For Satyapal Chandra, Rohan Singh, and Abhishek Singh, three engineering students from Bihar, coming up with innovation was no challenge. Their challenge was the language barrier – not knowing English cut them off from the ecosystem of start-ups, VC funding and market launches. Their solution – MagTapp, an app that helped people access the Internet in English while providing simultaneous translations into Hindi. This is just one example how innovation by rural entrepreneurs can unleash the potential of India outside the metros – provided we get it right.
If you Google ‘Innovation in India’, it is quite likely that you will get several search results for the term ‘jugaad’, i.e. make-do innovation. While jugaad has been celebrated as the symbol of India’s ability to innovate and also resilience in the face of adversity, let us make it clear – it is not true innovation. True innovation is invention – a solution that finds a technological solution that is viable in the long term, scalable for mass manufacture and easy to replicate elsewhere in the world. In other words, true innovation does not just solve a problem; it expands the economy with new goods and new jobs.
Let me first speak of some hot fields and promising innovators. Later in this article, I will identify the major challenges facing rural innovators in India, and potential solutions that will spur start-up culture.
Hotspots of Rural Innovation
The story of the education start-up Byju’s becoming a unicorn is now part of several B-school case studies, but it still caters to metro audiences which are more familiar with technology and English. While metrobased start-ups, such as Classle (Chennai), ConceptOwl (Thiruvananthapuram) and Hippocampus (Bengaluru) are aimed at rural markets, they are being given good competition by start-ups based in smaller towns like LearnFatafat (Bhusawal) and Learning Delight (Rajkot).
The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed classroom learning to the video conferencing sphere, creating room for innovations that can tap into slow internet speeds, small screen sizes and usability in Indian languages. The field is a rich testing ground for various models of education, and the e-learning market is projected to grow to US$ 8.6 billion by 2026.
The COVID-19 pandemic only served to heighten a public health crisis in rural India, which is already plagued by lack of access to medicines, hospitals and qualified medical practitioners, and limited infrastructure such as ambulances. While medicine delivery apps like 1MG and remote consulting apps like Practo are making their presence felt in urban areas, smaller towns and villages have nothing comparable.
The Kota-based start-up MedCords and Udaipur-based Karma Healthcare are pioneering a hybrid set up where rural clinics run by a nurse are linked up to urban centres where doctors and specialists can offer telemedicine consultation. Tie-ups with agribusinesses such as IFFCO, which have a dense supply network, assist in last mile delivery. Other hot areas to look will be in rural cold chain and medicine delivery, dental care, rural mental health and mobile hospitals.
Last mile fintech has been an area of focus in the last decade, both by banks and NBFCs on one side and by individual entrepreneurs on the other. Other fields that are looking promising have been education financing (e.g. Chennai-based Shiksha Financial), point of sale and inventory management set ups (e.g. KIRA, StoreKey) and agri-sales (e.g. Catalyst Labs, which aims to bypass middlemen in agricultural supply chain). Nevertheless, high stakes crop financing, which is subjected to the risks of climate and swings in global prices, is still a field where private moneylenders dominate, and fintechs have not succeeded.
4. Agro-Industries including storage and irrigation:
Hyderabad-based Marut Drones, incubated by the prototyping centre T-Works has been helping the state of Telangana’s afforestation project by implementing dronebased seed-planting. The role of drones is only bound to increase, freeing up agricultural labour for value-adding jobs such as food processing and packaging. Drone-based spraying of fertilisers and pesticides can also help reduce farmers’ exposure to toxic chemical; however, this is currently not permitted in India.
Further innovations that will play a big role in agriculture include micro-irrigation, drip irrigation, weather forecasting for protecting crops (e.g. Shailendra Tiwari and AnandaVerma’s start up Fasal), apps that help farmers find marketplaces (in which ITC’s e-choupal has long been recognised as a pioneer), agri-education, agrisocial networking (such as the Facebook group Love Local Buy Local or the Chhattisgarh-based CGNetSwara which uses low cost feature phones) as well as those that harness data science and artificial intelligence to find better prices for farmers.
Organic and sustainable farming practices are bound to see an increase in both acreage and revenues as demand rises. For example, the Mangal Singh Water Wheel Pump uses the power of flowing river water to pump water into fields without the need for electricity or fossil fuels, thus reducing the carbon footprint of the irrigated crop. Rural innovations that assist in better irrigation, lower to nil pesticide/fertiliser use, use of less electricity etc are thus more necessary than ever.
Challenges faced today
One of the terms that late President APJ Abdul Kalam used a lot was PURA – Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas. Another term for this is rurbanization. This does not mean features like metro railways and 3D movies, but things like 5G connectivity, 24-hour electricity, quality education and preventive healthcare, which are key to spurring rural innovation.
1. Infrastructure –
This is the most immediate challenge, and I am not talking of roads, electricity or data connectivity. These are needs that are mostly being met, although there is plenty of scope for improvement. But start-ups need an infrastructure of their own, such as incubation centres, access to financing and more. To the disadvantage or rural innovators, the top incubators are all in metro cities, which are far from the actual sites where the implementation occurs. Deshpande Start-ups in Hubli and 36Inc in Raipur are two examples of such centres coming up away from metros, but in a country of our size, we need thousands more.
2. Finance –
Speak rural finance and you will think immediately of micro-finance, pioneered by Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank. However, this is not the solution for the big dreams of rural innovators. While the public sector NABARD has a 700-crore corpus fund for VC funding rural start-ups, it is just a drop in the pond for an economy of India’s scale. This isn’t just an Indian phenomenon; for example, just 1% of VC funding in the US is aimed at rural start-ups. More believers in India’s rural potential need to step up.
3. Education –
While jugaad has been celebrated as the symbol of India’s ability to innovate and also resilience in the face of adversity, let us make it clear – it is not true innovation
The Indian education system does reach the remotest corners of India, even though it leaves much to be desired. Yet it is still focussed on an objective set-in colonial times – for creating a class of white collar wage earners. Concepts of critical thinking and experimentation, which are the bedrock of innovation, need to be taught alongside facts and theories. The National Education Policy of 2020 aims to inculcate a scientific temper, but how much of the talk will be walked is anybody’s guess. Another challenge is the lack of access to English – a major requirement today (unfortunately) for access to mentors, incubation centres and financiers. Yet as the makers of MagTapp demonstrated, it is not insuperable.
4. Physical & Mental Healthcare –
Innovation is serious business, and takes a toll on both physical and mental health with long hours of trial and error. It can lead to physical exhaustion, frustration and especially depression. Metropolitan cities have (comparatively) better facilities to deal with this. Gurgaon-based Gramin Healthcare, working in sync with Ayushman Bharat, is an initiative that aims to raise mental health awareness in rural areas and enable access to counselling and psychiatric care. A lot more could still be done, and start-ups in this field, who can connect more villages and small towns to psychiatrists, so that more rural innovators can prosper.
5. Social Attitudes –
Even if points 1 to 4 were to be addressed, social attitudes would still remain the biggest problem facing rural innovators. Medieval social hierarchies that concentrate wealth in a few hands, confine women to homes and suppress critical thinking are inimical to creativity and innovation. They promote jugaad-ism for ad hoc solutions of problems, instead of inventive thinking that can disrupt the old ways of doing business. A change in social attitudes can be brought about in 3 ways: top-down approach by government through legislation, bottoms up approach by individuals and by mass education campaigns by corporates.
The challenges are many but not unsurmountable. The only solution to spurring innovation in India is to create a culture of innovation.