Many products or technologies developed in high-income country contexts are neither accessible nor affordable in large parts of the developing world. Innovators are thus channeling their creative energies in developing smart and inexpensive solutions to social problems and challenges. Under the broad concept of “frugal innovation”, there are numerous attempts to make services and products accessible to large groups of people at affordable prices. Such innovation is considered “frugal” not just because of the use and availability of cheap labour and the low manufacturing costs involved, but also because it encourages the adoption of a different type of mindset – that of simplicity – without compromising too much of the quality or the user experience.
In most African countries, mobile phones or solar radios are being recharged with relatively inexpensive solar panels or with the help of a resourceful person on a bicycle. Kenya’s M-PESA programme revolutionised mobile banking in large parts of the world in addition to stimulating transformations in other sectors such as health. Similarly, a ride-sharing scheme in Uganda offers rural inhabitants the opportunity to request a boda-boda service by simply sending a text message from a cheap mobile phone.
India has long been a hub for frugal innovation. In his scholarly work on the topic, Navi Radjou has frequently highlighted the importance of the Hindi word “jugaad”, which means “an improvised fix, a clever solution born in adversity”. Take for example the “Jaipur foot” – a cheap prosthetic limb with a wooden interior and a sponge-rubber protective exterior that takes a few hours to manufacture and costs around $80 – a small fraction of the cost for a comparable product in Europe or the United States. Another example is the MittiCool refrigerator made from terracotta clay that does not require electricity. Similar innovations have taken place in the country for the delivery of low-cost healthcare including inexpensive eye surgeries. India has, moreover, exported its brand of frugal innovation to Africa by offering tele-education and tele-medicine services under the auspices of the Pan-African E-Network Programme.
Scholars have variously understood frugal innovation as the promotion of less resource intensive products. Accordingly, products and services are redesigned with low-income countries and their consumers in mind and manufactured in a way that avoids unnecessary costs. This is particularly relevant for efforts at promoting sustainable development strategies which advocate innovation with sustainability in mind.In their latest book – The Frugal Innovation Guide– Navi Radjou and Jaideep Prabhupropose a set of core principles of frugal innovation. These include keeping things simple and focusing on ease of use and accessibility; not trying to reinvent the wheel and using existing and widely available resources; and thinking and acting horizontally by engaging with smaller manufacturing and distribution units.