In early September, I traveled to Danta, a small but bustling village in rural Rajasthan, about eight hours’ drive from Delhi, to meet Sundaram Varma.
A farmer in his early sixties with short-cropped white hair and a broad smile, Varma runs a sizable farm producing goods for market, but he’s also an agricultural pioneer: among his innovations are a new technique for planting trees in dry land that maximizes moisture in the soil — allowing them to survive with as little as one liter of irrigation — and hundreds of new varieties of chilis and cluster beans. His wife, Bhagwati Devi, has also developed an eco-friendly method of termite control, which is used by local farmers in Rajasthan. The method is simple, yet effective, Varma explains: Eucalyptus logs are placed in the field; termites swarm to them rather than the crops.
About 15 years ago, Varma’s inventive techniques brought him to the attention of the Honeybee Network — an organization founded in 1989 by a professor at the prestigious Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad that knits together more than 150,000 “grassroots innovators” in order to catalogue, patent and develop the creative ideas of ordinary Indians. (“Honeybee,” because the network’s mission is “cross-pollination of ideas, creativity and grassroots genius.”)
Among the innumerable innovations catalogued by the network are a motorcycle-cum-tractor developed for poor farmers that can plow an acre of land in half an hour with two liters of fuel; a camel-driven double-decker school bus; a bicycle-powered washing machine, shown in the video below, and a flour mill made from a scooter. There’s even a floating bicycle.
Sitting on the porch of his joint-family home on the outskirts of Danta, Varma described his work with the Honeybee Network. He’s not just an inventor; he also one of the organization’s oldest scouts — one of hundreds of people who have fanned out across rural areas to identify promising innovations. (Varma himself is responsible for bringing some 10,000 innovations and examples of traditional knowledge to Honeybee.)
“The older generation holds traditional knowledge,” Varma said, citing local knowledge of medicinal plants and natural methods of dyeing textiles. “In ten to twenty years this knowledge will go out with them.”
Honeybee’s founder, Anil K. Gupta, was researching traditional farming techniques in Bangladesh in the mid-1980s when he realized the need to recognize and document the “indigenous knowledge” of farmers on its own terms.
“If some people exploit poor people in the land markets, some exploit in credit markets, some exploit in labor markets, then perhaps I was exploiting them in the knowledge market because I was writing about it, I was becoming famous, I was getting recognition, and in some cases people were getting known, but not enough,” Gupta said.
“It became very clear to me that even if people were extremely poor economically, they were not poor in terms of their knowledge, in terms of their creativity, in terms of their imagination.”
It was from there that Honeybee was born.
The initial success of the Honeybee Network gave rise to the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), a government agency founded in 2000 that maintains a database of more than 100,000 grassroots inventions. It also files patents for promising technologies, which can then be sold to commercial firms, generating a royalty for the original inventors; the NIF also mentors rural inventors and provides seed capital from its Micro Venture Innovation Fund.
“I may be a good innovator, but I may not be a good entrepreneur,” Gupta explained. “I may be a good entrepreneur but I may not have investment — these three things have to come together if it’s going to be beneficial to the people.”
Madanlal Kumawat, 44, and his brother Shankarlal would not be where they are today if it were not for NIF loans. Kumawat, 44, left school after fourth grade, but in 1999 he invented a multi-crop thresher after local farmers facing a problem approached him. “They were not able to thresh all kind of crops,” said Nadeem Rahim, senior manager of business development at the Grassroots Innovations Augmentation Network, another organization working with Honeybee. “He developed an indigenous solution to that problem. He didn’t receive any help or guidance from anyone.” The machine produces grains that can be bagged immediately, eliminating the cost of cleaning, and allows farmers to quickly switch from processing one crop to the next with minimal setup time.
Though repairing farm equipment remains Kumawat’s main source of income, he’s sold about 150 of his threshing machines in the last ten years. Kumawat is illiterate, but he told me that his work with Honeybee and the NIF has provided the funds to send his children to private schools; his son is about to finish high school and is preparing to sit engineering exams.
But the real core of Gupta’s philosophy — and the work of Honeybee and NIF — isn’t about finding profitable inventions and bringing them to market; it’s about sharing knowledge and information from and among the grassroots. At Honeybee’s heart is the principle that the poor have something valuable to offer the knowledge economy — and that what’s needed is connectivity to share innovations among populations who can best put them to use. “We have found that sometimes in China and India farmers have developed similar solutions to similar problems,” Gupta told me. “At some stage, maybe the Honeybee Network will help creative people from all over the world to scale up their technology through cross-connections and cross-pollination.”
For more information on rural innovation, watch Anil K. Gupta’s TED talk on the subject.
What knowledge do you offer the world?
Kathryn Lewis is a writer-turned-designer who moved to Delhi to study textile design after a decade in journalism and publishing. Her writing has appeared in The National Newspaper of Abu Dhabi, Slate, and The American Prospect, among other publications.