busy as a bee: an article on Honey Bee Network, 2010, June SPAN


Busy as a Bee

By VAIDEHI IYER May/June 2010

All over the world, there are people with problems and innovators with solutions. The Honey Bee Network connects some of them to help make their dreams come true. Imagine an automatic food making machine that does away with the trouble of cooking. “Wouldn’t everybody like that?” asks Abhishek Bhagat, a student of the Adwait Mission Public School in Bhagalpur, Bihar. The 17-year-old has made just such a device. The idea came to him when he was making tea for his mother at home in their village of Nauguchia.

“So, I got in touch with the Honey Bee Network,” he explains enthusiastically. “They provided me with the technical support I needed for making the printed circuit board and copper containers I needed. Without this, I would not have been able to make my prototype.” Honey Bee Network is the charming name for an organization that has worked since 1987 to encourage such grassroots innovations across India. Thousands of beneficiaries have received support from it. Bhagat’s machine, for instance, runs on electricity. It has boxes that hold different ingredients. For each dish to be cooked, a pre-timed card is used. Different ingredients fall into the main cooking vessel according to set timings. Once the cooking is done, the machine rings an alarm.

“I have programmed my invention to make chai, chola and chura fry,” says Bhagat, who wishes to become a researcher in robotics. “But, if a company takes it up for commercial manufacture, it can be programmed to make any number of dishes.” The Honey Bee Network bridges the distance between those who have problems and those who are thinking up economical and ecologically sound solutions to them. Thanks to the network, a handful of small innovators have been able to patent their work. This is normally a very difficult task for them.

“The general challenges facing grassroots inventors in India are the same as those of inventors in other countries,” explains Tom Turano, an attorney with K&L Gates, a law firm originally based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (but now with 36 offices around the world) that helps the Honey Bee Network’s innovators file patents in the United States. “High on the list of challenges is the fact that inventors typically are not familiar with patent laws,” he says. Patent applicants often do not know that they should not use their invention in public or have it featured in any media. This can result in a loss of intellectual property rights. “Also high on the list is that individuals may not be aware of what has already been invented in the field,” says Turano, who has been working with the Honey Bee Network for almost a decade. “As a result they spend a good deal of time and effort reinventing something that has already been invented. This is also where groups like the Honey Bee Network help immensely.”

The Honey Bee Network tries to bring inventions to the attention of patent attorneys early on. This goes a long way toward protecting the inventor’s intellectual property rights. “One of the great ideas to come from this process is an agricultural machine that is powered by a motorcycle,” says Turano.

Honey Bee’s NASA Connection. The Honey Bee Network was recently invited to be a part of LAUNCH: Water, the first in a series of global initiatives for a sustainable future held at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida against the backdrop of the launch of Space Shuttle Mission STS-131 in March. LAUNCH wants innovators, no matter which part of the world they come from, and whether they are working in garages, enterprises or charities, to meet the foremost challenges of a sustainable future: water, aid, food, energy, mobility and sustainable cities.

But although innovators are constantly struggling to share their knowledge, they frequently face problems related to funding, design, management or marketing. “Early in the development of LAUNCH during 2009, it was clear that we needed to think about innovation in a way that was inclusive of cultural, geographic and economic diversity,” says Victor E. Friedberg, executive director of LAUNCH, which is primarily based in Washington, D.C. It has satellite offices in the Bay Area as well as at the NASA Ames Research Center in California. Friedberg believes that sustainability will ultimately be addressed not by one game changing idea or technology, but the cumulative power and the collective imagination of innovators across the planet. “This was important for LAUNCH to understand and get right as we developed,” he says. “There is a tendency, especially here in the Bay Area, to look at innovation solely as devotion to high tech, high investment and capital intensive processes. “LAUNCH was a name chosen to reflect our mission to help launch innovation that supports sustainable development into the world,” explains Friedberg.

