Where less is more, and small is beautiful

Jul 01, 2012, 11:02 IST | Kareena N Gianani

Jugaad Innovation is a book that swears by gutsy, ingenious innovations in emerging markets. But is jugaad just a frugal quick-fix to insidious social issues and other problems high and mighty? Kareena N Gianani speaks to co-author Jaideep Prabhu to find out the difference

We, in India, aren’t new to ingenious ways that help us communicate, create and — to use that ubiquitous term — ‘adjust’ according to whatever is available to us.

We give missed calls to a friend to let him or her know that we’ve reached the mutual destination (and save Re 1 in the bargain). And we can take that to the next level — as the opening chapter in the book Jugaad Innovation aptly suggests. It discusses how Gujarat-based potter, Mansukh Prajapati, has designed Mitticool — a ‘fridge’ he sells for Rs 2,000, which is essentially a box of clay fitted with a glass door and a plastic faucet at the bottom. Water from an upper chamber of the fridge seeps through the sidewalls, cooling the lower food chamber through evaporation. Mitticool uses no electricity, is 100 per cent biodegradable and produces no waste. Prajapati, who now trains women in his village to manufacture Mitticool and a non-stick frying pan for Rs 100, has not even finished high school.

Co-author, Dr Simone Ahuja, with Mahesh Patel, chief innovation manager at GIAN, discussing his low cost, collapsible windmill solution for salt farmers in the Rann of Kutch

Jugaad Innovation is written by Navi Radjou, executive director of the Centre for India & Global Business at the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge, Jaideep Prabhu, the Centre’s director and Dr Simone Ahuja, a filmmaker and founder of US-based Blood Orange, a marketing and strategy consultancy with special expertise in emerging markets and innovation. The book throws open the doors of the culture of ‘jugaad’ in India — a term used to indicate an innovative, frugal fix to solutions usually born of scarcity. Contrary to structured solutions, jugaad is about gumption and doing more with less (sometimes nil) vis-à-vis millions pumped into R and D for solutions.

“Many western companies swear by the time and money they spend on innovating. Jugaad, on the other hand, is about pushing the envelope because it is not easy for everyone to recover massive costs,” says Prabhu over the phone from the UK.

Unstructured solutions
The book beams with enthusiasm at the chances of finding opportunities in adversity. Fair enough — Indians, especially rural entrepreneurs, have found ingenious solutions where there seemed none. Jugaad Innovation also explains the issues with the structured, top-down approach — lack of flexibility, elitism, an inherently insular nature and, of course, the people it impacts. But is jugaad the ultimate solution, in spite of the negative connotation the term itself carries? Prabhu chuckles and says he understands the concerns. “Many people use jugaad as an excuse to cut corners, be shoddy — even unethical. These are valid criticisms. But the book tries to focus on the positives that come out of local, grassroots innovation and the maximum value that can be extracted from frugality.”

Take for example a ‘jugaad’ product called Embrace, a portable infant warmer which is a bag of phase-changing material — a wax-like material — which keeps premature babies warm for up to six hours at regular body temperatures and takes only 30 minutes of electricity to heat up. The idea came from four entrepreneurs attending the Stanford University’s Entrepreneurial Design For Extreme Affordability Programme.

Embrace reduces infant mortality and costs Rs 10,000 — nearly 1 per cent of the cost of incubators available in Western markets. “Will it be correct to say that Embrace can save every premature baby in developing countries? No. But it’s evident that it will save many, because it isn’t technology for the heck of technology. It caters to an unmet need and is trying really hard to reach out,” says Prabhu. Jugaad, he explains, is not a ‘solution to all other problems’, he adds. “It is one the elements you must have in your tool kit when the structured approach doesn’t make sense.”

Jugaad across borders
Jugaad innovators, as the book illustrates, are united by ideas and creativity, but not borders. Apart from India, countries like China, Brazil and others in Africa, too, have gone just as wild with jugaad. “There are differences in the cultures within jugaad, too. India, we noticed, uses jugaad to create service solutions and business models that involve communities,” says Prabhu.

Take Dr Mohan from Chennai, for instance. The diabetologist has assembled satellite-enabled vans that travel across rural parts of Chennai. He has trained volunteers who drive the van through rural areas to check people for diabetes. The trained volunteer operates the machines and Dr Mohan, sitting in Chennai, simply checks the patients’ eyes to diagnose the disease. “Dr Mohan has created a rural network and doesn’t even pay his volunteers, who, in turn, don’t complain because he makes them employable for pharmaceutical companies,” says Prabhu.

In China, however, jugaad is mostly about bringing excellence in the manufacturing sector because low-cost products are the country’s strength. Africa is another surprise altogether. “We realised that the continent uses mobile phone technology in ingenious ways. So most jugaad happens in services which use mobile phones, such as payment for healthcare, for instance. Brazil is known for its hybrid technology — mechanics and cars — so they think in that direction,” says Prabhu.

Frugality is key
The book also discusses how jugaad is no longer limited to developing countries. Companies such as Pepsico and GE, too, do jugaad at their own level, and often rely on ‘simple, frugal’ solutions for their million-dollar problems. “After the breakdown of the economy in recent times, the west is waking up to the fact that frugality will have to seep into their culture too. They are feeling the pressure on resources and the middle class is really struggling. Even Japan is hurting and they realise that with zero growth in 20 years, they may just have lost touch with their people,” explains Prabhu.

A US-based hospital, for instance, recently embraced an inexpensive jugaad product designed by students that lets doctors and nurses swipe their hands over a sort of sanitiser attached to their coats. “This happened after hospital-initiated infections began taking their toll on patients. Doctors and nurses weren’t washing their hands as often as needed. The government has now stepped in and is taking the product very seriously,” says Prabhu.

Importantly, the book points out that scarcity is not the only subtext to jugaad. Prabhu explains, “Many jugaad innovators are very good at identifying a need and then working hard to develop a frugal and inclusive solution that is effective. However, quite often the solution stays local or small scale. The biggest social impact comes when this solution is taken to other markets or adopted by more consumers. But achieving scale is not easy and may take time and partnerships with other organisations, which isn’t easy either.”

Let’s hope there’s an equally plucky jugaad fix to that, too.  

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