x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

India's hidden inventors sought by intrepid professor

For more than two decades, Professor Anil Gupta has scoured rural India for its hidden innovations, motivated by the belief that the most powerful ideas for fighting poverty come from ordinary people.

Prof. Anil Gupta listens to villagers during a visit to the village of Nayapura in the Sehore district of Madhya Pradesh, India.
Prof. Anil Gupta listens to villagers during a visit to the village of Nayapura in the Sehore district of Madhya Pradesh, India.

SEHORE, India // Professor Anil Gupta has been hiking the scorched plains of central India for hours. But he smiles widely as he enters a tiny village in search of another unsung genius.

"If you have any new ideas or you have any new inventions, I'm here to promote you," he tells farmers squatting beside a dusty roadside shrine to the Hindu god Shiva.

For more than two decades, Mr Gupta has scoured rural India for its hidden innovations, motivated by the belief that the most powerful ideas for fighting poverty and hardship will not come from corporate research labs, but from ordinary people struggling to survive.

Mr Gupta and his aides have uncovered more than 25,000 inventions, from the bicycle-mounted crop sprayer to the electric paintbrush that never needs to be dipped in a paint can.

Many of the cheap, simple ideas he spreads for free from one poor village to another with the inventor's blessing. Some he is working to bring to market, ensuring the innovator gets the credit and the profit that will spur others to create as well. Many ideas are simply documented in his database waiting for some investor to spot their potential. He routinely dispenses tiny grants, either from a government fund or his own web of organisations, to help poor innovators finish their projects.

The 59-year-old management professor says he gets no financial benefit from his finds, revelling instead, with almost childlike joy, in the process of discovery itself.

"Every time we walk in a place we discover a solution that we would not have imagined, and we find that eagerness," he says.

Many finds focus on agriculture: a more productive strain of peppers, a makeshift seat that lets coconut harvesters rest high up in trees, a hollow spear that pierces a hole in a field and drops in a seed.

There are traditional herbal medicines for cracked heels and sore muscles, stoves and engines modified to be more efficient, and a rice cleaner designed by a 13-year-old after he watched his mother wearily picking pebbles from yet another sack of grain.

Consumers will be attracted to the products - everything from all-natural cookies to a toothbrush that adds its own toothpaste - because the profits go to a good cause and because of the subtle simplicity of the inventions, said Ashni Biyani, a top Future Group executive.

"These are ideas that are rooted within the context of India," she says.

Mr Gupta's explorations have boosted inventors throughout rural India who, much like the "mad" uncles tinkering away in garages around the world, are dismissed as nuts by their neighbours until he arrives and declares them geniuses.

Take Nattubhai Vader, a farmer from the state of Gujarat, who watched women and children harvesting an especially troublesome variety of cotton and figured there had to be a better way.

Mr Vader designed and then obsessively tweaked a massive apparatus of spinning rubber hoses and vacuums that fits over a tractor and can pick as much cotton in one hour as 10 people can in two days, he said.

He sank more than 1 million rupees (Dh66,500) into the harvester before his wife threatened to divorce him if he did not save the family's remaining money for their kids' education. A few years later, Mr Gupta found Mr Vader, gave him the funding to restart and now plans to bring in a team of engineering students to refine it.

At the heart of Mr Gupta's mission are his gruelling week-long Shodh Yatras, consisting of 20-kilometre daily hikes in the searing summer and frigid winter, nights spent sleeping in school courtyards, meals of watery lentils. The idea is to scare off uncommitted "tourists" and give participants a taste of peasant life.

"Your eyes will open and you will see things you've never seen before," Akash Badave, 23, who is preparing to be rural administrator, says Mr Gupta told him before the first of his three Shodh Yatras. "And that was the case."

On one recent trek along parched hillsides in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, Mr Gupta was accompanied by dozens of followers: young urbanites curious about rural poverty, an engineer who came to find herself, a team of inventors he collected from his previous journeys.

