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Learning from the Frugal Mindset

Simone Ahuja at Asia Society New York on Jan. 28, 2010.

Simone Ahuja at Asia Society New York on Jan. 28, 2010.

NEW YORK, January 28, 2010 - Dr. Simone Ahuja is the founder and principal of Blood Orange Media, a vertically integrated media company based in Minneapolis and Mumbai.

Most recently, she produced and directed the upcoming Best Buy-supported television series, Indique | Big Ideas from Emerging India, which takes a deep dive into innovation in India from the grassroots to the MNC level—and examines its relevance to the West. The series was created in partnership with the Centre for India & Global Business at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, where Ahuja currently serves as an advisor.

Ahuja was at the Asia Society New York to participate in a talk entitled INDOvations: Driving Global Innovations from Emerging Markets. In this exclusive interview with Asia Society New York's Titania Veda, she discussed her work with grass roots innovators in India featured in her upcoming television series Indique, the jugaad mentality that propels these innovations, and the role the media plays.


ASIA SOCIETY: Why focus on the grass roots? Why is it important to go down to their level and meet them instead of just consulting the experts or doing research?

SIMONE AHUJA: We felt it was critical to go to the grassroots level because innovation really isn't just about having a tremendous amount of resources, a lot of energy, and a lot of capital.  We feel that innovation is really about a mindset, and if I use a new word in the English lexicon but is actually an old Hindi word called jugaad, that is a kind of a mindset, a kind of mental flexibility, the ability to adapt, and the ability to identify and find solutions in a creative way, in spite of limited resources. So it's creative improvisation, finding solutions within limited resources. And that's something we saw very often in the grassroots level. And that's why we think that's so important to share that message because if people who have very limited education, have limited natural resources, or any other resources, are able to knock down all the barriers that have been put in front of them over and over again, to find creative solutions, it's pretty inspirational. It's something we can all look at. Hopefully, it's something that those of us who may not have been confronted with severe resource constraints can learn from.

For example, we met with Mansukhbhai Prajapati. Prajapati identifies himself as being from a community of potters. So this is in rural Gujarat, in hot desert. So Mansukhbhai was working with clay. His family had worked with clay for generations. He stopped doing that and became a tea seller. It's not a very lucrative business for him to be in. And it was very interesting because when he described how he came to creating his clay refrigerator. When he was a tea seller, he asked himself, "How can I move forward? What can I do to get to the next level?" which was the classic entrepreneurial statement. He didn't care that he didn't have education; I think he was 10th grade educated. He had no money. So it was quite inspiring. So what he did was he took this millennia old material, this clay that his family had been working on for generations, and he decided to make a refrigerator out of it.

He had seen in a newspaper after the Gujarat earthquake about a matka. And the headline said: "A poor man's fridge destroyed." A matka is a clay vessel that water is kept in to keep it cool, to provide some filtration. That was his Eureka moment; again, a very classic entrepreneurial moment. He's still not bothered that he's not educated, he doesn't have any money, and his resources were very limited. He has the Eureka moment. He said why can't I make a refrigerator out of clay? So he proceeds to make a refrigerator out of clay. And not only has he made the refrigerator, we tested it and it's actually pretty cool. It's not like an electric refrigerator. The best part is this is totally off the grid. It does not require electricity, which is really important because these people didn't have electricity. And even if they did, they couldn't afford it. So this is hugely life-changing for his entire community because the market comes to them once a week to bring fresh fruits and vegetables and whatever they have they have to consume within a day or two. It's a very, very high-impact contribution to his community.

Now he's also starting to scale it up. He starts to create an eco-system. This is another classic thing we saw in India. We don't have necessary all the technology and the capital. You replace that with end customer insights and eco-systems. And it's a beautiful model. It means you go to your customer and find out what their needs are. It sounds obvious but that's not how it always works, at least in the West. What you do is you try to find a market or create a market. And that's not what's happening here. You find what people really need and you work from there, that's one. Two, is the eco-system that support a process, a business model, etc. In this case, he employed people within his community and trained them about how to make these clay refrigerators. He brings employment; he creates some financial benefit to the community. He works with the government to help them get government certification. So that gives people a tremendous sense of pride as well. And he's starting to scale up. And that's something that's also relevant to us in the US because it's a green refrigerator. So potentially with some improvements it might be viable in a market here.

Next: "Frugal innovation is so hot today because we have to do more with less."