Ashoka Launches Collaborative Competition for Rural Innovation

TCI had earlier discussed open innovation as an emerging tool for social entrepreneurs. An excellent initiative in this field is Ashoka Changemakers, which provides an online space for social innovators to present ideas and collaborate with others on refining and implementing them.

Changemakers is building the world’s first global online “open source” community that competes to surface the best social solutions, and then collaborates to refine, enrich, and implement those solutions. Changemakers begins by providing an overarching intellectual framework for collaborative competitions that bring together individual social change initiatives into a more powerful whole.

To keep the framework dynamic, the online Changemakers’s community identifies and selects the best solutions and helps refine them.

A Changemakers collaborative competition consist of three parts – collecting ideas, reviewing them with the member community and finally selecting the most innovative solutions through voting. The goal is for the whole community to share its experience and expertise in bringing forward solutions on challenges ranging from Health Care to Sustainable Tourism.

In collaboration with the Gates Foundation, Changemakers recently launched a competition on Solutions for Rural Communities. The framework provided for this competition is,

Three-quarters of the world’s poorest people—the 1 billion who live on $1 a day or less—rely on agriculture to feed themselves and their families, yet many cannot grow enough to sell or even eat. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and its partners are providing small farmers with tools and opportunities to boost their productivity, increase their incomes, and build better lives for themselves and their families.

Innovative solutions that span the entire agricultural value chain – from seeds to sales – are necessary to accomplish these goals. We encourage you to take part in Ashoka Changemaker’s “Cultivating Innovation: Solutions for Rural Communities” competition to help bring about innovative, creative solutions for small farmers in the developing world.

Entries are welcome up to May 13th and voting will begin on June 24th. If have an idea or know anyone working in rural development and agriculture, go to the site and make an entry. Also, read and comment on the current entries – there are already over 30 ideas presented there.

mKrishi – More power at farmers’ hands

The Hindu reports about mKrishi (mobile Krishi) a mobile agro advisory system launched by Tata.  It can help farmers get personalized advise and updated information on their mobile phones about factors that may affect their crops such as weather.

Prima facie, this looks very similar to Nokia’s LifeTools that ThinkChange India reported a few days earlier.  However, there is one critical aspect in which mKrishi goes one step further. mKrishi mobile phones, that run on Tata Indicom’s network, are equipped with sensors that can read and send data about the current status of their crops.  This combined with an on-phone camera, should help agricultural experts provide specific advise experts understanding the on-field situation correctly.

According to K. Ananth Krishnan, vice-president and chief technology officer, TCS, personalised information and advice are given after farmers submit the soil nutrient and farming pattern data (The Hindu)

Further, it is also usable by illiterate farmers to make a query from a cell phone using voice-specific functions and get a response as an audio message.

This initiative has fetched TCS Wall Street Journal Global Innovation Technology Award for 2008. As I researched further to form my own opinion, I came across Ramesh Jain’s post on mKrishi.  He is a Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at University of Michgan, Ann Arbor and an entrepreneur.  I suppose his testimony should have better credibility than mine!

This project is truly revolutionary — it goes farther than most similar projects do.

Nokia poised to help farmers to expand its rural base

Nokia is about to launch a set of “Life Tools” to be embedded in its mobile phones in an effort to expand its base into rural India. These Life Tools cater to the needs of the rural community with information on three different sectors namely Agriculture, Education, Entertainment. On agriculture, the Life Tool is likely to offer updated information on weather and market prices for the farmers produce on the mobile phone in the farmers native language.

As the old proverb goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Nokia’s datasheet on Life Tools provides an easy-to-understand picture. Evidently, this tool is developed not just to penetrate into rural India, but rather to the “rural world”.

If my everyday observation is any testimony, Nokia seems to have a wide user base at the lower economic sections of India, and this tool can be an excellent vehicle for informational empowerment of the rural Indian community. However, given that the rural buy is likely not going to buy these phones off a Nokia Priority Showroom, how Nokia is going to market this tool so that the buyer buys a low cost Nokia phone for its Life Tools rather than its ruggedness, ease of use or longer life would be an interesting point to observe. This may also be the crucial factor that may determine the tool’s success.