He began the hike after arriving on an overnight flight from China, marched in rubber sandals, drank little water despite the heat and even fasted for a day.

His arrival at a village rarely visited by outsiders was an event akin to the circus coming to town.

He handed out colourful magazines and pamphlets showing farmers how to make natural pesticides out of local plants, to treat cattle diseases with spice mixtures, to prolong the life of their water pump by sticking an old tire under the handle. And he appealed to them to come up with ideas of their own.

"Solutions to our problems are not so scarce," he declared.

In the village of Moghra, a truck halted in a cloud of dust in the courtyard where Mr Gupta and his team had spent the night. Abdul Rahim Khan had rushed over when his brother told him of the arrival of a man who might finally appreciate his work.

The farmer unloaded a miniature cotton gin that cost less than 220 rupees to make and saved 10 times as much each year in processing fees. "A very good idea," Mr Gupta said. Next was a wooden fodder cutter he made for a fraction the cost of the metal ones on the market.

Any more ideas? Gupta said.

Mr Khan had been toying with a design for a more efficient soybean harvester, but he didn't have the 8,000 rupees for a prototype, he said.

Mr Gupta promised him the money.

Mr Khan's obsessions had made him an object of ridicule. Now, "I'm feeling very happy that someone has recognised my ideas and is trying to take it forward."

Mr Gupta was pleased as well. Out-of-the-box thinkers need to be encouraged, not insulted, he said.

He insisted every one of his 29 treks had yielded innovations. If the men did not bring him inventions, he called on the women to bring recipes - "chemistry", he said. He interviewed every centenarian he met, documenting their secrets of longevity and dismissing doubts they may not be anywhere near as old as they claimed.

He carried a spoon and small plastic bags to dig up dirt - "microbial memories" - for later analysis, and photographed anything that caught his eye, such as an interesting paint job.

Mr Gupta ran excitedly to a field being ploughed and stepped through a barbed wire fence. He had heard tractor owners in the area were filling their tires with water to make them heavier for digging into the hard soil.

He located Ghanshayam Yadav, the man credited with having the idea in 2004. Farmers were having trouble ploughing the increasingly dense fields and the tractor company was charging 10,000 rupees for 80-kilogram weights, Mr Yadav said. Instead, he pumped 200 kilograms of water into the tires for just 200 rupees.

Cheaper, better, longer lasting, more efficient. "This is an amazing experiment," Mr Gupta said. He gave Mr Yadav a shawl.

Mr Gupta's most successful finds include more productive varieties of rice, wheat and other crops that have been widely adopted. He has licensed out pest control mixtures, pet medicines and a psoriasis cream and is looking for partners to market crop growth promoters, a treatment for animal diarrhoea and a natural mosquito repellent.

His team helped A Muruganantham sell hundreds of his machines for making cheap sanitary napkins from wood fibre. And he takes pride in his most successful discovery, Mansukhbhai Prajapati, a once struggling potter who parlayed a clay refrigerator that cools by evaporation into a kitchenware company employing 30 people.

Mr Gupta began as a bank loan officer before working in the 1980s with farmers in Bangladesh, where he was amazed at the creativity of the poor.

When he came home to India, he dedicated himself to fostering that creativity and ensuring poor innovators got properly compensated. He founded his Honeybee Network in the 1980s to connect people and ideas, lobbied the government to create the National Innovation Foundation and set up a network of related organisations to encourage inventors. He soon began touring rural India searching for inventors and spreading ideas.

"Before he came we never really thought about innovation," the farmer Hari Singh, 85, said after Gupta presented ideas for harvesting rainwater and making a natural pesticide with local leaves that animals shy away from. His son Kunwar said he was inspired to develop experiments of his own.

Mr Gupta dreams his ideas will expand beyond India's borders, with treks for knowledge spreading to the unexplored corners of the globe.

For now he presses on, jumping over a ditch in a dried up lake bed on his way to the next village.

"There's so much to see," he says. "You would need several lifetimes."