The discovery network

The discovery network

Professor Anil Gupta has always been a curious man – curious about people, their lifestyle, their needs and what they did to meet them. In his early years as an academician, the professor was involved in helping scientists learn from the lives of farmers below the poverty line through research missions.  At this point in time, Gupta was faced with a dilemma – “It appeared to me that I was also an exploiter. The moneylenders exploited the money market, landlords exploited the labor market, the traders exploited the commodity market, but, I was an intellectual and I was exploiting the ideas market. I was taking the knowledge of people, writing about it, but, very little of that went back to people because I wrote mostly in English, and people as you know, do not understand the English language in villages,” he says. Gupta searched his soul for an answer and reached the conclusion that while his dilemma was not unique, his solution would have to be.

“My dream is that India will become a knowledge intense society in which the poor people are rich in knowledge, skill and the creation of values,” says Gupta

Thus, inspired by the selfness nature of honeybees, Gupta established The Honey Bee Network (THBN) in 1989. THBN is an amalgam of organisations that work towards discovering innovators from India and other developing nations and document their innovations while trying to work out modalities of commercialising the same. “I realised that if I could share what I did with the people in their language, that is, give them credit and if I did extract any rent from this effort, share the proceeds, then I could be like a honeybee,” he adds.

Community benefits

THBN functions on the basis that people should be able to learn from each other. “The so-called “inclusive” social development model will only work when people are able to communicate and link up with other people in other regions, solving other problems,” says Gupta. He also asserts that while monetising a solution, profits must be shared with those whose knowledge was put to use in the first place. “For example, about seven years ago we pooled together the knowledge of six communities in Gujarat, developed a formulation for eczema (skin disorder) and licensed this technology to a company called Troika Pharmaceuticals. Troika took it to the market under the brand name Herbavit. They gave a royalty of 5 per cent to the six Gujarati communities,” he says.

THBN has evolved an elaborate beneficiary model where the community must be consulted too, besides the individual rural entrepreneur. The royalty is divided between the entrepreneur, the community and a portion is used to “give back to nature”.

Countless innovations

Through a diligent process of documentation, THBN has today, about 1,20,000 innovations, ideas and traditional knowledge practices in 545 districts of India across areas such as energy, transport, agriculture, food processing, herbal drugs, veterinary drugs, human drugs, agricultural inputs amongst others. Tracing back, Gupta says the network had about 5000 innovations from 1989 to 1993, backed by a sum of U.S.$ 150,000 through the Pew Conservation Scholar Award from the University of Michigan.  “In 1997, at an international conference of Creativity in Innovation at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, I asked whether Honey Bee or Sristi, another organisation that we had set up, should stop documenting traditional practices because we were unable to do anything about the lives of poor people,” he recollects. In response, the Gujarat government came forward to help establish GIAN (Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network). By 1998, the network had reached the figure of 10,000 innovations. “In 1999, I proposed to the government to set up a foundation which would scale up the work nationally. The National Innovation Foundation (NIF) came into being in 2000, but, my proposal of Rs. 200 crore was whittled down to Rs. 20 crore, because, the government said, it had already spent a lot of money at Kargil,” says Gupta. “With the help of NIF we have been able to scale up many more times and innovations had gone up from 10,000 in the year 2000 to 1,20,000 in 2009. But, our budget has remained constant,” he adds.

Gupta has also taken a keen interest in innovations that come from children. He helped create a special campaign for children’s innovations called IGNITE. THBN also helped create a portal, www.techpedia.sristi.org, for technology projects by students. This already has a database of 10,000 projects by students in all the major universities and colleges. “The idea was to build a bridge between informal sector innovators and these students,” he says.

Facing challenges

“Innovators do not always make good entrepreneurs,” says Gupta while outlining a challenge that the network faces. “We need people to take these ideas and fly with them and we are always hungry for entrepreneurs to work with us,” he adds. In addition, Gupta speaks of the need for designers to help take these ideas to the drawing board. “We need a consortium of designers who will help in creating low-cost prototypes of innovations,” he says. He would like to see volunteers come forward from all walks of life including design, marketing and communication to help commoditise ideas further.

One entrepreneur who has stepped forward has been Kishore Biyani. The Future Group is teaming up with THBN to set up Khoj Lab at Ahmedabad. “The synergy with Future Group will certainly provide the scale which will put our innovators on the shelves,” says Gupta. However, Gupta is quick to state that with scale will not come at the cost of innovators. “No long term relationship can be built without trust. We will not sacrifice the interests of the knowledge providers to turn ideas into products,” he says.

Going reel

Apart from reaching out to entrepreneurs, THBN is looking at unique ways to spread awareness on their efforts. The opportunity of featuring their innovations in the Bollywood blockbuster, 3 Idiots, has helped gain nationwide attention. “The producer and director of the film read about us in a leading daily and approached us. We discussed quite a few innovations of which a few have been featured,” says Gupta. While speaking of collaborating with filmmakers, Gupta explains an innovation that might see a mention in the upcoming feature, Dhobi Ghaat. “Shaikh Jahangir of Jalgaon, Maharashtra, has come up with a scooter-based washing machine that is sure to help lower income households,” he explains. The sheer number of innovators whose creations were exhibited at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi, caught the attention of Hollywood film director, James Cameroon. “He intended to spend half and hour talking with us and ended up spending over three hours,” says Gupta while adding that the network has been successful in documenting innovations from other developing nations as well, giving it a global database.

Thinking to the future

In the future, Gupta wants to develop several media campaigns to generate awareness on grassroots innovations, across India. From mobile exhibitions to displays on trains and newsprint space, he wants innovators to get their share of the spotlight. “We are in talks with a few mobile phone service providers to include a ‘innovation a day’ service as part of their offering,” says Gupta while adding that communication needs to increase a great deal on all that is happening today. The Honey Bee Newsletter is also doing its bit to keep the interest towards innovation alive amongst people.

Gupta expresses a desire to see innovations make the life of women a lot easier. “Innovations are the slowest to come by in women centric areas as there is a universal bias working against them,” opines Gupta. A firm believer in practices that preserve or give back to nature, Gupta would like to see innovations that help take chemicals out of our lives.

As he signs off, Gupta says, “My dream is that India will become a knowledge intense society in which the poor people are rich in knowledge, skill and the creation of values.”