Frugal Innovation – An Inspiring Story

The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta), an independent charity in the UK defines Frugal Innovation thus: “Frugal innovation responds to limitations in resources, whether financial, material or institutional, and turns these constraints into an advantage. Through minimising the use of resources in development, production and delivery, or by leveraging them in new ways, frugal innovation results in dramatically lower–cost products and services. Successful frugal innovations are not only lower in cost, but outperform the alternative, and can be made available at large scale. Often, but not always, frugal innovations have an explicitly social mission” (Source: Our Frugal Future: Lessons from India’s Innovation System).

Let me share the story of an extraordinary entrepreneur / innovator who defied all odds to transform a constraint into an advantage and is a shining example of Frugal Innovation. Back in 2001, a devastating earthquake struck the Kutch region in Gujarat. Among those who lost everything was Mansukhbhai Prajapati, a traditional clay craftsman.

The early years
Mansukhbhai started his career at Jagdamba Potteries, a rooftop tile manufacturing unit as a trainee in 1985. The entrepreneurial spirit egged him to try something of his own after the initial few years during which he refined his skills on the potter’s wheel. His first foray as an entrepreneur was to produce earthen pans (locally known as Kaladi/Tavdi) using a hand-pressed machine. Mansukhbhai had observed that the manual process of producing earthen pans on the potters’ wheel could manufacture about 100 units a day. He was confident that the production levels could be significantly improved if the manual process could be automated to a degree. He improvised and created a modified hand press (originally meant for roof tile making) which was capable of making 700 units of earthen pans per day on an electric potter’s wheel.

While the problem of quantity was solved, issues with quality started to surface. The budding entrepreneur was quick to realise that earthen objects created on an electric wheel tend to break if the heating went on for a while. Further improvisations followed and his efforts were boosted by the first bulk order from a Bhuj trader.

However, the big break came when Chiragbhai Patel, a Rajkot businessman inquired if Mansukhbhai could design a clay water filter in a month’s time. The design was ready in eight days and Mansukhbhai delivered a product far superior than the original design. It was a terracotta water filter with a ceramic candle for filtration. Chiragbhai Patel was so impressed that he placed an order for 500 units at a price of Rs 200 per filter, which incidentally was double of what was discussed at the design stage. Initially the product was sold as Aquatech through Chiragbhai’s marketing agency. From 2001, it was sold under the brand Mitticool after the necessary procedures of design registration and trademark application were completed.

The earthquake had decimated Mansukhbhai’s stocks. A month on, came the turning point in the career of the entrepreneur who saw an opportunity, thanks to Sandesh Gujarati Daily’s photo feature on the earthquake. The photo feature included an image of a broken water filter of Mansukhbhai with the caption ‘the broken fridge of poor’.

The master craftsman put his thinking cap on and decided to work on a fridge that could operate without electricity. By a stroke of luck, he got in touch with the Gujarat Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network (GIAN), Ahmedabad around the same time. Encouraged by GIAN and after many experiments, the Mitticool fridge became a reality in 2005. Here is the official description of the Mitticool fridge:

It works on the principle of evaporation. Water from the upper chambers drips down the side, and gets evaporated taking away heat from the inside, leaving the chambers cool. The top upper chamber is used to store water. A small lid made from clay is provided on top. A small faucet tap is also provided at the front lower end of chamber to tap out the water for drinking use. In the lower chamber, two shelves are provided to store the food material. The first shelf can be used for storing vegetables, fruits etc. and the second shelf can be used for storing milk etc. Cool and affordable, this clay refrigerator is a very good option to keep food, vegetables and even milk naturally fresh for days.

The first order for 100 units followed soon and Mansukhbhai has not looked back ever since. He did what he does best: EXPERIMENT. A suite of products followed including the clay cooker; earthen utensils – eating plates with separate dish holding sections, glasses and bowls; earthen thermos etc.

Rated among the seven most powerful rural Indian entrepreneurs by Forbes, Mansukhbhai continues on his mission to experiment and innovate to change lives of people. He truly represents an entrepreneurial India which IIM-Ahmedabad professor and founder of India’s Honeybee Network Anil Gupta aptly describes as “India’s villages have become a hotbed of innovation, as its rural poor develop inventions out of necessity”.

To know more, please click here.

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