Muhammad Yunus speaks to NYU

Here are some high level points from his talk last night. My own observations are preceded by initials, while comments he said are left alone. I kept them in this order as this was the original chronology of how they developed:

  • (VG) Power of one man: it is impossible to not be in awe when you listen to what he has done.
  • (VG) Amazing brand image: While they may not be concerned with profit, there is no question that Grameen is very focused on building and maintining a strong brand identity that in itself is opening doors and creating opportunities.
  • Low tech + high tech: much of what Grameen does is marry high tech with existing/traditional products. The prime example is Grameen Danone which uses a dietary staple of Bangladeshi children to transmit nutrition.
  • “I wondered what I was doing” – his question when he realized he does not own a single share in any of his companies. (VG) This unyielding desire to create is found in any successful entrepreneur. For them money is only one part of what drives them.
  • “Human beings have multiple dimensions as should businesses”
  • “You don’t need fancy packaging in a social business because you are making something you need”
  • “Why should people pay for something they will throw away” — his response to make the the packaging to Danon Yogurt not only bio-degradable (currently happening) but edible and nutritious as well! (Danon is working on it).
  • Poverty museums — one day we will take our children to these to show them what the world was like when people still existed in poverty
  • “Technology is like water it takes the shape of whatever you put it in” — it is not the technology that is critical but it is being use for

Ashoka Focuses on Agricultural and Sustainable Development in India

Last week, Ashoka announced that the organization will use a US$15 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support the placement of Ashoka fellows in Africa and India.  The grant money will specifically target social innovation and entrepreneurship in agriculture and sustainable development.  According to their press release,

Agricultural and rural sustainable development initiatives supported by Ashoka will be oriented around key issues such as new technologies, farmer productivity, key agricultural policies, and connections between smallholder farmers and markets. Ashoka’s network already includes many Fellows working on agriculture and rural development related issues— whether developing markets for small farmers in Kenya, or using local knowledge to regenerate arid land through natural farming and permaculture in India.

The most promising aspect of this partnership is the approach that Ashoka espouses in ensuring that their social innovations become sustainable – a community based approach:

Ashoka realizes that innovations alone do not create sustainable large-scale solutions in agriculture and sustainable rural development. These new solutions endure only when social entrepreneurs have a community-level understanding, build a broad citizen base of support, introduce incentives for participation, and topple traditional barriers to entry or involvement. This partnership will allow Ashoka to launch 90 social entrepreneurs and their powerful, pattern- changing ideas that are built on this bottom up approach. Additionally, as a product of the increased number of entrepreneurs in this area and their broad base of supporters, Ashoka will be able to identify transformative universal principles that will ultimately revolutionize the field.

Looks like this is a great time to become an Ashoka fellow in India.  I’m looking forward to seeing what developments Ashoka comes up with in 2009.

UFV-CRRID partnership promises grassroot-level business development

Indian Express and Abbynews.com report that University of the Fraser Valley (UFV), Canada and The Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID) have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to “empower the rural entrepreneurs of North India.”

“India needs entrepreneurs at the grass roots level, and our partnership with CRRID allows us to fuel business start-ups and the development of SMEs outside the city centres, in the areas that need it most,” said Professor DJ Sandhu, UFV President’s Advisor.

A quick look at the university’s website to find out what the nature reveals some of the ways means of intervention this partnership will possibly employ.

…for example, students enrolled in UFV’s BBA degree at SDCC will be able to work with research faculty at  CRRID to implement projects aimed at uplifting businesses involved in such industries as agriculture and agrifoods.

In a way this partnership is similar to Tata International Social Entrepreneurship Scheme (TISES), a partnership between TATA sons, UC Berkely and Cambridge University. Continue reading

[TC-I Call to Action]: South Asia-Agricultural Development Department, Market Access Team

Here is what looks to be an amazing opportunity to work for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Here is the description:

Independent Consultant: South Asia
Agricultural Development Department, Market Access Team
Global Development Program

We are searching for a full time consulting resource to help us shape our strategic approach to  India and assist our grant development activities and serve as an important point of contact and interface for our South Asian partners, both potential and current grantees. The ideal candidate will have an entrepreneurial spirit and excellent problem solving, analytical and communication skills. Specific responsibilities will include: Continue reading

Examining Organic Farming in India

In a series of articles on Slate.com, Mira Kamdar (of the World Policy Institute and author of Planet India) discusses the challenges and outlook for organic farming in India based on her visit to Punjab farms.  After an introduction to her visit and the history of the Green Revolution, Ms Kamdar delves into the reality of the matter, derived from the insights of farmers and academics.

