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The Honeybee Network: Grassroots Innovation

Nov 5, 2011

by kathrynlewis1

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In early September, I traveled to Danta, a small but bustling village in rural Rajasthan, about eight hours’ drive from Delhi, to meet Sundaram Varma.

A farmer in his early sixties with short-cropped white hair and a broad smile, Varma runs a sizable farm producing goods for market, but he’s also an agricultural pioneer: among his innovations are a new technique for planting trees in dry land that maximizes moisture in the soil — allowing them to survive with as little as one liter of irrigation — and hundreds of new varieties of chilis and cluster beans. His wife, Bhagwati Devi, has also developed an eco-friendly method of termite control, which is used by local farmers in Rajasthan. The method is simple, yet effective, Varma explains: Eucalyptus logs are placed in the field; termites swarm to them rather than the crops.

About 15 years ago, Varma’s inventive techniques brought him to the attention of the Honeybee Network — an organization founded in 1989 by a professor at the prestigious Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad that knits together more than 150,000 “grassroots innovators” in order to catalogue, patent and develop the creative ideas of ordinary Indians. (“Honeybee,” because the network’s mission is “cross-pollination of ideas, creativity and grassroots genius.”)

Among the innumerable innovations catalogued by the network are a motorcycle-cum-tractor developed for poor farmers that can plow an acre of land in half an hour with two liters of fuel; a camel-driven double-decker school bus; a bicycle-powered washing machine, shown in the video below, and a flour mill made from a scooter. There’s even a floating bicycle.

Sitting on the porch of his joint-family home on the outskirts of Danta, Varma described his work with the Honeybee Network. He’s not just an inventor; he also one of the organization’s oldest scouts — one of hundreds of people who have fanned out across rural areas to identify promising innovations. (Varma himself is responsible for bringing some 10,000 innovations and examples of traditional knowledge to Honeybee.)

“The older generation holds traditional knowledge,” Varma said, citing local knowledge of medicinal plants and natural methods of dyeing textiles. “In ten to twenty years this knowledge will go out with them.”

Honeybee’s founder, Anil K. Gupta, was researching traditional farming techniques in Bangladesh in the mid-1980s when he realized the need to recognize and document the “indigenous knowledge” of farmers on its own terms.

“If some people exploit poor people in the land markets, some exploit in credit markets, some exploit in labor markets, then perhaps I was exploiting them in the knowledge market because I was writing about it, I was becoming famous, I was getting recognition, and in some cases people were getting known, but not enough,” Gupta said.

“It became very clear to me that even if people were extremely poor economically, they were not poor in terms of their knowledge, in terms of their creativity, in terms of their imagination.”

The Honeybee Network

A motorcycle-cum-tractor that plows an acre of land in half an hour.

It was from there that Honeybee was born.

The initial success of the Honeybee Network gave rise to the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), a government agency founded in 2000 that maintains a database of more than 100,000 grassroots inventions. It also files patents for promising technologies, which can then be sold to commercial firms, generating a royalty for the original inventors; the NIF also mentors rural inventors and provides seed capital from its Micro Venture Innovation Fund.

“I may be a good innovator, but I may not be a good entrepreneur,” Gupta explained. “I may be a good entrepreneur but I may not have investment — these three things have to come together if it’s going to be beneficial to the people.”

Madanlal Kumawat, 44, and his brother Shankarlal would not be where they are today if it were not for NIF loans. Kumawat, 44, left school after fourth grade, but in 1999 he invented a multi-crop thresher after local farmers facing a problem approached him. “They were not able to thresh all kind of crops,” said Nadeem Rahim, senior manager of business development at the Grassroots Innovations Augmentation Network, another organization working with Honeybee. “He developed an indigenous solution to that problem. He didn’t receive any help or guidance from anyone.” The machine produces grains that can be bagged immediately, eliminating the cost of cleaning, and allows farmers to quickly switch from processing one crop to the next with minimal setup time.

Kathryn Lewis

Madanlal Kumawat with his multi-crop thresher.