“For decades, the Kennedy Space Center has launched innovations literally and figuratively into the world.” The name also reflects the alignment with NASA. The Honey Bee Network was among 10 innovators selected from around the world to have collaborative dialogues with the LAUNCH team and the LAUNCH Council, to which Network founder Anil K. Gupta has been added as a member. Besides NASA, the founding partners include USAID, the U.S. State Department and Nike. “I was at the Kennedy Space Center as a founder member of the LAUNCH Accelerator project,” says Gupta. “It’s one of NASA’s ways of addressing larger social problems. This year their focus is on water and they are interested in the solutions available with the Honey Bee Network.” — V.I.

Thanks to the efforts of the Honey Bee Network and Turano’s firm, Mansukhbhai Jagani, a 46-year-old farmer and manufacturer from Gujarat, is the holder of U.S. Patent Number 6,854,404 for a technology that converts a motorcycle into a multipurpose ploughing machine that can be used for weeding, sowing, tilling and spraying pesticides.

This technology could be useful for small gardens, big vineyards or for big greenhouses in the United States. In India, it is used extensively in Saurashtra, Gujarat with groundnut and cotton crops. All over, in developed and developing nations, people with ideas create inventions, often informally in their homes, garages, fields and as students, to make the world a better place. Many of these ideas result in workable solutions. The Honey Bee Network enables sharing of ideas across the world. For instance, a large number of sustainable agricultural practices from India are just as likely to work in the United States. In one example, growing okra as a border crop keeps pests away from cotton. In another, spraying jaggery mixed with water attracts black ants that kill pests. Check out www.sristi.org or www.honeybee.org for many more examples of farming without using ecologically harmful chemical pesticides.

“I have known the Honey Bee Network since its inception,” says Calestous Juma, a professor of the practice of international development at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Massachusetts. “I have followed it since then and seen the network gain national and international recognition. It pioneered documenting the importance of local innovations and has helped to bring this topic to international attention.” Juma feels the Honey Bee Network is a rare expression of lifelong dedication by one individual committed to giving visibility to the creative talents of millions at the bottom of the proverbial economic pyramid.

Taking flight Here’s how it all began. “I have been working on the subject of nurturing the technology of the common people for some time,” says Anil K. Gupta, founder of the Honey Bee Network. “You see, a honey bee does what we intellectuals don’t do. It connects a lot of flowers,” says Gupta, who is also a senior academician at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. “By this, I mean that people-to-people knowledge transfer can only take place in local languages. Secondly, the flowers don’t complain when the nectar is taken, which means we don’t make people anonymous, we don’t exploit them, instead they are acknowledged. And third, not all the honey is kept by bees—they are ready to share it with their community. So, it follows, if we make any use of local knowledge and it generates some returns, then a fair share of it must go back to the people. Now, these are the three principles we started with.”

As the Honey Bee Network grew, three institutions were set up in Ahmedabad that supported its work in important ways. The Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI) was established in 1993 to scale up grassroots innovations. The Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network (GIAN) was set up in 1997 to convert grassroots innovations into viable products. By the turn of the millennium, the need to make India a technologically advanced society and a global leader in sustainability was felt. To do this, the National Innovation Foundation was established with the support of the Indian government’s Department of Science and Technology. All three organizations work in synergy to help Honey Bee innovators.

Among those innovators are Mehtar Hussain and Mushtaq Ahmed Dar, brothers who live in Sipajhar in the Darrang district of Assam. They became a part of the Honey Bee Network after Gupta led a group of innovative farmers, artisans, students and scientists on a trek by foot through villages to find new ideas and share experiences and new methods. “I come from a family of farmers and I wanted to do something for farming,” says the diffident, 30-year-old Mushtaq Dar. His family has a two-acre plot of land, typical for millions of India’s marginal farmers. The brothers’ economical and useful invention came about, Dar says, because he wondered, “how to get the wind to give water like rain.” He found his answer in the Bayukal, which means “wind pump.” The device looks like a large, bamboo windmill. It is powered by a hand pump that can pull water from 15 to 18 meters beneath the surface of the ground and it helps the farmer save on fuel costs. As part of the Honey Bee Network, the brothers received funding from the National Innovation Foundation.