In “The Organic Farmer,” Ms Kamdar focuses on why organic farming is beneficial, yet difficult. The involved labor itself presents employment opportunities, but government policies discourage the growth of organic farming:

Abundant cheap labor is one of the potential advantages India can bring to expanding organic agriculture. Picking off pests by hand, harvesting inter-cropped fields with a mix of plants ready at different times, eliminating weeds by frequent hoeing between tight rows, preparing soil with organic fertilizers, deploying micro-irrigation lines positioned to release water at the roots of each plant-these are all labor-intensive tasks.

But organic farming in India faces significant disincentives. Most government policies favor industrial agriculture, with heavy subsidies for India’s chemical-fertilizer and pesticide industries. The focus, understandable in a developing country, is on maximizing yields and boosting exports. The mindset of the Green Revolution is well-entrenched, despite the widely acknowledged social and environmental damage those practices have wrought and the knowledge that they are simply not sustainable.

According to a farmer in her article, seventy percent of Indian farmers are organic producers, since chemical farming is expensive. And although there is a huge export market, the fact that they aren’t certified (the articles point out that it takes three years to receive certification – a lengthy period for farmers) means that they are missing out on lucrative opportunities for profit. Continue reading

Rural Ingenuity: The H20 Pied Piper

Rainwater from the roof goes to an old open tank that was fortunately already placed at a desired height. The bottom of this tank is six feet above the ground. This tank, with a height of seven feet, has a capacity of about 14,000 litres. Water is allowed to fill up to 5.5 feet and then it starts overflowing. The excess water gets filtered in a locally made filter and pours into the open well. In this process, the tank holds upto 11,000 litres of water. As the rainwater is used for non-potable purpose, it is not filtered.

Explaining how one family’s rainwater collection system operates to provide both potable and non-potable sources of water for six months out of the year. The full article can be found on India Together.

Yunus inspires a bollywood movie character

Once in a while, its not uncommon to see a Bollywood movie taking on a pertinent social issue and the same time striving to be commercially successful. On that spirit, the latest bollywood release titled Summer 2007, is taking on the issue of farmer suicides in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra [via Reuters India]

In “Summer 2007,” which opens in cinemas on Friday, five medical
students from Mumbai stray into a village, unprepared for the deaths
and misery they encounter there.

“They get embroiled into this whole saga of who’s responsible, why
is there so much poverty and disparity,” said Atul Pandey, the film’s
producer.

The film also explores the possibility of micro credit as a solution
and has a character inspired by Mohammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel peace
prize winner and founder of Grameen Bank, Bangladesh’s biggest
micro-credit institution.

Click here for past TC-I stories on the farmer suicides.

Must read for the weekend …

A feature on the Deccan Development Society (DDS), an organization aimed to create a self-sustainable ecosystem of dalit women in Andhra Pradesh, in a manner that its leader coins as being “villaged global.” My favorite paragraph:

Starting in 1999, the women of the DDS created a market with about 2,000 members, comprising ecological, self-produced food crops. The sales of their agricultural and other produce yielded a 300% profit in six years; the womens’ dividends increased between Rs 30-800 annually. A mobile van selling the produce was introduced in 2001 to provide people easier access to produce and to popularise organic food. The Zaheerabad Consumers Action Group was also formed which has brought out films on local cuisine and a cookbook using ingredients based on the crops that the women produce. It even runs Cafe Ethnic, a millet restaurant!

I strongly encourage you to read it in its entirety here.

Preparing for the future by reaching back into the past

Here is an interesting story of a farmer’s decision to utilize the ancestor of an indigenous strain of wheat that was used in Malwa before the Green Revolution. The impetus for the change? — the fact that the newer variety of grain actually demanded more water than the older one.

