The Financial Express

Scaling up grassroots innovation for leveraging human capital

| Updated: April 11, 2021 20:27:45

Scaling up grassroots innovation for leveraging human capital

Like many aspiring less developed countries, Bangladesh faces three significant development challenges. The first one is to develop human capital for helping society to keep improving the quality of living standards in a sustainable manner. The second one is to increase income-generating capability at the bottom of the pyramid. Creating employment for educated youths is the third challenge-- perhaps, the most difficult one. There have been multiple approaches in addressing them. Starting from micro-credit, expansion of education in rural communities, development of infrastructure, establishing economic zones for attracting foreign direct investment and skill sharpening for producing factory workers to many more. Despite the progress, we all know that we are far from satisfaction. What else could be done? Unfortunately, the belief that growth is a generalised process stemming from the accumulation of physical and human capital and the rate of adoption to a changing stock of imported technology is not true within the prevailing context of less developed countries. However, there is a scope of addressing all these three challenges through the engagement of our teaching and research capacity for scaling up grassroots innovations.

Let's look into examples. As reported in the Guardian, rural families in Jessore have adapted an idea of fish farming in floating cases. In this part of Bangladesh, levels of salt in the water, uneven rainfall, and flooding cause great uncertainty for the whole farming community. Hence, as a result of this idea, fish not only breed and grow in a secure area but also-- most importantly-- if water levels rise, the cages will too, so flooding is less of an issue. Such an idea could be vital in dealing with the imminent climate crisis-posing a threat to water level rise and flash flood. Another example of grassroots innovation in dealing with unpredictable water levels has been the adoption of agricultural methods such as floating beds. This idea involves sowing crops onto floating islands made of the fast-growing water hyacinth. Farmers have been growing cucumbers, gourds, and eggplants on these floating islands. By the way, since the preindustrial stage, people have been using this idea. Despite showing initial successes, these rural farmers have been failing to scale up these ideas to keep improving their quality of living standards.

Another example of grassroots innovation has been the vertical farming of oyster. For increasing productivity and making the job easier, fisherwomen in rural India came up with grassroots innovation-- vertical farming. They implemented the idea with their own knowledge, locally available inputs, and craftsmanship skills. As a result, they turned their idea into higher income. But they are unable to scale up, resulting in early saturation of income growth out of grassroots innovation. Their art form of knowledge and craftsmanship are not sufficient enough for optimising vertical structures or expanding their installations in deeper water.  On the other hand, innovations in oyster farming in Japan, USA, and Australia has been scaled up with science and engineering. As a result, oyster fishermen in those countries have attained far higher income than India's oyster fisherwomen.

Here is another example-making clay tiles. Making tiles out of clay has been an indigenous industry in Bangladesh and many other developing countries. The main cost components are clay, labour, and energy. All of these have been increasing. But small scale producers cannot find a way of reducing their consumption in producing each unit of tile. Hence, they have been suffering from the erosion of profit. On the other hand, they cannot keep improving quality attributes like uniformity as well as the optimality of baking or reduction of the presence of defects.

Fortunately, Bangladesh has numerous poly-technique institutes, several engineering universities, and many universities offering programmes in engineering and technology. There could have been R&D engagement for producing technology ideas and startups for diffusing those ideas for profitably reducing the energy need and improving the quality of baking or lowering defects. Through the exploitation of this opportunity, Bangladesh could have increased the income of small-scale tiles makers, while creating high-income jobs for technology graduates to offer innovation to the tile industry. It could have an opportunity of creating wealth out of ideas in an industry that is historically labour, energy, and natural resource-centric. The conventional suggestion has been to provide loan for importing capital machinery for modernisation. But such advice offers the idea of creating high-income jobs in rich countries. Moreover, in many cases, imported technologies are sub-optimal and suffer from the lack of maintenance support as well as incremental progression. It's time to change-- produce and leverage local ideas for harnessing imported component technologies for making local economic activities more competitive.

Despite the potential of applying high-end science and engineering for scaling up grassroots innovation, there has been a low-tech perception. Of course, grassroots innovations begin the journey as low-tech. It's the creative outburst of those who have an art form of knowledge about reality and the urge to get their jobs done better. As the knowledge is in the art form, and the implementation approach is tinkering and craftmanship, such innovations emerge in primitive form- giving the impression of low-tech. But to scale them up, the challenge is to make them better and also cheaper. That requires the transfer of the art form of knowledge into science and craftsmanship. For example, scientists in Japan and the USA have been digging into the genetic code for increasing the yield of oyster farming. Similarly, thermal imaging for detecting hidden defects in clay tiles will likely demand high-end algorithm development and precision engineering for profitably increasing the yield.     

To begin with, a linkage should be established with science and engineering schools to transfer intuition and craftsmanship into science and engineering. The next step would be to have intellectual property ownership so that initial innovators get a fair share. The next step should proceed to institutional R&D for creating a flow of ideas for scaling up, through improving the quality and reducing the cost out of intellectual assets (as opposed to subsidies, tax differentials, or other incentives). This endeavour will lead to startups for large-scale commercialisation or diffusion. Despite low tech impressions, scaling up numerous grassroots innovations offers us the opportunity to engage graduates to pursue high-end science and engineering in producing ideas and integrating them into products and processes in creating profitable revenue. As opposed to focusing on such opportunities, many developing countries are borrowing billions from foreign lenders to improve the quality of science, technology, engineering, and math education. It's high time to realise that producing graduates without developing the utilisation capacity to improve society out of ideas runs the risk of wasteful investment, like building bridges without approach roads.


M Rokonuzzaman, Ph.D is academic and researcher on technology, innovation and policy.: [email protected]

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