“We provided him with approximately Rs. 300,000 to develop his workshop so that he and his brother and other grassroots innovators of the region can use the facility to develop their innovations,” says Nitin Maurya, senior fellow and innovation officer at the National Innovation Foundation. “The idea was to have a micro incubator there, which is a place where work on grassroots innovations of the region can be done locally.”

The Bayukal can be manufactured for as little as Rs. 4,000. In the workshop, Dar works against orders for his device and has delivered 20 units so far. The Ahmedabad-based wing of Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network is exploring the possibilities of using this technology in Gujarat. Already, a few Bayukal windmills are being used by salt farmers in the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat to pump out brine from the ground. Soon, the Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions will step in to help Dar expand his business.

“I never thought I would have a workshop one day,” Dar says. “I just started off thinking, ‘Let us see if this works.’ Now, I will try to make something else new.” “In 2008, I visited some rural entrepreneurs of the Honey Bee Network in India,” says Eric von Hippel, a professor in the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s very impressive work. Our work is related; I also study users.” What he means is that Gupta studies rural innovators in India who generally develop innovative products, not necessarily for commercial gain, but to solve their own needs; they are users of the innovations they develop. Von Hippel says, “I study innovation by firms and individuals in advanced economies who innovate because they need to use the innovations; they are users. So we study the same type of innovators in different contexts.”

User-innovators are increasingly displacing producer-innovators in modern economies because of advances in computerized design tools and because of low communication costs enabled by the Internet. These are the forces that, for example, have made open source software projects so important in advanced economies.

“It is very interesting to me to see similar behaviors carried out in low-tech settings by innovators in the Honey Bee Network,” says von Hippel. “The contrast helps us to understand the phenomenon more deeply.”

He also suggests that readers who are interested in learning more about this phenomenon of innovation by users can download a book that he has authored, Democratizing Innovation, from his MIT Web site http://mit.edu/evhippel/www/ books.htm at no cost.

The wind beneath their wings Support came in different forms over the years. “In 1992-93, I was…nominated for the PEW Conservation Scholar Award, given to 10 scholars around the world,” says Gupta, who is also a member of India’s National Biodiversity Authority and the newly established National Innovation Council. The PEW award, administered by the World Research Institute in Washington, D.C., came with a $150,000 grant.

Thanks to the PEW award, Gupta was able to visit American and European patent offices and study their systems. This gave him the depth of understanding that was required to establish SRISTI in 1993. “I could do a lot of things because of the PEW scholarship and not worry about anything,” he says. “I could ask the sort of questions that bothered me. So, all my work got an impetus thanks to the award money. “They asked me what my goals were and whether I had achieved my own goals to the extent I wanted to, which was a very gratifying, honorable and trust-based system,” says Gupta, who now serves as a consultant to several national and international organizations. “It gave me the ability to do a lot of research that I would not have been able to do otherwise.”

Having started with a few hundred innovations and traditional knowledge practices in 1987, the Honey Bee Network’s database crossed 140,000 ideas this February, though not all of them are unique. Innovations also happen when people rich with experience, if not formal degrees, find solutions that are technically, economically and locally feasible but can be transplanted anywhere. T.R. Rajesh lives in the temple town of Thrissur in Kerala although he has travelled all over India. A construction worker, Rajesh felt inspired to innovate a simple baffle system for a septic tank because he felt the existing system was too expensive.

“The baffle helps to reduce the disturbance of the settled sludge and keep the solids and scum in the tank,” explains Maurya at the National Innovation Foundation. “In the conventional septic tank, two baffles made of concrete are used. However, in Rajesh’s innovation, only one baffle made of PVC pipes is necessary. Rajesh’s circular baffle, which consists of three chambers, works as a divider and filter.” “My head is always running full of ideas,” says Rajesh. “I have some 50 to 100 inventions that I wish I could work on. I have received a lot of encouragement from the Honey Bee Network.”

