Frugal Innovation – bringing Grassroots creativity to the Global stage

Frugal innovation is about creating advantage out of constraint.

~ Kirsten Bound, Head International Innovation Research, National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta).

The grassroots innovation by Muruganatham of a machine that produces quality sanitary napkins at a low cost and helps women in rural India to live a hygienic life has inspired the movie Padman. Here’s a look at two grassroots innovations in India and how these have impacted the lives of people.

The National Innovation Foundation (NIF) of India propagated the ‘Grassroots to Global’ (G2G) approach for innovation that is set to change the way the world looks at the creativity and innovations at grassroots.

It is based on the concept of ‘frugal innovation’, which involves the use of local resources to come up with affordable, functional products that provide value for money and good user experience. The G2G model is developed to take creativity and knowledge that exists at the grassroots level and transform it into valuable innovation for the global marketplace.

Connecting Grassroot to Global
Connecting Grassroot to Global

With businesses wanting to “do more with fewer resources”, many companies have embraced the concept of frugal innovation.

The origin of the term ‘frugal engineering’ is credited to Carlos Ghosn, Chairman and CEO of the Renault-Nissan Alliance in 2006, who coined the term after he was impressed by the ability of Indian engineers’ to innovate cost-effectively and quickly under severe resource constraints.

Products created through frugal innovations at the grassroots level have added immense value to the lives of women in rural India. Examples are:

  • A Sanitary Napkin Machine that has come up from the grassroots level in rural India and is now reaching other developing countries,
  • A Water Wheel that has been developed by a US social venture and is making inroads into the interiors of India.

We shall look into these examples of grassroots innovation in a while, but before that let me point out the difference between frugal innovation and Jugaad.

Frugal Innovation is not the same as Jugaad

Though the terms ‘Frugal’ innovation and ‘Jugaad’ are often used interchangeably as both are based on the optimal use of resources, but frugal innovation goes far beyond Jugaad.

Whereas the focus of ‘Jugaad’ lies on ‘makeshift’ solutions or on ‘short-term’ fixes without due concern to quality, safety, scalability or sustainability, ‘Frugal’ innovation is about creating efficient products to provide desirable user experience, at low cost by using local resources frugally, while maintaining the safety and quality standards.

The problems associated with Jugaad Innovation include difficulty to scale up, focus on the individual, short-term fixes rather than collective, long-term solutions, as detailed in the post ‘Why Jugaad Innovation is smart but Not sustainable’.

Frugal innovation, on the other hand, requires a deep understanding of the customer’s unique requirements, the specific conditions in which the product will be used, and the kind of trade-offs that can be made to keep the costs low without compromising on safety and quality.

Let us now look into these two examples of grassroots innovation:

1. Sanitary Napkin Making Machine

Poor menstrual hygiene is the cause of approximately 70% of all reproductive diseases in India – it can also affect maternal mortality. 23% of girls drop out of education after reaching puberty, as the lack of affordable sanitation products and lack of toilet facilities at schools affects their mobility. [Source: India Sanitation Portal]

Sanitary napkins, though commonly used in cities, have a very low penetration in rural India due to the high price. A 2011 survey by AC Nielsen, commissioned by the Indian government, found that only 12% of women across India use sanitary pads.

Many rural women find napkins unaffordable and opt for unhygienic alternatives such as old cloth pieces. Often too embarrassed to dry these cloth pieces in the open, women reuse the rags without drying them in the sun, as a result, they don’t get disinfected.

A Muruganantham, a social entrepreneur from Tamil Nadu, has developed a machine that produces quality sanitary napkins at a low cost. Using the machine, one can prepare sanitary napkins with industry standard raw materials while cutting down the cost in production. It requires three to four persons to produce two pads per minute.

Sanitary Napkin machine
Muruganantham installs one of his machines       Image Source: BBC

Women produce the sanitary pads and sell them directly to the customer while providing them with information on how to use them. The minimalistic and simple to use machines are easy to maintain and can be maintained by the women themselves.

A manual machine costing around 75,000 Indian rupees can produce 200-250 pads a day which sells for an average of about 2.5 rupees. Each machine converts 3,000 women to pad usage and provides employment for 10.

Besides increasing the use of sanitary pads, the machine has also created jobs for rural women and has empowered women to make low-cost sanitary pads for their own use and sell them to other women. Some school girls are now making their own sanitary pads.

School girls making own pads
Schoolgirls making own pads. Image Source:

The machine has found acceptance in 1,300 villages in 23 states in India and is now expanding to 106 countries across the globe, including Kenya, Nigeria, Mauritius, the Philippines, and Bangladesh.

Muruganantham’s is an amazing story of how he fought against all odds to bring about hygiene awareness and empowerment of women in Indian villages ranging from Tamil to Madhya Pradesh, to Bihar and Uttarakhand.

