective and very useful to the society.
One could observe a number of them in different business and industrial centres and the less noticed semi-urban and rural parts of the country. Most of the innovations are radical, opening new paths leading to progress and solving problems. Some of them are directed at solving the day to day difficulties that the ordinary people face at the social level.
Many of us may not be aware that the women folk from the poorer households face serious problems during their menstrual cycles. They find it difficult to buy sanitary napkins as they are costly for them in the market is dominated by the multinational companies. With the result they use dirty pieces of cloths that are unhygienic.
A few years back a small entrepreneur coming from a village near Coimbatore, A. Muruganantham, noticed his wife carrying unclean pieces of cloths and upon enquiry came to know that the napkins sold in shops are beyond the reach of their families. A self-made man, he was running a small work shop. Since he could not continue his school education after he lost his father, he started working in a welding workshop as a helper earning a meagre salary, before setting up his own venture after a few years.
After coming to know the difficulties of women from the poorer segments of the society during the menstrual periods, he decided to take steps to make napkins at affordable rates for them. Soon he started studying the branded napkins sold by multinationals, analysing their ingredients and testing them in laboratories.
His studies revealed that the use of expensive machineries and premium prices are the two major reasons for the higher prices of napkins. Cellulose is needed for making napkins. The cost of the machine required to make cellulose out of wood fibre was Rs. 4.5 crore. So he decided to try and make a cheaper machine himself. He worked hard and developed a new machine in four years.
He succeeded in making the first low cost mini sanitary napkin machine in the segment dominated by top multinational companies using high cost machines. The cost of his machine was just Rs.75, 000. Subsequently he came out successfully with the sanitary napkin in 2005. He gave his product to the local women and tested it. The results were excellent.
The cost per napkin worked out to around Rs.1.50 only. The whole sale price of branded napkins sold in the markets was many times higher. Thus an unknown innovator from humble backgrounds has finally shown the way for the poor women to use sanitary napkins and lead hygienic lives. They would no longer need to worry about infections and irritations.
During his studies, he came to know that major proportion of women in rural areas do not use sanitary napkins. He thought: “Why don’t I give machines to the poor rural women so that they could make cheaper napkins themselves?” So he decided to give machines and materials to self-help groups comprising of poor women in rural areas.
He started travelling to different parts of the country to give training for women to make napkins. As a result his machines are now working in far off places among the rural and tribal regions of different states in India. The machines are cheap. They are semi-automatic that do not require technical knowledge for operations.
Each of them can be accommodated in a smaller space. Only single phase power supply is required. Anyone with the required training can manufacture napkins. About two to five women can find employment in a single unit. A machine can produce 1440 napkins per day, giving a net profit of Rs.10, 000 per month to the owner.
Here is an innovator who revolutionized the sanitary napkin manufacturing industry with his low cost machine. With the result the poor women are able to get a critical item that they require at an affordable rate. He has succeeded in an industry dominated by the global giants with Proctor and Gamble and Janson and Janson controlling the market with their popular brands.
In 2006, Muruganantham approached the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras to evaluate his machine. The machine was chosen as the best innovation for the betterment of the society. Since then he has been getting accolades from different sides, including the President’s award. The Chhattisgarh government recognized him for his initiatives among the tribal women.
He has also obtained a patent for the machine but does not want to make it as a commercial affair. Instead he has decided to share his innovation with the masses. Hence he is making the poor and illiterate women as entrepreneurs, giving them the machines and training. He founded Jayaashree Industries in 2006 with a long term vision to innovate for the masses and a medium term vision to produce absorbent solutions for them.
It is important to note that such innovations are happening at the local levels for the benefit of the neglected segments of the society. They are made by persons from less privileged backgrounds amidst huge financial difficulties. In fact innovations such as this are the real contributions that change the lives of the needy segments.
And the people who make it happen are the true visionaries. They succeed where the bigger corporations, elite institutions and our highly educated technologists fail. It is time to widely recognize and celebrate such innovations and support them in all possible ways, for their contribution to the society is immeasurable.
Hinterland India: The Real Source of India’s Entrepreneurship, India Brand Equity Foundation, Department of Science and Technology, Govt. of India
Prahalad, C.K. and Mashelkar, R.A., ‘Innovation’s Holy Grail’, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2010
Muruganandam, A., Interview, Coimbatore
( Yuva Bharati, Vivekananda Kendra, Oct 2014)