The Honey Bee’s innovations are wide-ranging. Susant Pattnaik, a friendly teenager who lives in Bhubaneshwar, Orissa, has devised an unusual wheelchair. It helps people who are completely immobilized to communicate on their own. The device uses an electronic circuit to decode breathing patterns and translate them into a communication system similar to Morse Code. “In this way, the disabled can be self-reliant,” Pattnaik says. “The Honey Bee Network has already helped me a lot in making this dream come true. Now, my prototype is ready and I am hopeful that some company will manufacture it and make it available widely.”

Far and wide Gupta has delivered talks on the Honey Bee Network at American universities including Harvard, MIT, Cornell and UCLA, Berkeley. For a course at Colby College in Waterville, Maine on “Nature as a Metaphor for Designing Technologies, Institutions and Social Networks,” Gupta took students out to meet innovators in their own community.

“Among the innovators we met was Andrew Smith, a farmer at Newport’s Mineral Spring Mushroom Farm, who was using some very interesting methods in mushroom cultivation,” Gupta says. “So, when the students asked him what he would do if they took his idea and started using it themselves, he said he was cool with it, that he would buy mushrooms from them and work on something else and create more value.” Gupta notes that Smith did not have any problem with sharing his knowledge. “It’s a stereotype to say people don’t want to share, that they are greedy for more money. It’s not true. Instead, there is a lot of encouragement and enthusiasm.”

In the high-crime, Iron Triangle area of Richmond, California, near Berkeley, Gupta says he met wonderful people who were encouraging kids to grow fruits and vegetables in an abandoned railway yard and sell them by the roadside. “They are ‘open source gardens’ that anybody can harvest from,” he notes.

Gupta says he also gained insights from working with the Zunis, who live in the desert that stretches across the border between the United States and Mexico. For example, one could see potholes on the road and find fields that had not been cultivated for centuries. The Zunis had tried to revive old peach trees by applying dung manure on the stumps. The sprouting of new shoots led to a revival of the germ-plasm that had been lost for several decades, if not centuries, says Gupta. “Indigenous communities in America too face the same dilemma that their knowledge is not valued by society and yet they have some of the most precious knowledge, especially in the context of climate change,” he says. “Traditional societies follow practices that conserve water and energy and are respectful of all natural resources.”

“The knowledge of the developing world is often called ‘traditional knowledge,’ ” explains Madhavi Sunder, a professor of law at the University of California, in Davis. “We have a stereotype of people in the developing world as traditional, communal, and engaged for millennia in imbibing tradition without creating anything new. But this is an incomplete picture, and is sometimes simply false!”

The Honey Bee Network illustrates the ingenuity of people, including poor people, in every corner of the Earth. Everywhere, there are individuals putting their minds to solving current problems, improving their quality of life, and even inventing to find love.

Gupta tells the story of one gentleman who developed an amphibian bicycle so he could go and meet his lady across a lake. He tells of a young college student who invented a pedal-powered washing machine so she could complete her chores quickly and have more time for her studies. As Sunder says, “The Honey Bee Network has documented the stories of real individuals with modern concerns and a modern sensibility for creatively solving problems.” In fact, folkloric knowledge can be very useful in finding solutions to contemporary problems. For example, indigenous architecture across the world has evolved in such a way that homes stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter, naturally, without electrically-enabled temperature control.

Although it began in India, the Honey Bee Network has grown to be a movement, with a newsletter that reaches people in more than 75 countries. “Innovators exist everywhere,” concludes Gupta. “There are a lot of people who are ready and willing to share and become part of this global community of innovators. Sustaining a movement requires collective effort. Individuals can galvanize but they cannot sustain. The Honey Bee Network is not one person’s work; it is the effort of many, many people.”

Vaidehi Iyer is a journalist and editor based in Chennai.

Courtesy: SPAN Magazine editorspan@state.gov


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