Informal innovation: The re-emergence of ‘informal’ washing machines

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A topic close to this blog’s heart – informal innovation, recently made headlines. The Prime Minister of the UK awarded Navjot Sawhney with the Points of Light Award for his hand-cranked washing machines. This award recognises volunteers, charity leaders and community champions.

Navjot Sawhney designed washing machines that are cranked by hand and do not use any electricity. Just like hand-churned  ice-creams, clothes are hand-churned in a tub, and come out clean. As per interviews given by Sawhney, the driving force behind his creation was an intrinsic desire to help rural and local communities who cannot afford electric washing machines. Hand-washing clothes is a back-breaking exercise that women in India are expected to do. Women in rural areas carry heavy pots of water from local lakes and rivers and wash each piece of cloth with their hands. Sawhney’s washing-machines aim to make life easier for such women.

As it so happens, the desire to find low-cost solutions to the drudgery of hand-washing clothes is not new. In fact, a very similar ‘invention’ was made by Remya Jose, a 10th grade school student from rural Kerala, in the early 2000s. Having to shoulder several responsibilities – taking care of her ailing mother, studying and managing the house, Remya created a pedal-powered washing machine to save time, money, water and energy. India’s National Innovation Foundation and Honeybee Network recognized her innovation which was later featured in several prominent media outlets – Outlook magazine in 2005 followed by a Discovery Channel feature and an NDTV story. Like Sawhney, Remya received an award from India’s then-President, Abdul Kalam.

Though Remya’s innovation was made and recognized through an award more than 20 years ago, it did not take off commercially. Efforts were made to commercialise this innovation –  re-designing to lower costs, a patent was filed, licensing and royalty sharing agreements were entered into, but mostly in vain, at least in India. Interestingly, there are several pedal-powered washing machines now available on Amazon USA.

Twenty years later, Sawhney hopes to positively impact 100,000 people and estimates giving out 300 washing machines worldwide to schools, orphanages, refugee campus and humanitarian aid centres. Not much has been reported about the scale and commercialisation strategy of Sawhney’s innovation.

Both Sawhney and Remya’s innovations fit within the general concept of ‘grass-root technological innovations’ as they are need-based, simple, cost-effective and sustainable. Informal innovations are ultimately about finding simple, workable solutions to wide-spread problems. They may not qualify as ‘inventions’ under the high standards of patent law but they are innovations nonetheless and ones that can go a long way in making positive societal changes.

Successful commercialisation of informal innovation, however, remains a significant but challenging issue (here). Patents or external awards/recognition do not always result in marketable products. Even if they do, the patent system poses several problems for informal innovators. Such innovations are usually made by individuals who may not be able to access the patent system. Filing and prosecuting patents is expensive both in terms of statutory fees and attorney fees. This is a key bottleneck which keeps small innovators away from the system (here). Moreover, since prosecuting and enforcing patents is expensive these activities may add to the cost of the final product defeating the low-cost outcomes that are key for such innovations. Further, most informal innovations are technical advances that may not meet the thresholds of patent protection. While a utility model, as discussed in detail by Shamnad here, Mathews here, with easier procedure, less expensive and shorter exclusivity terms may be considered for informal innovation, as Shamnad cautioned later here, even such a system may have costs which need to be empirically studied.

While awards are important to encourage informal innovation, mere recognition without a plan for commercialising the innovation limits its benefits. Awards may be meaningless to informal innovators, like Remya Jose, unless they are cash-based and come with other benefits such as strategic market mentoring, access to manufacturing and marketing networks etc. Informal innovators are usually individuals who need resources and guidance with visualising and executing commercial scale projects.

It will be interesting to see how the market for ‘informal’ washing-machines shapes up. Since NIF reportedly filed a patent covering Remya Jose’s washing-machine, will this patent pose a risk to Sawhney’s efforts to sell in India? Has Sawhney filed a patent?  Will Sawhney overcome commercialisation problems that Remya faced? Are there other sellers of pedal-powered washing machines in India like in the US? Do the women of rural India finally have a real solution to their problems? All this and more in the years to come.

Click here, here, here, here and here to read some of Shamnad’s posts on the theme of informal innovation. One of his book chapters on this topic was published in this book here.

Thank you to Swaraj for his inputs (click here for his insightful views on informal innovation)!

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