Listen to this very inspiring Ted Talk by A Muruganatham, now a visiting lecturer in the IIMs. Watch out the witty lines and his sense of humour.


2. Water Wheel – The Rolling Water Carrier

Woman with pots
Image Source: Stock pictures

Women in many Indian villages walk miles to fetch water and walk back with heavy water pitchers, carrying up to 20 litres of water on their head. This is very tiring and results in considerable discomfort, injuries and stoop in old age.

WaterWheel user in India
Image Source: theguardian

Wello, a US social venture working on ways to deliver clean water in poor countries has designed ‘Water Wheel’ that eases the burden by storing water in a 50-litre container that can be used to carry water by rolling on wheels rather than by lifting it. WaterWheel is made of high-quality plastic that can withstand rough terrain and is expected to sell for $25-$30, compared with $75-$100 for similar products.

As women are taking to the idea of rolling water instead of carrying it, Water Wheel has also found popularity among men, who see it as a tool and do not mind using it for fetching water. This has resulted in shifting the burden of fetching water from women to men,

Wello plans to sell the WaterWheel in the Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat state, as well as explore opportunities for water purification.

With the global acceptance and demand for grassroots innovations picking up, firms are learning how to innovate under severe constraints and turn extreme adversity into an opportunity for growth.

Aided by Honey Bee Network in scouting unaided innovations, National Innovation Foundation in India is working towards commercializing such products across countries in different parts of the world.

Harnessing the knowledge richness at the grassroots level will change the perception of poor from being the consumer of cheap goods to providers of creative, affordable, sustainable solutions.

This, in turn, will help companies to address the needs of developing markets and tap the opportunities in developing world, where the huge markets of tomorrow lie.


I end the post with this quote by Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

 “Innovation opens up new vistas of knowledge and new dimensions to our imagination to make everyday life more meaningful and richer in depth and content”.  ~ Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, 11th President of India from 2002 to 2007.


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References :

  1. National Innovation Foundation, Maharashtra Innovates
  2. The Indian sanitary pad revolutionary, BBC, 4 March 2014
  3. India Sanitation Portal, Menstrual Hygiene
  4. WaterWheel to ease burden on women, theguardian dated 29 December 2013
  • author's avatar

    By: Somali K Chakrabarti

    Hi there! Welcome to Scribble and Scrawl! Here, I delve into themes related to positive lifestyle – from making smart-living choices, savvy financial decisions to nurturing the mind, body and soul. I share my travel experiences, explore facets of art and culture and highlight inspiring stories. Hope you enjoy reading my posts.

  • author's avatar

Somali K Chakrabarti

Hi there! Welcome to Scribble and Scrawl! Here, I delve into themes related to positive lifestyle - from making smart-living choices, savvy financial decisions to nurturing the mind, body and soul. I share my travel experiences, explore facets of art and culture and highlight inspiring stories. Hope you enjoy reading my posts.

  • In developing country like ours , these frugal innovations are actually economic backbone or engine. They create small business and expand oppurtunities , specially in rural areas.

  • Good article. Frugal innovation may not have frugal outcomes. They may have long standing impact on society looking for a simple solution for a better quality of life.

  • Water wheel thing is interesting…rajat

  • Bhudeb Chakrabarti Kolkata 19 November 2014
    The first cultivation of the earth with improvised grassroots implements in 10000BC should justifiably be the most significant innovation we can think of .We would not have been in the present state of civilisation but for the first local step taken by our ancestors .To my mind innovation comes from our day to day experiences .We strive to seek answers to our questions and solutions to our problems.I may be allowed to cite examples from our domestic life .For countless thousands years human beings have known how to sew .The first needles were probably made of thorns and threads of sinews.
    Your article delineating G2G approach is timely, thought provoking and deserves consideration for necessary intervention at all levels .

    • Thanks for adding on, Yes frugal innovations have resulted from improvements brought about by keenly observing and understanding the unfulfilled requirements and doing something to address those needs, using local resources in a cost effective manner.

  • Nitin 'fLanker' Balodi

    November 20, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    This is superb . Disruption can be brought in Sanitary napkin market by Sir Muruganantham,if he wants. Then companies like P&G will feel helpless and in order to save themselves they have to lower the prices of their products and hence affordable sanitary napkins for urban poor will be facilitated also.

    The idea of using wheel to carry water is commendable.


  • I had heard Muruganatham at TED Talks and I was really impressed but, water wheel is a new concept for me..Thanks for this, Somali. I always advocate sustainable development through G2G innovation. Hence, the idea of Bio-lamps and conserving the trees here in Himachal through a simple digital technology were the concepts I worked upon with my team of students. Liked your post…The water wheel has set many other mental wheels in motion… :)

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