Though repairing farm equipment remains Kumawat’s main source of income, he’s sold about 150 of his threshing machines in the last ten years. Kumawat is illiterate, but he told me that his work with Honeybee and the NIF has provided the funds to send his children to private schools; his son is about to finish high school and is preparing to sit engineering exams.

But the real core of Gupta’s philosophy — and the work of Honeybee and NIF — isn’t about finding profitable inventions and bringing them to market; it’s about sharing knowledge and information from and among the grassroots. At Honeybee’s heart is the principle that the poor have something valuable to offer the knowledge economy — and that what’s needed is connectivity to share innovations among populations who can best put them to use. “We have found that sometimes in China and India farmers have developed similar solutions to similar problems,” Gupta told me. “At some stage, maybe the Honeybee Network will help creative people from all over the world to scale up their technology through cross-connections and cross-pollination.”

For more information on rural innovation, watch Anil K. Gupta’s TED talk on the subject.

What knowledge do you offer the world? 

2 Featured Comments

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat said 6 years ago Featured

    Great to see people being helped to help themselves, & what wonderfully useful things they manage to come up with! Who better than the folks who truly understand the problems to come up with realistic solutions? Varma & his wife sound like a real asset to any community & it's such good news that their bright ideas are being shared, let's hope the Honeybee Network continues to grow & thrive!

  • ArtandArtisan

    ArtandArtisan said 6 years ago Featured

    A brilliant concept. In our crazy, complex world it is too easy to look for complicated high-tech answers. How wonderful that they are seeking out hand-me-down practical wisdom and sharing creative solutions that make economic sense--and that can better the lives of other people around the world. Ripples in the pond, growing and growing.

80 comments

  • Bananamoo

    Bananamoo said 6 years ago

    Thank you so much for sharing this story with us. It's amazing to watch and read what others can do.

  • AccentsandPetals2

    AccentsandPetals2 said 6 years ago

    This story is very inspiring. Thank you for sharing.

  • saramae0228

    saramae0228 said 6 years ago

    lovely story :)

  • christy1223smith

    christy1223smith said 6 years ago

    i really enjoyed that you shared this, i love knowledge, this was amazing that i got to view this, thanks

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat said 6 years ago Featured

    Great to see people being helped to help themselves, & what wonderfully useful things they manage to come up with! Who better than the folks who truly understand the problems to come up with realistic solutions? Varma & his wife sound like a real asset to any community & it's such good news that their bright ideas are being shared, let's hope the Honeybee Network continues to grow & thrive!

  • QueenBeeVintiques

    QueenBeeVintiques said 6 years ago

    Necessity is the mother of invention...great article!

  • MegansMenagerie

    MegansMenagerie said 6 years ago

    Such a great post! Very inspiring! Thanks for sharing!

  • SameheartDesigns

    SameheartDesigns said 6 years ago

    A world with these kinds of machines would be much quieter without motors buzzing and more peaceful! This is really the direction the world should be headed in. Thank you India!

  • beliz82

    beliz82 said 6 years ago

    Great video and great creativity !!! Thank you for sharing

  • HoneyThistle

    HoneyThistle said 6 years ago

    This is so heart-warming, I love the ingenuity of it all!

  • AntoinettesWhims

    AntoinettesWhims said 6 years ago

    Farmers all over the world have innovative and creative ideas, most born out of necessity, many using bits and pieces from other machines or from the scrap pile.

  • craftylittlecritters

    craftylittlecritters said 6 years ago

    great story and ideas very creative!

  • VillageVinyl

    VillageVinyl said 6 years ago

    Remain open to the possibilities! Like our honeybees, necessity and resourcefulness are the keys to prosperity! Thank you for your sharing your thoughtful insights.

  • PaperPolaroid

    PaperPolaroid said 6 years ago

    very inspiring

  • volkerwandering

    volkerwandering said 6 years ago

    Beautiful story! Keep up the great work Varma!

  • BirdiesCozyNest

    BirdiesCozyNest said 6 years ago

    So heartening to read these words: “It became very clear to me that even if people were extremely poor economically, they were not poor in terms of their knowledge, in terms of their creativity, in terms of their imagination.”

