All over the global South, urban and semi-urban areas are growing at a furious pace. Great swathes of mega-regions – places where large cities blend seamlessly into smaller towns and villages creating a giant economic hub – are becoming key economic and opportunity drivers in developing countries. One of the downsides of this rapid growth and economic vitality is the chaos and confusion brought by frenetic change. Into this busy landscape steps the fast-moving new world of everywhere computing, where computers exchange information with almost everything in the environment. A Ghanaian information technology pioneer and entrepreneur is changing perceptions about Africa by using the new technology of Semacodes – and proving a semblance of order can arise from the chaos and bustle of the street.
Semacode – a smart 2D barcode – was developed by Canadian Simon Woodside and is a tool to make everywhere computing a possibility. It works by embedding a web address into a 2D barcode called a tag which can be affixed to buildings, street lamps, and other landmarks. If one would like to know more information regarding the area they are in, all they need to do is find the nearest Semacode and use their internet-enabled camera phone to scan and read the code. A camera phone containing the Semacode’s Software Development Kit (SDK) detects and decodes the tag and sends the user the web address using the phone’s built-in browser. The user quickly learns what businesses and services are in the area and what the current street name is.
With code developed in Ghana called Semafox, one can create Semacodes for objects and contexts using a web browser – (http://sohne.net/semafox/). It is now being adapted by Ghanaian entrepreneur Guido Sohne to solve the common African problem of chaotic cityscapes brought about by rapid change, high turnover of businesses and changing street names. This handy tool has the power to revolutionise how people communicate and do business in the South, and a rival technology using a similar concept – QR code – is already widespread in Japan. Semacode also has its own user-contributed community website, Semapedia, to produce semacodes for any object or building.
Sohne is a computer code developer working for CoreNett – a Ghanaian electronic transaction processing company – and has been working on developing the code underlying the semacodes, and also piloting its application on the streets of Accra, the capital. Sohne (a former Kofi Annan ICT Centre for Excellence developer-in-residence), is an excellent example of how an IT innovator in the South is linking up early in a new technology’s development to help develop and evolve it.“It is rare to find African-created technology being used today in Western cyberspace,” concludes Sohne. It “is indeed a step forward for African technology as well as an indication of the benefits of collaborative development based on liberal software licensing such as open source software.”
Published: June 2007
You can download the Semacode reader software, here. This includes software for mobile phones and computer servers.
The latest stories and updates on Semacode can be found here.
A thorough explanation of rival technology QR Codes and their impact in Japan and how they work, can be found here. At present, QR Codes are used in a variety of ways, from linking to content and advertising in magazines and newspapers, to food product labels, public transportation signage, and as a way to communicate between people on the street.
Driven by the revelation that his wife was torn between spending money on milk for the children and buying commercially manufactured sanitary napkins, Indian innovator and inventor Arunachalam Muruganantham embarked on a long and intensive journey to find a solution. His achievement – a simple machine – is bringing dignity to poor women and providing them with a much-needed income source.
This is a story of a man who was considered crazy for his persistence and made many personal sacrifices to achieve his goal. The innovation is both a technological and a business solution. Muruganantham has come up with a simple machine to manufacture affordable hygienic sanitary napkins for poor women. It works by turning the pulp of pine wood into the flat, white sanitary pads (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanitary_napkin) commonly used by women during their monthly menstruation. The machine’s simplicity means it can be expanded easily to other communities and is designed to fit well with the way women’s cooperatives work and help them earn an income.
Muruganantham sees it is a business model that “can deliver livelihood, hygiene and dignity to poor women, and help them strengthen society,” according to his website.
The manufacturing process produces the sanitary napkins in just five steps. This simple intervention is revolutionizing women’s health in India by giving them an alternative to using found and unhygienic rags every month when they menstruate.
It took Muruganantham four years of research to create a patented machine that sells for between US $1,332 and US $5,330. It can make 120 sanitary pads an hour. Each one sells for 10 rupees (US 18 cents). By comparison, the multinational company Procter & Gamble sells its product for 30 rupees (US 54 cents) a packet.
Two multinationals dominate the marketplace for sanitary napkins in India: Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson, with the Stayfree and Carefree brands.
Muruganantham’s machine was awarded the best innovation national award by the former President of India, Prathiba Patil, in 2009.
