How Santosh Ostwal quit his job, did some jugaad and bettered over 10,000 lives. [Economist blog]
Couple of year back I had a post on “Indian farmers texting their way to prosperity” in which I discussed the likelihood of wireless technological innovations happening in rural Indian with almost zero Internet and computer involvement.
People complain about the folks in rural and backward areas of India getting left out of the information gold rush. That is a pretty myopic view because you don’t have to sit in front of a computer with keyboard and mouse for “information”. That is so 90s. Pretty much anyone in India, who earns some amount of money, can afford a mobile phone these days, and that is not hyperbole. And guess what the easiest and most convenient way to access information is? An entire set of people numbering greater than the population of the USA are bypassing computers altogether, but still getting information. Hope some entrepreneur minded person is listening.
This thought process stems from the concept of jugaad a.k.a the ability to make the most of existing resources and improvise and innovate. The timing of that post was right around the big crash and most of the world had not yet started feeling the complete effect of the recession engulfing the globe. Fast forward two years, frugal is in. Entrepreneurs are embracing lean practices is kick start their business ventures. Jugaad has arrived on the main stage. But what would one do jugaad for? To save the world or build the next Facebook app?
If it were up to Santosh Ostwal, his answer would be to save the world. The [Economist blog] has an incredible story of how one man applied his engineering ingenuity to help farmers in rural India at great personal cost.
Ostwal first stumbled on this problem when he visited his grandfather.
In 1981 Mr Ostwal, then an adolescent, visited his family’s village near Pune during his summer vacation. Every midnight, his 82-year-old grandfather (who had lost a leg to gangrene and walked with a stick) would walk a mile to switch on the water-pump to ensure that his oranges were ready to ship the next morning.
His first solution a.k.a jugaad was simple but effective.
He started with a $2 alarm clock. The farmer set a time, and the sound of the alarm fed into an interface that signaled the coil of the pump’s starter. It was a user-friendly technique, but the alarm could be set only once; the farmer still had to walk to his fields to switch the pump off. Mr Ostwal would scooter to the fields himself at midnight and take out his multi-meter and oscilloscope, and he began to win the farmers over.
His second jugaad ran into some hilariously suspicious babudom.
In 1998, he abandoned the alarm clock and considered a remote control that would use a radio frequency allocated to him by the ministry of communications. He first had to convince the ministry that his remote control was not capable of deploying a bomb and that he could be trusted with it.
By 2001, he had quit his job, lost his apartment and was literally leading a hand-to-mouth existence. However, the desire for a solution spurred him on.
For about 9 months, I was not having any bread and butter at all. Me, my wife and my two kids… I was driven out of the house by the house owner and really came on the road in 2002. I was unable to fuel my innovations anymore. Sustainability was totally finished. But (at the time) thanks to mobile phone technology, one fine morning of Ganesh Chaturthi in 2003, I thought to myself, ‘why do I have to go for these licenses? Why can’t I try the same technology by using wireless connectivity of the mobile phone? I immediately tried the same technology with wireless connectivity of the mobile and surprisingly, I can tell you within 15 minutes, I got the result using the bulky Motorolla T 180 mobile ha ha ha! So instead of investing in a license, I piggy-backed on the wireless connectivity of the mobile phone.
Per Ostwal, the biggest impediment he faced besides lack of funds and resources, was resistance from the very farmers he was trying to help.
Farmers were not accepting this as a problem of theirs. They would tell me that this is routine work for us and our sons. Why do you worry so much? Walking a couple of miles daily is no big deal. What other work do we and our sons have? Let them work hard and appreciate the food that they get at the end of each day!
However, he did not let any of this disrupt his pursuit for a solution to the problem that plagued him from childhood. There is a happy ending to this story.
Today his solution – a mobile-phone adaptation that triggers irrigation pumps remotely – is saving water in India and helping more than 10,000 farmers avoid several taxing, dangerous long walks a day.
Do you know of any other inspiring entrepreneurial stories like these? Please share them with us in the space below.