Time was when Malwa, a region spanning central India, grew wheat that required no irrigation. What it required instead was careful nurturing of the soil to retain its moisture. That was then. Soil preparation began months in advance; chemical fertilizers were unknown and green mulch was the principal soil nutrient.

Now, however, most farmers crops require five to seven rounds of water plus costly chemical fertilizers. One farmer, recognizing the unsustainable nature of farming wheat in this way, chose to instead turn back the clock and utilize those trade secrets of prior generations.

Soji Ram sowed Amrita wheat in the beginning of rabi season last year; it is a contemporary version of the indigenous Malwi strand, over 0.3-hectare (ha) last rabi season. Amrita has been developed by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (icar) at its Indore wheat research station. Amrita does not need much soil preparation; what it needs is only two rounds of irrigation.

Undeterred by naysayers, Ram’s crop production actually bested his fellow farmers’ including his own siblings’ harvests. You can read the entire article here.

TC-I Tidbits

Your daily dose of headlines:

Agriculture: The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) in conjunction with academic institutions will begin providing district-specific agro-weather advisories to assist farmers in better managing their crops.

Basic Rights: Amnesty International has called the administration of the death penalty in India as being caprcious and arbitrary. The report claims that no real guideline exists upon review of Supreme Court cases.

Government: The Bangalore state government has established a Truth and Accountability Commission to give businessmen the opportunity to root out corruption occuring in business deals.

Rice Husks + Innovation = Renewable Energy

India has been found to be particularly fertile ground for experimentation with renewable energy initiatives. The latest version of Ernst & Young’s “Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Index” reaffirms this fact, ranking India as the third most attractive market for renewable energy investment:

India’s rise to third overall … has been precipitated by excellent national and regional government support for both foreign and local investment in renewable technologies. Consequently, rapid growth is expected to continue in this market.

The report goes on to note that “installed renewables capacity in India – currently standing at 8GW – is now expected to double every five years, and is forecast to reach 20GW by 2012, twice the government’s target.”

One new venture in this space is Husk Power Systems, which aims to “provide power to millions of rural Indians in a financially sustainable, scalable, environmentally friendly, and profitable manner.” Starting with villages in Bihar, HPS has developed a viable business model for generating power from agricultural residue, namely rice husks. How does the system work?

The organization has developed a distributed power supply and distribution system that uses 35-100kW “mini power- plants” in villages of 200-500 households within the Indian “Rice Belt” and offers electricity as a pay-for-use service.

In addition to power generation, rice husks have additional income-generation utility, as 1) the ash produced by burning the rice husks can be “converted into a valuable ingredient for cement production,” and 2) the rice husk generators can potentially be paid for reducing carbon emissions through a trading program established by the Kyoto Protocol. The result, then, according to innovators Ransler and Sinha, is the multi-fold:

Continue reading

The simplest refrigerator — please come to India

Using some of the more basic principles of physics, a grassroots inventor in Nigeria named Mohammed Bah Abba developed a way to refrigerate items simply by using two different sized clay pots. Malapati Sekhar on the Rural Development of India blog explains how this invention, called the Zeer, works:

The pot-in-pot consists of two earthenware pots of different diameters, one placed inside the other. The space between the two pots is filled with wet sand that is kept constantly moist, thereby keeping both pots damp (slightly wet). Fruit, vegetables and other items such as soft drinks are put in the smaller inner pot, which is covered with a damp cloth. The phenomenon that occurs is based on a simple principle of physics: the water contained in the sand between the two pots evaporates towards the outer surface of the larger pot where the drier outside air is circulating. By virtue of the laws of thermodynamics, the evaporation process automatically causes a drop in temperature of several degrees, cooling the inner container, destroying harmful micro-organisms and preserving the perishable foods inside.

Sekhar continues on to highlight how such a simple innovation like this could have a significant impact on farmers’ current behaviors, as it would enable them to preserve their produce long enough to sell at urban markets where prices are much more amenable to them. Utilizing this simple refrigeration mechanism would mean that such food could be stored and sold in areas with the greatest demand.