Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Enter India's amazing world of frugal innovation

The Mitticool Fridge was developed and launched by Indian engineer, Mansukhbhai Prajapati (pictured), in 2006. Made entirely from clay, the device costs roughly $50 and uses no electrical power. It can keep items of food fresh for up to five days and has been a valuable addition to rural communities in India. The Mitticool Fridge was developed and launched by Indian engineer, Mansukhbhai Prajapati (pictured), in 2006. Made entirely from clay, the device costs roughly $50 and uses no electrical power. It can keep items of food fresh for up to five days and has been a valuable addition to rural communities in India.
Frugal innovation
Low-cost projections
Affordable health
Wind power
Cut-price incense
Blockbuster idea
Easy rider
Scalable business
Time is a cure
No frills healthcare
Local news
Affordable prosthetics
  • Indian inventors recycle old technology to solve local problems
  • Inventions include amphibious bicycles, wind-powered irrigation systems and tree-climbing machines
  • Frugal innovators around India have patented their inventions and received awards

(CNN) -- In 2001 a huge earthquake shook the state of Gujarat in India.

2,000 people were killed, 400,000 lost their homes, and countless more lost their businesses in the devastation.

One young entrepreneur, Mansukhbhai Prajapati, lost everything, but found an innovative way to get back on his feet. Prajapati designed a low-cost clay fridge which required no electricity and continued to function in the event of major catastrophes or blackouts such as the one that devastated his village.

Prajapati's invention is part of a growing trend in India that has become known as "frugal innovation" -- below-the-radar inventors across the country devising low-cost solutions to local problems, often borne of necessity, using bespoke technologies of their own creation.

Read: Future of transport is self-driving cars

So striking has the trend for frugal innovation become, that last year the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta), an independent charity in the UK, commissioned and published a major research paper on the phenomenon.

How pilot revolutionized navigation
Math whiz masters machine translation
Silent success of BLUMOTION hinge
Divine inspiration behind Post-it Notes

The paper said "frugal innovation is found throughout the Indian system: from ... efforts to crowdsource drug discovery driven by government labs, to Bharti Airtel's approach to cutting the cost of mobile phone calls, to the Keralan approach to palliative care which is providing access to support at the end of life for thousands in a void of formal healthcare."

At the forefront of the frugal innovation movement is Professor Anil Gupta who, for the last 20 years, has been travelling across India in search of local inventors whose creativity has had a positive impact on rural poverty. In 1989, Gupta founded the Honey Bee Network, an organization that uncovers grassroots inventors, and helps bring their inventions to the world.

"I have walked about 4,000 kilometers in the last 12 years," says Gupta. "I have tried to map the minds of people who are creating around the country."

Read: High-school teen builds one-man submarine

Gupta's journey has brought him into contact with inventors who are solving common problems in frugal ways, using traditional knowledge and readily available materials.

By his own reckoning, Gupta believes that the Honey Bee Network has helped unearth over 25,000 new inventions, including a motorbike-mounted crop sprayer, a device for climbing trees, an amphibious bicycle and a wind-powered irrigation system.

Kirsten Bound, the author of Nesta's report, says "frugal innovation is all about creating advantage out of constraint. Faced with scarce resources and institutional voids, frugal innovators develop radical new solutions to problems. It's not just about making things cheaper, but better, more appropriate and scalable. It involves leveraging available resources in new ways, reducing or re-using waste or even re-thinking an entire system around a product or service."

Mansukhbhai Patel, a Gujerati farmer devised just such a product. Picking cotton in Gujarat is a manual task which, in the past, has frequently been undertaken by children. In a bid to reduce the work involved, Patel invented a cotton-stripping machine that can be operated by one person. Professor Gupta believes the invention has helped significantly reduce child labor in the region.

Read: Spectacular tech 'firsts' up for auction

Nothing can justify preventing people from learning from one another
Anil Gupta, Honey Bee Network founder

Frugal Digital, a research group run by the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, seeks to promote exactly this kind of invention. The group runs projects in conjunction with Indian inventors to build cheap, "hackable" devices to solve enduring problems across the subcontinent.

Priya Mani, project manager for Frugal Digital, says that there is a lot to learn from "thinking about how you can hack everyday castaway objects." The projects the organization has run in conjunction with Indian inventors have already yielded products that are being used around India today, including a classroom projector fashioned from repurposed cell phone components and a low-cost health screening tool made from an old alarm clock.

But Mani believes that work being done by frugal innovators in India has yet to have a significant international impact: "People thought we were totally nuts trying to create something new out of old parts."