  • rockamecook

    rockamecook said 6 years ago

    A wonderful story of social entrepreneurship!

  • gertuine

    gertuine said 6 years ago

    I am super delighted to be able to read this and I plan to share it with my university students here in South Korea!! Thank you, and I wish much success to this and similar programs. How awesome!

  • kathiroussel

    kathiroussel said 6 years ago

    fantastic and inspiring feature-- proving that good solid practical and simple innovation can help people achieve their dreams and goals. We could use more of this everywhere! hats off to the Honeybee Network! I think this quote from above says it all: “It became very clear to me that even if people were extremely poor economically, they were not poor in terms of their knowledge, in terms of their creativity, in terms of their imagination.”

  • AdornMeNow

    AdornMeNow said 6 years ago

    Very inspiring article, and hats off to all the people involved to look for the best interests of economically challenged artists and innovators!

  • DeathByVintage

    DeathByVintage said 6 years ago

    The true test of intelligence and creativity is the ability to make something from essentiall nothing. Thank you for posting this heart warmng story! xoxo jypsye

  • AlmosttoParis

    AlmosttoParis said 6 years ago

    When someone cares our world changes, I appreciate this article and know it does make a difference in so many ways. Merci,Merci

  • Iammie

    Iammie said 6 years ago

    Love this article!

  • blancahelga

    blancahelga said 6 years ago

    Thanks for that wonderful article, that reminds us of the dignity, cretivity, and generosity that belongs to the human being. Thanks for that history wich gives hope and optimism.

  • jbeaudet

    jbeaudet said 6 years ago

    Thanks for bringing us this inspirational story!

  • ecochic

    ecochic said 6 years ago

    great story.. thank you!

  • EcoChicHandKnits

    EcoChicHandKnits said 6 years ago

    Wonderful! Such an inspiring story!

  • lulaloo1

    lulaloo1 said 6 years ago

    What a great story! So inspiring

  • PruAtelier

    PruAtelier said 6 years ago

    A wonderful uplifting story! Creativity and inventiveness should be fostered everywhere and most importantly, the chokehold that all too many governments around the world place on their peoples must be removed. People down through the ages have always been inventive IF they had the freedom to be so. Creativity can be infectious.....a prime example would be to witness what ETSY has started....it's spreading.....GOOD!

  • TarasArtHouse

    TarasArtHouse said 6 years ago

    very inspiring, thank you!

  • WomanShopsWorld

    WomanShopsWorld said 6 years ago

    Thank you for this story. I have just traveled to India for the first time, and was very touched by the power of necessity to inspire creation. Great feature. Thank you! Namaste~

  • AlannaRK

    AlannaRK said 6 years ago

    Very cool. I love that this gives the people, often overlooked and otherwise unable to, the opportunity to contribute and communicate smart and wholesome concepts to the global community.

  • OuterKnits

    OuterKnits said 6 years ago

    Amazing! Great story.

  • RossLab

    RossLab said 6 years ago

    Thanks for sharing this inspiring story. I'll be in Rajasthan in two months, and I look forward to seeing these creative ideas in action!

  • AlisaDesign

    AlisaDesign said 6 years ago

    Amazing story! Thank you!

  • NaturalandVintage

    NaturalandVintage said 6 years ago

    such a smart idea. i couldn't agree more with the idea that we need to find and use more traditional forms of knowledge. in a world of high tech living, it is important not to neglect the things that were here first!!

  • BustleInYourHedgerow

    BustleInYourHedgerow said 6 years ago

    This is really awesome! I am printing this out right now to share with my Biology Senior Capstone class. We have been talking about issues of sustainability and how to combat the many ecological and economical problems we have today. I think this article will be really great for them to hear and I love the idea of "knowledge sharing", especially traditional knowledge, that the Honeybee organization has. This is a great story, thanks for sharing!

  • find4you

    find4you said 6 years ago

    Thanks for bringing this to us!