Like many innovators and inventors, his work at first was little understood by others and meant he had to plough a lonely furrow. But his persistence paid off and is now receiving attention from countries across the global South.
Apart from its technological simplicity, the idea is to make it easy for women to form cooperatives and businesses to boost their incomes. India has seen the concept of so-called Ladies Self Help Groups (SHGs) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-help_group_%28finance%29) become more popular as a source of income. One of the problems they encounter is finding a successful business to undertake. The machine invented by Muruganantham is being seen as a good business model for the SHGs to follow. The key is the simplicity of operating the machine, the growing and stable market for the product, and its affordable and competitive price.
Typical businesses that can be set up using the machine can employ 10 women.
Muruganantham set up his main business, Jayaashree Industries (motto: ‘new inventions… small is beautiful’) (http://newinventions.in/aboutus.aspx), after his education was disrupted due to family problems and he took up a job in a welding shop.
At first, he had a difficult time convincing people of the utility of the machine. He enlisted his wife to help with the marketing of the new napkins to nearby women. He says the advantage of his business model is that it turns the making of the napkins into a sustainable, grassroots activity. It provides an essential commodity for poor women at an affordable price, removing middlemen and using a simple, non-chemical technology.
It also cuts down on expensive transport costs by keeping manufacturing local.
Over 225 machines have been delivered to 14 Indian states and also to Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Nepal and Bangladesh.
And while Muruganantham is focused on making the machine a success, he is already looking forward to working on his next big invention. The only question is: what will it be?
There is a trend occurring across the global South that some are calling the next great wave of innovation. It has different names but many are dubbing it ‘frugal innovation’. Frugal innovation is basically innovation done with limited resources and investment. In short, innovation on the cheap but packing a big punch.
The phenomenon has several strands. One involves innovators and companies from the developed world setting up in the developing world and beta testing their inventions and innovations there. Another strand involves innovators in companies and governments in the global South increasingly targeting the so-called ‘BOP’ – bottom of the pyramid – market of the poor.
Another strand is focused on capitalizing on innovations for tackling the problems of the poor that are coming from the poor. Many of these innovations are improvised solutions. They may not be slick but they solve a problem.
And finally, there are companies and entrepreneurs in the global South taking their innovations to the markets of the wealthy, developed countries and finding a welcome reception from price-savvy consumers.
In the global South, frugal innovation is transforming lives – and it is finding its way into developed, wealthy countries too. It has been celebrated in the new book Jugaad Innovation: A Frugal and Flexible Approach to Innovation for the 21st Century (http://jugaadinnovation.com/) by Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu and Simone Ahuja. The authors are innovation experts with a wide mix of backgrounds, from an academic to a Silicon Valley “thought leader and strategic consultant” to the founder of a marketing and strategy consultancy specialising in emerging markets innovation.
As champions of the jugaad philosophy, the authors proclaim the old innovation paradigm is obsolete. The idea that throwing more capital and more resources at a problem will boost innovation, no longer works, they contend. Better results can come from being frugal and flexible. Being more creative allows for a fluid and improvised innovation culture to develop.
“In today’s interconnected world powered by social media, top-down R&D (research and development) systems struggle to open up and integrate the bottom-up input from employees and customers,” the authors say on their website.
“Jugaad on the other hand is flexible, frugal and democratic: it is often bottomup rather than top-down and involves a much larger number of people beyond those who are typically tasked with doing innovation in corporations. The strength of jugaad innovators lies in their ability to get more from less,experiment continually, and creatively engage people who are typically left out of the innovation process.”
And they have a message for the Western, developed nations. They must look to “places like India, China, and Africa for a new, bottom-up approach to frugal and flexible innovation,” if they want to experience continuing prosperity in the 21st century.
For global South inventors, entrepreneurs and manufacturers, this will prove a great opportunity. As debt-laden Western consumers deal with their lower spending power and incomes, they will be looking for products that cost less and yet tackle problems and improve their standard of living with minimal expenditure.
Some of the hallmarks of frugal products are their efficient production, rapid development cycle, lower price point, and appeal to poorer customers.
The book argues that adopting a “jugaad” mindset will enable people and companies to innovate “faster, better and cheaper,” “generate breakthrough growth” and “outperform competition.”
“Jugaad innovation has three major benefits. First, it is frugal: it enables innovators to get more with less. Second, it is flexible: it enables innovators to keep experimenting and rapidly change course when needed. Third: it is democratic: it can therefore tap into the wisdom of otherwise marginalized customers and employees.”
