Redesigning policies for rural innovative start-ups: A saga of neglect

I don’t think anybody disagrees, that start-up movement has bypassed the rural regions. Not that entrepreneurial urge is low in rural areas, but the current start-up ecosystem is incapable of reaching the creative rural communities. Why would central and state policymakers be so diffident in reaching the rural, scattered, innovative entrepreneurs?

There are several reasons for this neglect: the transaction costs are very high. Most farmers, artisans, mechanics, fishermen, labourers, tribal men or women who solve a rural problem, just go on with life. The struggle of dealing with the everyday problems is so much that there is hardly any attention paid to leverage such solutions, exceptions apart.

Such communities or individuals are very diffident and often think that they may not get help easily, many of them learn to be helpless- a tragic demand thumbs down situation. Lesser demand leads to lesser supply, unfortunately. Urban bias and pressures take their own toll on the time and resources of the policymakers. The tool kit they use is, of course, incapable of addressing the rural entrepreneurial challenges.

The policy makers prefer to tackle easier problems to address first. Results take more effort, more time, and more teamwork to show results in disadvantaged rural regions. Given short term result oriented culture, urban start-up movement was bound to get far more resources, time and attention. This must change.

Last week I mentioned how Odisha mapped and tried to tap the innovations in all the thirty districts of the state. About 2000 innovation based farm tools/machinery were identified. Three innovators were honoured in each district and from among these 90, about 17 were honoured at the state level. What next.

When we scout innovations and outstanding traditional knowledge from thousands of villages we just don’t map creativity, we also trigger aspirations of the communities. They did not come to us. We went out to seek them, but often we are able to give awards to only a few (one or two per cent only). And that is the way it should be. what should we do for the rest? Policy options are: recognise that most artisans, farmer mechanics and other innovators are finding solutions to local problems. It is possible that such solutions might exist elsewhere in the country. But in the absence of a frugal supply chain, local decentralized production becomes imperative. Gandhian model is still relevant. Financing of such incremental innovations first for local demand estimation and then for meeting regional needs is necessary. As a part of rural and indusial development, the first round of 50-100 pieces may be supported as a grant.

Public procurement can be a great tool for leveraging such entrepreneurial potential. Advancing some money for making the lot wise tools/devices and then prompt payment to sustain production cycle can be another major instrument for these rural start-ups.

Not all innovations will be at a mature stage. Some of them will need to be converted from proof-of-concept to prototype and then product. Grants for such transitions must be made through GIAN kind of mediating platforms set up in 1997. For herbal products, natural product labs, like the one set up by SRISTI and mech/electronic lablab set up by NIF will need to be made available to these innovators. NIF has also set up more than 30 community workshops. Maybe we need to set up such workshops in every district with the understanding that these will remain available for access to other innovators in the region. Revolving Funds need to be provided to such workshop hosting innovators to meet common expenses for new third-party fabrication.

Mediating platforms will need to provide IPR support in deserving cases with the understanding that these patent rights in the name of individual innovators will not be enforced against fellow imitators and improvisers as a part of Technology Commons. Only when firms license these IPs, just and fair benefit sharing will have to be ensured.

Start-up policy for rural innovators and entrepreneurs thus has to be flexible, accessible the at the doorstep of innovators, focus on local and regional niche based market, no forms will be required to be filled by less educated farmer innovators but mediating agencies will facilitate this. I hope that a major gap in the incubation chain will be filled soon and we will see new aggressive initiatives for promoting micro and small enterprises in the rural hinterland. How students of polytechnics and ITIs need to be converted into entrepreneurs will be discussed the in coming weeks. A team of retired and serving scientists, technologists, ex-servicemen, local established entrepreneurs, faculty of colleges can mentor these enterprises will be also be explored later.

NIF is going to have its biennial National grassroots innovations award function on March 15 at grambharati, Gandhinagar. Honourable President will give away the awards. I am sure more and more students, farmers, and other development managers will like to visit the innovation exhibition that NIF is organizing on the occasion. For more information, please contact info@nifindia.org.

anilg

Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place

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