India needs 'inclusive innovation'

Country's entrepreneurs must focus on society and disruptive innovation to provide ultra-low cost products needed by low-income families, urge economists and business leaders.
Written by Swati Prasad, Contributor

NEW DELHI--Economists and business leaders here are urging entrepreneurs to focus on society and disruptive innovation in order to launch ultra-low cost products aimed at low-income groups in India.

"Entrepreneurs need to be socially responsible," Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen said at the inaugural The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) summit held here Tuesday. Attended by 2,000 participants, the three-day annual conference gathers several first-generation business leaders such as Shiv Nadar, who is the founder of HCL, N.R. Narayana Murthy, who serves as chairman and chief mentor at Infosys Technologies, and NIIT Chairman Rajendra S. Pawar, alongside economists, bankers, venture capitalists and inventors to share their insights on entrepreneurship.

According to Sen, India cannot rely on the trickle-down effect alone to alleviate poverty. "High economic growth leads to high growth in public revenue. This gives governments the opportunity to use public fund to do a lot of good things," he said.

TiE is a global not-for-profit organization focused on promoting and fostering entrepreneurship through mentorship, networking and education. It has 53 chapters spread across 13 countries, including the Delhi-NCR chapter, over 12,000 members and 2,500 charter members who are experienced entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, lawyers and management professionals in their chosen field.

Also a speaker at the summit, R.A. Mashelkar, scientist and former director-general of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), said India needs "inclusive innovation" and acknowledged that "the good thing is the government is aware of this".

In August this year, India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had approved the establishment of a National Innovation Council to prepare a 10-year roadmap, extending to 2020. The council is headed by Sam Pitroda, an IT expert who helped revolutionize ICT in India in the late 1980s.

According to Mashelkar, there is a stupendous task before India--a country that is doing well but in which nearly 50 percent live below the poverty line. "It's important that all Indians do well. The 'I' in India should stand for innovation, and not for imitation," he said.

He added that innovation should include the excluded, be accessible and affordable, and get more from less. "It's important for businesses to do well," Mashelkar said. "They need to make higher profits and give back more value to the shareholders. However, entrepreneurs need to do well by doing good."

India does not need low-cost but ultra-low cost products, the scientist noted. "The products need to be extremely affordability and that can only happen through disruptive innovation," he added.

British High Commissioner Richard Stagg said both India and the United Kingdom need innovation. "The U.K. needs innovation because it is a very high cost-economy. Innovation will help maintain the high standards of living and prosperity that the people from Britain are used to," Stagg said. The U.K. has been the country partner of the Delhi-NCR chapter of TiE for the last three years.

Speaking at the summit, filmmaker Shekhar Kapur said 80 percent of innovation is not socially just. "Entrepreneurship comes out of nothing, so if we can force entrepreneurship down to the bottom of the pyramid, we can become a truly great nation," Kapur said

Scarcity, aspirations lead to innovation
The summit also highlighted that much of the innovation in India is emerging out of scarcity and aspirations. For instance, Mashelkar described how a student in Kerala, Remia Jose, had a lot of household chores to do when her mother fell ill. She would return from school and wash clothes because her family could not afford a washing machine.

To cope, then 15-year-old Remia created a washing machine that ran on pedals and did not require electricity to operate. The machine cost just US$45 (INR 2,000).

Mansukhbhai Prajapati also invented an earthen refrigerator, called Mittikool, which is priced at US$77 (INR 3,500). The refrigerator has separate compartments for storing water and vegetables and also runs without electricity, making it ideal for rural areas.

Prajapati operates a small-scale industrial unit in Rajkot, which has been producing clay products since 1988. Besides the refrigerator, Prajapati's company also manufactures non-stick pans made from clay, as well as Mittikool water filters, cookers and dinner sets.

The TiE summit will also feature upcoming entrepreneurs such as S. Venkatesh from Goli Vada Pav, which is India's first ethnic fast-food chain with products made in fully automated HACCP-certified hands-free plant. Other entrepreneurs scheduled to share their journey at the conference include Mittikool's Prajapati, and Sumita Ghose, who founded Rangsutra to provide employment to artisans.

Entrepreneurs from other countries such as Philippine fast-food chain founder, Tony Tan Caktiong, and Israeli entrepreneur Zohar Zisapeland will also be at the summit. Sessions at the conference will also encompass topics such as sports, education and clean technology, as well as feature women entrepreneurs.

Swati Prasad is a freelance IT writer based in India.

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