Grass‘routes’ to self-reliance

Facilitating grassroots innovation to address rural needs is critical to building self-sufficiency in unprecedented times

By Author Ravi Narayan   |   Published: 19th Mar 2021   12:06 am

The pandemic has been many things for many people. A global health crisis. An economic slowdown. A nightmare for scores of industries that thrive on the free movement and travel of people. And yet, as with historic events of comparable scale, also a time for a pause.

As David Attenborough says in his forthcoming film, Life On Our Planet, “Human beings have overrun the world…(by) replacing the wild with the tame…(but) we need to learn to work with nature…(and) if we act now, we can yet put it right…” His words resonate with me because they throw light on what many in the medico-scientific community believe led to the spread of the novel coronavirus — humankind’s continued exploitation of the natural world that unintentionally opened the gates for a virulent virus to jump species.

But Attenborough’s insightful commentary also does something else. It reaffirms my own belief in the need to not only protect the natural rhythms of our living world but also foster greater equity and inclusiveness between communities in our social systems. Why? Let me explain.

In having the opportunity to work in Telangana, India’s youngest and one of most innovative States, I have the pleasure of working every day with some of the most disruptive minds in the country. But I am keenly aware that the problems and demands we usually concern ourselves with pertain to the kinds of challenges and requirements felt by the people in urban areas who constitute about 39% of the State’s population.

Revolution in Hinterlands

This means that there is an entire ecosystem that we are overlooking or leaving out — the rural hinterlands, home to about 61% of the State’s population, who live with a different and unique set of challenges and requirements – they typically do not have the kind of access to information, technology, social networks, or support that the State’s major cities and other urban locations usually have.

Consider for example the reality of small farmers typically reliant on middlemen and other merchants for supply and sale of produce to urban markets during the lockdown. While some from Karnataka and Telangana did find ingenious ways through WhatsApp and other online platforms to connect to apartment complexes in city centres for bulk sale with solid profit margins, several others were left in the lurch.

This example on its own points to the need for greater focus on innovative solutions to help meet the rural farmer’s need for a reliable network of urban consumers, affordable tech-enabled platforms and innovation focused on fulfilling rural requirements.

Entrepreneurial Solutions

The Telangana School Innovation Challenge launched earlier this year provides a befitting example of how providing disadvantaged high-school children across the State with an opportunity to identify challenges in their communities and create entrepreneurial solutions to address them can be such a roaring success.

The challenge that is open to high school students across the State’s 33 districts invites children to pay attention to local problems affecting them or their families. It then prepares them to think through these problems with the help of 20 instructional short videos and 12 interactive assessments that introduce them to the core principles of design thinking. The objective of the challenge is to engage young people from the State’s underprivileged sections and communities as co-creators of solutions, rather than just as beneficiaries. So far, 84 State government schools have registered for the challenge, 258 student teams have been formed and 114 idea submissions have been received.

If we are to learn lessons from the disruption that the pandemic has left in its wake, it is this: the consequences of gain at the cost of exclusion can be dire. Telangana has made a name for itself in a short period of time as a place that believes in the power of people-led innovation. It became the country’s first State to institutionalise the position of a Chief Innovation Officer in 2017 to foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship among all the State’s citizenry, including its schoolgoing children.

Over the last few years, grassroots innovation too has seen considerable traction with the organisation of multiple competitions and exhibitions, including the Intinta Innovator Exhibition, Village Innovation Challenge, Maker Faire 2019, among other international and national exhibitions.


Laying the Foundation

However, more needs to be done to provide a sustained structure of enablement to foster grassroots innovation and institute mechanisms to recognise the growing demand in rural areas for new products, behaviours and experiences — right from disseminating information widely, to crafting communication that is accessible and comprehensible to all, to providing resources and mentoring for prototype development, enabling market access, and providing the training and contacts with the larger innovation ecosystem to set up a Micro, Small, or Medium Enterprise.

Although Telangana does have the rudimentary structure of a strategy in place to support grassroots innovators who have already caught the authorities’ attention through exhibitions and competitions, the work to promote grassroots innovation more extensively needs to step up so that no innovator and disruptive idea is left behind.

It is equally important that innovators pay closer heed to the new and changing requirements emerging from rural areas, including from schoolgoing children for connected devices including low-cost smartphones, to facilitate online learning. Additionally, we must not stop at merely recognising disruptive ideas that promise to meet the evolving demands from rural areas in highly unique ways. We must also ensure grassroots innovation is successfully mainstreamed by seeding the creation of a future startup or an MSME.

As the world continues to reel from the effect of the Covid pandemic, business as we have known it is undergoing a sea change. Countries and regions are increasingly looking inward to strengthen self-sufficiency as represented by the objectives of India’s own Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan. In such a scenario, it becomes vital to ensure that every village, town, city, and State of our country is geared up to meet the challenges posed by extraordinary times. To this end, ensuring that the vast majority of our country’s people who live in rural areas are given the impetus to solve local problems innovatively will go a long way in enabling self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

(The author is CEO of T-Hub)

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