  • NLPUSA

    NLPUSA said 6 years ago

    Good to know that it is being held in trust rather than for exploitation. Instructables.com and Inhabitat.com are the best examples of our collective braintrust for sustainability and innovation. Would be nice if our National Laboratories could do more directly for the citizenry instead of the corporations.

  • lenamiller

    lenamiller said 6 years ago

    Great article, very infortative and educational. Very smart idea of sharing traditional knowledge.such a smart idea. Thanks for sharing!

  • andiespecialtysweets

    andiespecialtysweets said 6 years ago

    I love this article! We do need to take a low tech step down, just to wean ourselves off the corporate nipple. This is a crucial time for us all to think about ways of becoming self sustained, like a bicycle-powered you-name-it -computer? In the worse case scenario, every civilization in history with a paper fiat system has collapsed. I hope this inspires a back to basics self-schooling. I think the rewards, although inconvenient at first, will be a people revitalized by the fruit of their labor, and a generation equipped with the many skills that are dying out before our eyes.

  • andiespecialtysweets

    andiespecialtysweets said 6 years ago

    P.S. I love India <3

  • Jackphelpsstudio

    Jackphelpsstudio said 6 years ago

    Great article!

  • lulikucreations

    lulikucreations said 6 years ago

    Its's awesome what creativity people have I greatly enjoyed reading this article, hard working people always get their rewards in the long run. I'm happy they can make a living out of their creativity beacause I know India is a poor country and its difficult to sustain a family too.

  • vixendesignstudio

    vixendesignstudio said 6 years ago

    Wow. This is where it's at! Thank you for providing an inspiring and encouraging story full of hope for real people.

  • larkspurfunnyfarm

    larkspurfunnyfarm said 6 years ago

    Amazing and Up Lifting - Thank you so much for showing us some hope.

  • myvintagecrush

    myvintagecrush said 6 years ago

    Innovative! ..simple works :)

  • DelightfulWhimsical

    DelightfulWhimsical said 6 years ago

    Great story!!! Thank you.

  • nevinackered

    nevinackered said 6 years ago

    What an uplifting story! It's so wonderful to see people being resourceful and making do with what they have. I agree with andiespecialtysweets - we should use this kind of thinking in the West as well.

  • vaasvara

    vaasvara said 6 years ago

    This article is any eye opener for so many. Thanks so much for sharing this. Whenever I visit India I am blown away by the ingenuity and smartness of the commonest of people who never went to school. It is sheer adaptability at its best!

  • shahdlou

    shahdlou said 6 years ago

    Is there any way we can help Honeybee? May I feature your article on my blog?

  • PrettyPatriots

    PrettyPatriots said 6 years ago

    I am so thankful for groups like this that recognize that skills and knowledge can flourish regardless of social class, economic standing, or educational level. These people make what they have go as far as it can sometimes in brilliant ways that deserve to be recognized. Keep up the good work Honeybee Network!

  • ArtandArtisan

    ArtandArtisan said 6 years ago Featured

    A brilliant concept. In our crazy, complex world it is too easy to look for complicated high-tech answers. How wonderful that they are seeking out hand-me-down practical wisdom and sharing creative solutions that make economic sense--and that can better the lives of other people around the world. Ripples in the pond, growing and growing.

  • WhimsyandLace

    WhimsyandLace said 6 years ago

    Wow! How thrilling this is! To accept and appreciate the wisdom of the elderly and poor is not something everyone can do, but they should! I hope this organization grows! Anything we can do to help them out? Is there a place to donate?

  • Krystyna81

    Krystyna81 said 6 years ago

    “It became very clear to me that even if people were extremely poor economically, they were not poor in terms of their knowledge, in terms of their creativity, in terms of their imagination.” A truly beautiful statement. This is a wonderful article!

  • BlueMoonLights

    BlueMoonLights said 6 years ago

    Great article, it shows how important knowledge sharing is within a community, thank you.

  • BanglewoodSupplies

    BanglewoodSupplies said 6 years ago

    Great story! Thanks.

