Frugal innovation is not just about affordability


santi dhruv fridge

Frugal innovation is not just about affordability

There is a global interest in frugal innovations, particularly emerging from the grassroots level under the constrained environment of material resources. We have received more communications in the last two years than in the previous two decades from various European and other governments as well as corporations. Curious about how could they learn from the vast reservoir of creativity at grassroots by informal sector and young people, they are keen to engage, learn and share. However, most efforts in dealing with the frugality are restricted to prime criteria of extreme affordability. In the process, we have created huge externalities, some of which, if persistently ignored, may transform the so-called frugal solutions into extraordinary costly solutions for the environment and society in future. Let me illustrate.

In the anxiety to find fortune at the base of the economic pyramid, many companies introduced one rupee sachet for shampoo, hair oil, mukhwas [mouth freshener], etc., and made billions in profit. They never realized that while this was affordable by the poor people, it was not certainly affordable by the mother earth. If we add the cost of collecting small pieces of plastics now distributed in almost every corner of the country and in all ecosystems, this plastic sachet would prove to be an extremely costly innovation. Such innovations mask the real cost and deflect the search for more sustainable solutions. For instance, if we had low cost solar powered dispensers, people would have refilled their bottles or packets any number of times without causing much of environmental externalities. The paradox is that neither multinational corporations nor domestic companies have ever cared to evaluate the real cost of so called frugal innovations to the society and the future generation.

Similar efforts in engineering technology have led to a regulatory environment in which thousands of appliances and farm machineries will not be permitted legally for sale because they have majority of the used components salvaged from other machineries. An economy which harnesses the unfinished life of various components is actually very sustainable economy because it delays entropy and rejuvenates instead of just recycling the components. Imagine every component of a machine being masked with a fatigue factor so that its future reusability is planned while designing its first use. If such was not the case, then more than 10,000 Santis, Handio and Sanedo etc., derivative designs of motorcycle based plough would not have been sold in the last ten years by about 200 fabricators. This kind of location-specific adaptation of a primary invention by Mansukhbhai Jagani, Amreli more than two decades ago, demonstrates the potential of circular economy. Instead of focusing on only life cycle analysis, which still assumes production of junk at the end of the cycle, the future belongs to an economy where cradle to cradle model overtakes the cradle to grave model. We don’t want the mother earth to become a graveyard of so-called frugal designs which burden the environment so much that the very survival of the living species may get endangered. More jobs were generated in the last five years in circular economy than in the conventional manufacturing economy.

The birth of this idea actually took place many decades ago in the villages of Rajasthan. More than 40 years ago, there was an unfortunate plane crash in Sujangarh areas of Rajasthan. Different parts of the plane got scattered. A creative artisan looked at the tyre of the plane and noticed that it didn’t flatten when rolled over sand. They used it for camel cart and it became a great hit. Local entrepreneurs started buying the old tyres of plane from various airforce stations. The largest dump of such tyres got created there. An environmental problem of disposing of the old plane tyres became a viable, economic and environmentally compatible market opportunity solving the problems of economically poor people in a more efficient manner than in the past. This was very frugal because the life of the tyre may have finished for the plane but was still to be tapped for the camel cart. It wasn’t a makeshift solution but a systematic optimal choice.

We need to have online exchanges of components of various kinds with complete information about the estimated life still left to be tapped by looking at fatigue factor, stress test and usability potential. Without jeopardizing the safety, functionality, utility, and diversified applicability, there is a huge potential of economic growth available within the limits of socio economic and environmental sustainability.
When Dhruv, a student of an engineering college in Gandhinagar had used a heat exchanger to harness the heat of the compressor in a refrigerator to provide a warm chamber and hot water besides keeping things cool and extending the life of the compressor, he had developed a viable frugal innovation. Over and above the additional functionality, the energy consumption went down by of 18 per cent, because compressor had to work less. Using less energy, getting more diversified output and elongating the life of the components or fixtures giving additional utility is a model of frugal and sustainable future. What is needed is a community of green investors who will encourage such young people. Now, it is your turn to decide, on which side of the economy, your choices lie…


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

1 Comment

  1. hello Sir, I need your support.

    I am passionate towards innovation. request you to visit about me at or check my work at my blog