“In contrast to the traditional structured approach to innovation, jugaad is inherently more customer-centric rather than technology or product centric.
Because jugaad innovators seek to solve a customer problem first and then develop a suitable solution, jugaad is more market-based than more structured approaches (that may be driven by the motivation to develop technology for technology’s sake) are.”
There are so many of these innovations and inventions happening, a culture has emerged to gather and document them and share them with others.
But this dynamic innovators culture is not limited to India. Across Africa,information technology hubs and start-ups have been sprouting up. One of the more well-known is the iHub in Nairobi, Kenya (http://ihub.co.ke/pages/home.php) but there are centres of information technology innovation in Ghana, South Africa, Uganda and Nigeria.
One of the more outstanding and pioneering chroniclers of this frugal innovation culture in Africa has been the Afrigadget website (afrigadget.com).
It is packed with home-grown inventions. These include a young Kenyan boy using a rigged network of light bulbs to ward of lions from the cattle herd, a mobile phone security system for cars, and a home-made remote control toy car for children. Another great way to see this movement in action is at the Maker Faire Africa (http://makerfaireafrica.com/) which has been bringing together every year “handcrafters from Africa’s tiniest villages to her most expansive urban burgs”.
Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.
The UN estimates that 500 million people around the world are homeless, and UNICEF estimates India alone has 11 million homeless children on its streets (though it is difficult to pin down the figure). In order to survive another day, these children will work in one way or another. While there are many campaigns to ban children from working, and charities dedicated to getting them off the streets and into shelter, the raw fact remains: many of these children slip through the cracks and remain vulnerable, poor and neglected.
Most street children suffer from malnutrition, hunger, health problems, and abuse. They make ends meet by working various jobs or by stealing. While they have dreams, there is no mechanism for them to save for the future. It is a live-for-now existence that, if they survive to adulthood, means they will probably remain homeless and vulnerable.
Street and working children have money: it is a natural consequence of having to be resourceful to survive. But what they don’t have is access to banking services or trustworthy financial advice that can help them to gain wealth and move out of poverty and into a brighter future.
The Children’s Development Bank in India is one initiative that seeks to turn these neglected children into the next generation of entrepreneurs. The bank works on banking and co-operative principles, where savers are members and joint owners of the bank. Any child can save money with the bank and earn interest, as well as take out loans if they are over 15 years old. It was started in 2001 and was inspired by the Youth Bank in the UK. Interest made by the bank is shared by its members, as with many co-operative banks and credit unions.
The bank is managed jointly by children and adults. The children have a say in how the bank is run and on what conditions it should lend money. They also keep an eye on borrowers to prevent them from running off without repaying loans.
For these vulnerable children, it has many advantages: they can put money aside without fear of it being stolen or lost, save for important things like clothes, or pay for their education.
A key part of the bank’s mandate is helping the children build entrepreneurial skills for business. Mentors help the children choose a business model, select an occupation with minimal risk and more benefits, get training and solve business problems.
The bank has branches in India, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka.
Ten-year-old Deepak Prahlad, a street child in Delhi, dreams of being a doctor.
“I know what it takes to be a doctor. I need to study hard and need to save a lot of money,” he told the Hindustan Times. For now, he works as a rag picker but has started saving 30 to 40 rupees a day in the Children’s Development Bank. The bank has 1,300 members in the city. It pays 3.5 per cent interest on savings accounts.
“Some of them want to fly very high,” said Rita Panicker, who helped set up the bank in 2001. “We have been working with street children for the past two decades. Some of these children are very talented and have entrepreneur qualities. One of the biggest problems facing these children was that they did not have a safe place to keep their hard-earned money. In fact, it was the children who came up with the idea of the children’s bank. It started with 20 members in 2001 – and now it has 1,300 members in Delhi.”
Sudesh, a 15-year-old manager who looks after the bank’s current accounts, said: “We are extremely careful about whom to offer loans since we do not want to see our members’ savings lost because of bad loans. The skills I have learnt here are going to stand me in good stead in life.” Managers are chosen every six months by the children and they compete for the job.
Making Cents International: “It inspires youth, practitioners, policy makers and funders to more effectively share and develop parnerships, programmes and policies that support youth entrepreneurs.”