  • Nikifashion

    Nikifashion said 6 years ago

    Interesting story! Thank you:O)

  • kararane

    kararane said 6 years ago

    yes*! it is so true that wisdom, knowledge, innovative ideas - these are qualities that are not necessarily in schools (& have even been denied here)...education is in Life.

  • bedouin

    bedouin said 6 years ago

    Great story ~ innovative and important.

  • Verdurebydesign

    Verdurebydesign said 6 years ago

    Necessity is a great inspiration for creativity. India has been reusing, recycling and working with enviromental solutions as a part of life, not just because it's trendy.

  • rickgrubbs

    rickgrubbs said 6 years ago

    Awesome! http://www.etsy.com/shop/RicksPens

  • OnlyOriginalsByAJ

    OnlyOriginalsByAJ said 6 years ago

    What a great story! Thanks for sharing. Very inspiring :)

  • SugarBabyStore

    SugarBabyStore said 6 years ago

    I loved reading this article. My fiance is Indian and he's one of the most creative people I know! Thank you for sharing this, I'll be sharing it with him as well!! ;)

  • byKEONA

    byKEONA said 6 years ago

    Thank so much for bringing this story to light. Our planet need more people and network like this. We desperately need to find and share ways so we can lessen our footprint.

  • AppealDesignsLLC

    AppealDesignsLLC said 6 years ago

    This was a great story that I shared on my FB...I would love to build the pedal washing machine, but I would build three so I could re-use water and do multiple loads of clothes ;p One for washing, another for rinsing, and the last for spin dry! I also think this would be a great concept to make into a rock tumbler, great way to get exercise in the winter months =D

  • newtribetextiles

    newtribetextiles said 6 years ago

    Thank you! Innovation for our new world is what it is all about, In all things, and in all ways!

  • marcgounard

    marcgounard said 6 years ago

    Great piece, we have so much to learn from country like India.

  • Qminime

    Qminime said 6 years ago

    Interesting story! Thank you for sharing.

  • visitin

    visitin said 6 years ago

    Imagine how many wonderful ideas go by the wayside. I love this article! W

  • PotteryHeaven

    PotteryHeaven said 6 years ago

    Great article!

  • thumbelina1973

    thumbelina1973 said 6 years ago

    I love the bicycle powered washing machine i so want one you can exercise while washing the clothes..does anyone know were to purchase one??

  • ConstantGalore

    ConstantGalore said 6 years ago

    Wonderful! I love that motorcycle tractor!

  • LeesBeesNJ

    LeesBeesNJ said 6 years ago

    I originally clicked to view this story because I thought it was about beekeeping (I wonder why???) - it turned out to be a fantastic article about the inventiveness and adaptability of the human spirit. Great! Thanks so much for posting it.

  • LaIndustriaDeMayka

    LaIndustriaDeMayka said 6 years ago

    Great story and very creative!

  • weirdwolf Admin

    weirdwolf said 6 years ago

    What a wonderful way to support innovators and make a difference in communities that lack resources. That washing machine was just brilliant!

  • redezinescanada

    redezinescanada said 6 years ago

    Thanks so much for sharing, this is brilliant... innovation is accredited to the creativeness in all of us. When given the chance to share that creativeness and innovation we make each other's lives easier, happier and more importantly brighter :)

  • KayCee51

    KayCee51 said 6 years ago

    Just another great example of young minds showing their true brilliance. <3 Brava to her!

  • wmalexalvarez

    wmalexalvarez said 6 years ago

    I like! I like!

  • eDUKAAN

    eDUKAAN said 6 years ago

    Thank you for such an informative article! I live in the same part of India and will try plan a trip to this village. I would like to share another such intervention happening in a different part of India. I know of this another village called Kutch, based in Gujarat, India. Here there has been a switch in cultivation pattern, where marginal farmers are now cultivating organic cotton, called 'kala cotton' which requires just two rains and requires no external input at all, in contradiction to the cotton they were cultivating before called BT cotton which required extensive use of chemicals and large volumes of water. This paradigm shift is generating income for some of the most marginal communities in that part of Gujarat and is completely carbon neutral. It's amazing how such innovative things are happening in such remote corners of India!

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