Sunday, June 17, 2012

Innovation Across Hemispheres

You know you love your job when you feel totally exhilarated after coming back from a three-day weekend. Over the weekend, my only inspiration for a blog post was seeing numerous male couples holding hands. Initially, I assumed these couples were together romantically, since the only time you ever see men holding hands publicly in the United States is when they are together romantically. I came to find out that men in Bangladesh, and as I understand most of South Asia, hold hands publicly as women do in the United States. Interestingly, women in these countries do not physically touch. When another woman does touch you, it is a sign of extreme affection. This made me think back to the moment I had with the village millionaire in Manikanj. She grabbed my hand and held it tightly, looking deeply into my eyes. I felt very special in this moment, but after uncovering the cultural context of this moment, it feels even more intimate.

Today at BRAC was another really fun day. I read a lot of fascinating articles all about innovation. Part of me was annoyed by the articles because many added a very academic, theoretical element to the term "innovation," which I find entirely unnecessary. In fact, I believe adding this theoretical element makes innovation seem less accessible to wider audiences. On the other hand, I enjoyed reading about the term "frugal innovation,"which the Global South (developing countries) has claimed as its primary research and development tactic.  While the Global North (developed countries) will spend millions of dollars on research and development to invent usually more expensive technologies, the Global South uses low-cost models for development. The idea of "frugal innovation" is about finding clever and inexpensive solutions to problems. It capitalizes on manpower, not financials, to face challenges.

Analyzing the culture here in Bangladesh, I see components of this scheme all around. For example, the garment industry is HUGE here. Instead of spending millions of dollars building complex machinery to embroider garments, millions of workers do it by hand. Instead of spending millions of dollars producing farm machinery, millions of farmers here tend their farms with simple, archaic machinery. I will admit that most people in the Global North do not care to tend their farms by hand or sit for hours in a garment factory and make minimum wage. This may partially explain the difference between the research and development methods of Global South and the Global North. However, I do think the Global North can learn from the Global South.

I always enjoyed the joke about NASA creating a special space pen so that astronauts could take notes in space despite the lack of gravity while the Russians opted to use pencils. I did a little research on this urban legend, and it turns out a private company invented the pen, it cost millions of dollars, and both Americans and Russians use it. Needless to say, the frugal innovation here is using a pencil in a different context than earthly matters. The more sophisticated frugal innovation I read about today is an invention called a Mitticool. After an earthquake in Western India, a man named Mansukh Prajapati had is entrepreneurial "aha" moment. Upon observing a picture of a smashed clay pot in the newspaper captioned "Poor man's fridge broken!" Mansukh began brainstorming. Without access to electricity, the people of this area would use clay pots for cold storage. Why not use clay to create a device that resembles a refrigerator and uses similar technology but without the need for electricity? Poof: an inexpensive, low technology method of keeping food cool. Mansukh has been able to train people on how to sculpt these refrigerators out of clay, creating jobs and preserving food at a low cost all across India. 

To think that a clay artisan has changed so many lives in India because of this simple solution both astounds and inspires me. Sometimes the simplest yet most brilliant solutions are right in front of us. Many of the articles I read today stressed the importance of empowering all levels of employment in organizations to think creatively and implement innovative ideas. I stand by my belief that no question is a stupid question; many times asking these questions can help formulate an innovation. If anything, asking questions fosters an environment for sharing and deliberation. Everyone has been in a classroom or conference room where the discussion leader poses a question and you can hear a pin drop. It sometimes takes one brave person to inspire others to speak. Being a curious student or inquisitive employee, in my opinion, has a high reward for those brave enough to take the risk.

One of the reasons BRAC has reached so many impoverished people is because of its ability to expand in a low-cost manner. I think the culture they foster allows its employees to think outside of the box. On the first day of work, multiple supervisors told us to critique BRAC when we can, sculpt our internship projects how we saw suitable, and always ask questions. They even said that our assignment this summer was created for interns because they wanted an untainted, external perspective in the communications department. They believe that one of the reasons BRAC has not articulated itself well internationally is because its mission is so obvious to those working within. BRAC hopes that interns will ask questions that current employees would not think to ask and explore areas current employees would not bother exploring. Through our naivete, we may be able to take BRAC to the next level in international reputability. 

Just for fun, this is the most famous scenes in Bollywood according to my Bangladeshi peers. I know I am not in India, but Shahrukh Khan, the "King of Bollywood" has had just as large of an influence here as in India. My short term goal: to learn this dance. My reach goal: to reenact this scene on a train to the Tea Estates in Bangladesh. Classic...


  1. I want to hear the whole story of the old woman you met. She seems pretty awesome.

    Also, I know the whole point of this blog is showing how different you are from Bangladeshis, but I think the really interesting stories come from when you try to assimilate and really see where they're coming from by being there yourself. Maybe that's a bad idea, who knows. But this is definitely cool.

    1. Hey Rafer,
      I am glad you're finding some of my stories interesting. If you're talking about the women who became a millionaire after years of microfinance loans, she was truly remarkable to meet! She started off leasing small plots of land with borrowed money and raising livestock on this land. 40 years of borrowing money helped her turn her leases into purchases and turn her farming into a highly profitable activity. She's extremely well respected in her village, as you can imagine. What I admired so much was her tenacity and independence. It's hard to hear that many of the women we met give their loans to their husbands who run small businesses or farm. Many times women don't choose how to spend their loans, but the widow in Manikganj pulled herself out of poverty without help from a husband. Although limited time and a language barrier prevented me from getting a detailed story on her life, I hope these details suffice. I also hope Boston has been a blast this summer!