Bound believes that the philosophy of frugal innovation and the practice of repurposing technology could be applied globally. "Frugal innovation coming out of India could have important implications for the rest of the world" says Bound.

"General Electric has shown with its now famous ultra-low cost ECG machine that there is a Western market for products born out of the constraints of the Indian healthcare market. It forces multinationals to think about how their existing investment intensive models of innovation can face inevitable growing competition with Indian and Chinese multinationals."

Professor Anil Gupta meets local Indian inventors
Professor Anil Gupta meets local Indian inventors

Read: Ex-cop builds robot from household goods

Of course, not all stories of frugal innovation have a happy ending. In 1975, flooding across India brought the province of Bihar to a standstill. The rising waters in the village of Jatwa-Janerwa made it impossible for many people to work, shop or go about their daily lives.

Local honey salesman, Mohammed Saidullah, was forced to cross the swollen Ganges river for sell honey, but every trip came at a price -- the boat was expensive and paying the levy was driving him towards penury -- so he came up with novel solution.

Saidullah locked himself away for three days of solid design and construction. When he emerged he had constructed an amphibious bicycle, which would allow him to contend with the annual monsoon.

It looked like a regular bike, but had large retractable floats attached to the sides of each wheel. Saidullah's invention earned him a raft of awards including the National Innovation Foundation's lifetime achievement award. Yet in spite of the recognition, the inventor still lives in poverty.

Read: How USB turned engineer into 'rock star'

Gupta says there is work to be done yet in connecting creative people with funding, and not all of it can come from the public purse.

According to Gupta, connecting grassroots technologists with big business will be key to development not just in India, but around the world. "Nothing," he says, "can justify preventing people from learning from one another."

Part of complete coverage on
September 3, 2014 -- Updated 1609 GMT (0009 HKT)
Mogees is a new technology that turns any object into a musical instrument, by converting the vibrations you make when you touch it into sound.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Neil Harbisson is the world's first legally recognized cyborg. He has an antenna implanted into his skull that gives him the ability to perceive color.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1618 GMT (0018 HKT)
Move over, hoverboard: new technologies promise to make everything float free through levitation.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Getting a foothold on the property ladder can be a challenge at the best of times, and the prospects for many of us have been battered further by the global recession.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
It's like a chair that isn't there, but magically appears whenever you need it. It's called the Chairless Chair. Find out how it works.
August 8, 2014 -- Updated 0939 GMT (1739 HKT)
Engineer Alan Bond has been developing a new concept for space travel for over 30 years -- and his creation is now on the verge of lift off.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1210 GMT (2010 HKT)
Crumbling buildings, burnt-out PCs, and cracked screens -- a new generation of "self-healing" technologies could soon consign them to history.
June 24, 2014 -- Updated 0909 GMT (1709 HKT)
Discover a dancing cactus field, basketball on the Hudson River, and mind-bending 3D projections on robotic screens.
May 23, 2014 -- Updated 1707 GMT (0107 HKT)
Would you live there? Design student Peter Trimble says it's actually a surprisingly good idea.
May 14, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
Alpha Sphere
Singing Tesla coils, musical ice cream, vegetables on drums... and this ball? Find out how "hackers" have created a new generation of instruments.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 1643 GMT (0043 HKT)
Technology has long learned from nature, but now it's going micro. "Cellular biomimicry" sees designers take inspiration from plant and animal cells.
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Forget wearable tech, embeddable implants are here. Learn more about the pioneers who are implanting devices into their bodies.
May 7, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
A visitor of the 'NEXT Berlin' conference tries out Google Glass, a wearable computer that responds to voice commands and displays information before your eyes. It is expected to go to market in late 2013.
We know how wearable tech can enhance our fitness lives but there's evidence that its most significant application is yet to come: the workplace.
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 0813 GMT (1613 HKT)
Samsung's research unit announces new way to synthesize graphene, potentially opening the door to commercial production.
March 31, 2014 -- Updated 1215 GMT (2015 HKT)
iRobot, creators of vacuuming robot Roomba reveal how they learned from secret experiments -- in space travel, minefields, and toys.
March 28, 2014 -- Updated 1623 GMT (0023 HKT)
A light-bulb glowing in middle of a room with no wires attached. "It's the future," says Dr Katie Hall.
March 3, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
Knee replacements that encourage cells to regrow could soon be manufactured -- by spiders. Find out how.
February 14, 2014 -- Updated 1403 GMT (2203 HKT)
Meet Chuck Hull: the humble American engineer who changed the world of manufacturing.
February 6, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
The key to self-knowledge? Or just the return of the phony "mood ring"? Check out our top mood-sensing technology in development.