Who would have thought that Mansuk bhai, a simple potter from Rajkot would be able to frugally innovate a refrigerator that is made out of clay. Requiring no electricity, the Miticool is the coolest invention of the decade. Literally.  From manufacturing, to R&D to packaging, the Miticool is a one man invention. Costing Rs 2500, the Miticool is retailed all over India. Earthen water pots, kadais, dinner sets all made out of clay are other eco friendly products that Mansukbhai has rolled out.

Miticool, a fridge made out of clay
Miticool, a fridge made out of clay

Let’s go to Lima, Peru.  Peru is deficient in water(with an annual precipitation of less than 1 inch) supply and abundant in atmospheric humidity(98%). Students from an engineering college(University Of Technology, UTEC)  in Lima designed a giant billboard that absorbs the abundant humidity and converts it into 90 litres of fresh drinking water, everyday.  Creating water out of thin air is not impossible is what these cool Peru dudes will tell you. They’ve done it.

The Peru Billboard water machine
The billboard in Peru that is also a water machine. Now, that is veritable advertising!

Navi Radjou and Jaideep Prabhu, in their book Frugal Innovation call the likes of UTEC and Mansukbhai, the alchemists. Turning adversities into opportunities, these alchemists have mastered the art of doing more with less, which is the essence of FRUGAL INNOVATION. Frugal innovation is the ability to create more economic and social value using fewer resources.Frugal innovation is not about making do. It is about making things better.

Jugaad, in case you are wondering what the title means, is a hindi word that means-an improvisation and clever fix, often the result of adversity/scarcity.These solutions are not sophisticated nor perfect but create more value at a lower cost.

Let’s look at how entrepreneurs and companies in emerging markets are delivering health care, energy in a cost-effective manner to billions of people who have little income but high aspirations.

Tele medicine saves China’s oldies:

Newsoft, China’s largest software provider has developed tele medicine solutions in China. To understand why tele medicine is so important in China, let us rewind thirty years earlier.

China's tele medicine at work
China’s tele medicine at work

In the early 80s, the Chinese were thronging hospitals with all kinds of plagues. Rural patients would commute to major cities like Beijing or Shanghai for treatment rather than go to local clinics, which people perceived as unreliable. These local clinics weren’t a preferable option plainly because the doctors and nurses had the most basic qualification, rendering them incapacitated to deal with any problem that required expert medical knowledge. This led to the entire population depending upon tier 1 hospitals thereby delaying treatment for each patient by a substantial amount of time. Enter, tele medicine.Tele medicine helps to connect ill senior citizens( in the same local clinics in remote areas) with doctors in cities through technology . This solution is based on simple to use medical devices that less qualified nurses in the clinics can use. Majority of the beneficiaries of tele medicine in China are its senior citizens.China desperately needs these solutions as its demographic share of senior citizens will touch half a billion by 2050.

Kenya’s M-kopa gives clean energy

M-kopa is a home solar solution that comes in a box. It has a solar roof-top panel, 3 Led lights, a solar radio and a cell phone charger. The whole kit costs $200 which is too expensive for most Kenyans. Enter,mobile technology. Today, a Kenyan can buy this kit by making a deposit of $35 and pay off the rest by making a daily micro payment of 45 cents (using his/her mobile phone). After he/she makes the daily payment of 45 cents for 365 days, the system is unlocked to harness clean free electricity. This is a life saver in Kenya, especially because 70% of Kenyans live off the grid.

An M-kopa box, unpacked
An M-kopa box, unpacked

Take what is abundant to impart, what is scarce:

The above two examples show how frugal innovation takes what is abundant to deal with what is scarce. M-kopa’s usage of mobile technology(abundant) to generate energy(scarce) is a case in point.Economy in operations is another crucial component of frugal innovation. Instead of building expensive hospitals, China is using tele medicine to cost effectively treat millions of people. Africa, instead of building electricity grids is going straight to mobile payments and distributing clean energy.

When will we learn?

Frugal innovation is diametrically opposed to how most innovators, in the hotspots of innovation destinations across the world, work. Companies in the west invest billions of dollars in R&D, use tons of natural resources to create the product and differentiate them from its competitors. The cost is eventually passed on to the customer.  Let’s call this the “more for more” model since customers pay more for more features in a product. Let me tell you why the “More for more” model is running out of gas :

  1. Natural resources are only limited. Economic riches do not translate to plentiful water. You will be surprised to know how water problems are affecting the wealth nations such as Australia, USA, UK and Japan (
  1. Purchasing power is statistically reducing. Surveys have shown that a customer’s purchasing power parity is leading him/her to look, most in a product, for the attribute of “value for money”
  2. Disparity in the needs of customers and what is being offered. For instance, 70 million Americans are under banked implying that existing banking services are not designed to address their basic needs.

Advancements on the end of frugal innovation are happening but not at a pace that is desired.What we should see more is developing countries combining with the developed ones to co-create frugal solutions that benefit the world.

Stanford University, leading by example :

Take a look at how Stanford University is contributing to frugal innovation. I was personally impressed beyond belief with their fertiloo project.

Extreme: Design for Extreme Affordability (officially listed at Stanford as ME206a-b/OIT333-334 and fondly called “Extreme”) is a two-quarter course offered by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design through the Graduate School of Business and the School of Mechanical Engineering.  This multidisciplinary project-based experience creates an enabling environment in which students learn to design products and services that will change the lives of the world’s poorest citizens.  Students work directly with course partners on real world problems, the culmination of which is actual implementation and real change.

Fertiloo, a project by the students of EXTREME:

In Kenya alone, more than half the populations resorts to open defecation. Some use pit latrines which can contaminate water sources, are dangerous to construct, and are prohibitively expensive. Pit latrines cost up to $850 to construct. The Fertiloo is an affordable compost latrine that provides rural families with access to improved sanitation while offering a safe and easy way to contain their human waste and use it as fertilizer for crops. Designed to cost under $100, the Fertiloo is an out of the box solution that up to 10 people can use immediately upon purchase and fulfill their annual fertilizer needs after six months.

The team that designed the Fertiloo
The team that designed the Fertiloo

The “fertiloo” at work. An interesting watch, go for the click:


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