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Monday, December 19, 2005

The Honey Bee Network: A Reintroduction

By John Paul

If necessity is the mother of all invention, then people living at the base of the pyramid should have plenty of marketable ideas. Anil Gupta, executive chairperson of the National Innovation Foundation (NIF) and the founder of the Honey Bee Network thinks so. For 16 years, he's been systematically scouting for and documenting such innovations in rural India.

I first learned about the Honey Bee Network years ago while working for the Digital Dividend program, and recently ran across an article that reintroduced me to the organization. While reading it, I was impressed by how forward-looking its strategy is in terms of unlocking the market potential of poor rural areas.

Apparently not everyone 'gets it'. According to the article, while recently attending a conference where rural marketing gurus spoke of their approaches to capturing the largely untapped volumes of rural consumption, Gupta was "shocked at how little those marketers knew about rural India. All they could talk about was dumbing down their advertising, and redesigning products for their rural markets, somehow implying rural people are less intelligent, and less desirous of quality products. When we talk of India as a knowledge economy, we assume rural people will be employed only in the lowest value-adding activities and never as providers of knowledge. That is absurd.??

Based on my own experiences, I would have to agree. People who struggle financially are often some of the most discriminating consumers; value for money takes on more urgency when resources are limited. This scarcity also leads to innovative solutions to everyday problems. The Honey Bee Network was founded on the idea of creating an online database of such solutions.

But after 10 years, none of the thousands of innovations documented led to viable businesses. The innovators had neither the resources nor the expertise to commercialize their inventions. As a result, NIF was set up in 2000 by the Department of Science & Technology to scale up scouting activities and build an entire value chain around it.

Accordingly, NIF created the Grassroots Innovations Augmentation Network (GIAN) to link entrepreneurs to the formal systems of technical, financial and marketing services such that a viable business model could be developed out of the rural innovation. GIAN now has separate offices in the North, West and Northeast of India. Although protecting intellectual property rights still remains difficult, 29 technologies have been licensed since GIAN was launched.

The Honey Bee Network is also supported by the Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (Sristi). Formed to provide institutional backing to Honey Bee, Sristi mainly addresses traditional agricultural and human health practices. The Sristi laboratory is where active ingredients are culled out of traditional medicine.

The NIF database currently has over 50,000 innovations scouted from over 400 districts - local innovations produced by the BOP to meet BOP needs at a cost the BOP can afford.

"Incidentally,?? says Gupta, "all technologies we licensed out have gone to small entrepreneurs; not one single large corporation has put in a request for a technology.??

I'm sorry, what?!

"Not one single large corporation has put in a request for a technology.??

Shocking.
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