Category Archives: entrepreneurship

Selco’s Lab, Ujire

Where it happens...

Finally had a chance to make it to the Selco Incubation Lab housed at SDM Institute of Technology, Ujire. It is a small place, with 2 full time employees (one of them a graduate of IISc). It is managed by a person named Anand Narayan, who is now a farmer (his previous profession being in the wireless industry in the US).

Anand (left) and the principal of SDMIT at Anand's farm

The main focus here is to bridge the technology gap at the ‘last mile’, as Anand puts it — Working with farmers, artisans, vendors to find out needs and coordinating with companies/institutions to get the technology part done. They do some in-house work, but have too few people and underfunded to do many things on their own. Since SELCO is a famous name throughout the world, they get numerous interns from places like Cambridge and MIT (Through the Engineers without Borders and such programs) who spend the summer developing interesting technologies, like cookstoves with thermoelectric generators which can be used to charge mobile phones and animal repulsion systems for coconut trees.

They also spend quite some effort field testing equipment like stoves and lighting and giving valuable feedback to the manufacturers. For example, they deployed LED lighting in barber shops, vegetable stores and found out the reasons why they are not preferred. A design student then tried to address the issues and came up with multiple innovative lamp designs to suit their needs.

Another area is water quality testing, and they do such tests for samples submitted from nearby areas (including from Veerendra Hegde’s home!). Some interesting things I spotted there:

Different cook stoves being tested -- no 'one size fits all' policy!
View of the lab...
Some of the people and stuff they worked on here...
Combined Solar/Biomass based dessicator -- used for local food processing, especially bananas
Rice dehusker

The commitment to make a difference in the lives of potentially thousands of people is quite inspiring, and to see people who worked on ‘high’ technology doing things that would be looked down upon as low-tech is a useful exemplar for all.

The good part is the strong focus on immediate deployment rather than to focus as a museum, and attempts to encourage local entrepreneurs to disseminate the products, which is far more sustainable than a donor-based approach.

It was an interesting experience, and hope to see more and more interesting things coming out of this place.

Designing for people: Lessons learnt

A few lessons learnt from my lighting project design and other things happening now, both from a process and target perspective.

Document, document, document!

I’m sure most people reading this would remark – “Yeah, right!”. But learning it the hard way has made the lesson all the more invaluable. It are useful for the following reasons:

  • Forcing yourself to put ideas into words makes it concrete.
  • Writing down fundamental assumptions in your design will give hints as to why the design failed or performed well in a given situation.
  • It makes it easily replicable.
  • Translating a well documented design into the real thing is extremely easy.
  • Testing your work against a detailed design as a benchmark will be always good.

That being said, it is not necessary to mention implementation level details, which will ruin clarity of presentation. Make it modular, use subsections and sub-subsections frequently.

Have a clear idea of the end product

This should have been the first in the list! As far as it is practically possible, you should be clear of the function your product should perform. People have a good idea as to what they want, it makes sense to listen to them. Unless you can say what your product does in 25 words, you are in trouble!

It is never as easy as it sounds!

Only the most trivial things like say, painting a new color onto a pinhead are as easy as they sound (on second thoughts, even this is quite an issue ): The translation from the space of¬† ideas to silicon or code or metal is limited by a large number of things, not excluding human stupidity. Like someone once said, “[I]f you write the code as cleverly as possible, you are, by definition, not smart enough to debug it”.

You are not God…

… and therefore, you cannot know nor forsee everything. Talk to people, pick multiple brains for multiple viewpoints and use the expertise of as many people as possible before, during and after product design. Everyone, from the person who wipes the floor to your boss can have something to offer. This of course means that you will have to swallow your own ego and bear a few unbearable ones, but is a good strategic initiative.

Test what you create

Not everyone will be as stupid as you, and therefore cannot understand the magnitude of your mistakes. Test in all weather, habitations, altitudes, attitudes. This business of “testing teams” is only for large corporations with plenty of money to employ bored people to miss your errors.

Can you do with easily available materials

Ideally, all my designs try to use stuff available on SP road (or KT street in Mysore) or something that any workshop can fabricate. Using off-the-shelf stuff makes it all the more easier to replicate (or as the big boys put it, pirate) and maintain even by local electricians/mechanics with minimal training. The more replicable it is, the more competitive the market can theoretically be, with the beneficiary being the end user (Economics 101!). This is also one of the only ways to beat economies of scale concerns.

High tech is not always best

This complements my previous statement. Most people’s needs can be satisfied by things which are already available, usually in their own village or town. It definitely needs more creativity to make things simple, which is why we have so many complicated gadgets in the market. Simpler usually implies cheaper which, for people living at the margin, usually implies better.

Do not downgrade modern tech, but upgrade traditional tech

Unless you are introducing something which was not part of traditional life (like solid state lighting!), you should look for ways to improve over existing things than making cheaper and smaller copies of things available in the city. I’m extremely cynical about selling toothpaste in sachets when you can make do with the neem tree on your street. The reason why people in rural areas can live on a smaller income is that nature subsidises many of their acitivities. Trying to change that just to sell your product – which was meant for a society that gets no such subsidy and also earn higher incomes – is a trap.

Try and make a significant change in people’s lives

If this is answered with a no – after thinking as objectively as possible – then you are in it for the money. It is definitely possible for products to bring about a huge change in lives, but finding such an application requires networking with people who speak your language and the people’s language (not in the sense of Kannada and Marathi, but in terms of context), or better learn to speak their language.

Process, not a product!

My professor showed me this article, profiling d.light. If you notice, the article talks a lot about pricing and technology (It is an article in Forbes, after all..) Prof had forwarded this article to Harish Hande, who brushed it aside saying what is needed is a process not a product. There have been plenty of products, but very few have set in place a process.

But why is it that so many well-meaning companies (with excellent technical expertise) fail where companies like SELCO succeed ? Issue, IMO, is one of outlook. In the West, a price and advertising will actually work. Take the example of a vehicle. You buy a new vehicle and within a few months all your neighborhood mechanics would have figured out the internals and you no longer have to go to the authorised service centre for repairs. Make a vehicle extremely complicated, and you will see that immediately the acceptance will fall in areas far away from qualified mechanics. Spare parts (real or imitation) will begin to appear in stores nearby. In short, it is taken for granted that you can maintain your vehicle without too much support from the company itself.

When one takes up the arduous task of ‘lighting up rural India’, the scenario can hardly be like the urban one described above. Most organizations who work in backward regions have targets that are similar to government ones: how many lights distributed, how many generators installed. Follow up and maintenance is present on the list, but hardly given too much importance, when this should be the most important criterion. Thus, one sees microhydro stations lying unused, broken solar lighting with no one to fix them, and computers collecting dust because no one knows how to use them.

Thus, the successful organizations are the ones which focus on trying to build up a process by which they can sell (shops, financing), maintain and improve (via local feedback). There was an interesting article¬† sometime ago about Nokia hiring an anthropologist to meet people in developing countries to design phones for their needs and tastes, which is one way of doing it, but the focus there is only on design. But one realises that this is a long, probably life-long commitment. Also, institutional or process design is not a follow-the-dotted-line procedure. It requires both intellectual sophistication and empirical depth to understand grass root realities and also to understand it in a larger framework of thought and bring forth sensible solutions. Unfortunately, we find people with only one of these (Planning Commission, former, politicians, latter (if anything)). Mostly people lack both when they go about trying to do ‘development’. Therefore, it is no surprise that there are very few Harish Handes and SELCOs.

So, if anyone has the next big idea to end global poverty, focus on the process. Technology can always assure the product. Most problems facing underdeveloped regions of the world are not technological, but social or economic.