Hand-washing clothes in India is part of the daily drudgery for hundreds of millions of housewives who can’t afford the ‘professional’ male dhobis (or the electric washing machines) that urban middle-class & elites employ for laundry. The process is inefficient not just in terms of time, but also water usage and it often accounts for nearly half of a household’s daily water requirements. In a hot country with a billion thirsty mouths where most homes get running water for about 2 hours a day (if at all), saving water by making laundry more efficient should be a top priority.
Spearheaded by IIM Professor Anil Gupta, the Honeybee Network takes teams of volunteers on exploratory journeys through rural India where they scour the countryside for innovations that they hope to spread to other parts of the country. When innovations have commercial value, they pass the product on to the NIF (also sprearheaded by Anil Gupta) which aims to streamline the manufacturing process and formalize the intellectual property so that an entrepreneur can easily & efficiently buy the rights to bring the product to market.
Except there is nothing easy or efficient about it.
The Honeybee Network found Remya Jose more than 4 years ago in rural Kerala. Faced with an ailing mother and the demands of continuing her high school education, Remya developed a pedal-powered washing machine that saves time, energy, and water as a 10th grade student in rural Kerala. Through NIF’s instrumentality, her innovation was featured in Outlook magazine in 2005 followed by a Discovery Channel feature, an NDTV story, an even an award from India’s then-President, Abdul Kalam. With all that attention, you would think Remya machine would be all over India by now, and she would be collecting royalties amounting to millions of rupees.
The NIF ‘helped’ re-design Remya’s washing machine from a device that cost Rs. 1500 to manufacture from scratch in rural india, to machine that cost Rs. 3000 to make in an urban factory. Since it would be competing with low-end single-cycle electric washing machines that cost Rs. 5000, it’s price-point is above what India’s poor can afford while simultaneously being below what the middle class demands when compared to the Rs. 5000 electric alternative. A wonderful case study in perfectly sub-optimal pricing.
Further, though the NIF helped to patent Remya’s intellectual property, the licensing agreement is designed so that NIF recovers its ‘investment’ on Remya’s innovation by taking a percentage of payments and royalties, adding another layer of expense and complication to something they ostensibly work to simplify.
NIF boasts a small handful of success stories, including generating attention in the mainstream Indian press and sparking interest among socially-engaged Indian youth. Yet it remains an open question as to whether their successes outweigh their failures, and the few opportunities they have created make up for the glaring missed opportunities of the effort.
Besides Remya’s washing machine, other innovations they have failed to capitalize on include a mobile phone-activated irrigation pump that saves farmers from manually turning on & off the water to their fields, a system to eliminate train accidents on Indian railways, a geared pedal rickshaw for faster transport with less effort, and a floating bicycle that can save lives during floods. Some of the early press coverage quotes Anil Gupta and others lamenting the huge untapped potential of rural innovators, but lacking in the candor to admit how much NIF’s own systems, processes, and personnel are part of the problem.
I approached the NIF in mid-2007 to find innovative products to demo and advertise (at no-cost!) on our newly-created social marketing platform, Lok Darshan. We were looking for products that would help the poorest of the poor, and the pedal washing machine definitely had the potential to lift people out of poverty through creation of efficient dhobi micro-enterprises. Besides a partnership that would get their products seen by the urban poor of Ahmedabad who would actually demand them (as opposed to the middle & upper-classes on Discovery & NDTV for whom the innovations were mere entertainment), I also seriously looked into purchasing the intellectual property for Remya Jose’s pedal washing machine despite the unfavorable conditions that NIF had created. After enthusiastic meetings and a few rounds of email exchange, communication with NIF dropped off with the following message from NIF’s national business development manager:
“Dear Mr. Brown,
We do agree in principle, We are discussing with our team for follow up. We need your patience and allowance for more delay from our side.”
My follow-up several weeks later yielded no response, and I’m still waiting patiently.
To his credit, Anil Gupta seems genuinely interested in serving India and in uplifting the poorest of the poor. Yet for an organization working with innovators, NIF has remained remarkably stagnant in the way it operates, and its staff lacks the creativity and vision that its clients bristle with.
The enterprising, brave, and patient should try their own hand by reviewing NIF’s list of products to see if they have any more success in bringing innovation to market.
Meanwhile, I wouldn’t be surprised if Alex Gadsen’s Cyclean beats Remya Jose to the Indian mass market.