Innovative Lessons from the Grassroots

by Rozita Singh, Swetha Kolluri, Dr. Krishnan S Raghavan, and Prof Anil Gupta

March 18, 2021

UNDP AccLab’s GRID is a one-stop shop connecting grassroots innovators and their solutions with the world



In the long list of agri-innovations commonly discussed to promote better crop yield, it would be rare to come across a mention of ‘human hair’. And yet, it took a young social entrepreneur from Tamil Nadu’s Dindigul district to come up with this highly successful and unusual solution to grow better crops. In an ingenious case of natural resource management, P. Subbiah decided to employ the nutritional benefits of waste human hair to grow vegetable, fruit and ornamental crops.

Subbiah would collect waste hair, dig a round pit around a plant or tree and dump the hair in it. In cases of vegetables like tomato and brinjal, he would disperse the hair during the last plough. The idea is that human hair — a rich source of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, and sulphur, besides nitrogen in 18 different  amino acids — is needed by many trees, plants and legumes.

Grassroot innovators like Subbiah almost entirely emerge from within the community itself and devise simple solutions to prickly problems that can confound many seasoned researchers. Often unaware that they are ‘innovating’, they identify possible solutions, making them scalable, cost-effective, and impactful.

In India, as much as in the world, there are community-based innovators identifying new ideas and possible solutions to local problems. Based on these practices, there are entrepreneurs working at a regional, national or international level. This diversity of innovations is at the heart of sustainability. However, lack of voice, and visibility and velocity keeps most of these innovations localized in various pockets unable to make a larger impact, according to the Honey Bee Network. The range of solutions being created need to be shared at a global level. This is the gap that the Grassroots Innovation Database (GRID) wants to bridge.


Photo feature of organizations from top L-R: Solecraft, Jeevtronics, Maclec,. Bottom L-R: Shayya and Strawcture. Photos: GRID


Unsung Heroes of the Innovation World

Globally, grassroot innovation is the least-explored innovation strategy, despite it being  one of the most promising sustainability approaches.

Given this, the Grassroot Innovations Augmentation Network (GIAN) — a part of The Honey Bee Network — in partnership with UNDP Accelerator Lab India, have designed the GRID as a one-stop-shop to access Indian grassroots innovations. Drawing over three decades of research, scouting and documenting grassroots innovations, GRID makes the innovations accessible to the world, connecting it to innovators and their solutions. GIAN has drawn upon the contributions made by hundreds of innovators, scouted by volunteers of HBN, SRISTI, and other collaborators from different parts of India. 

Spreading over six broad categories — livelihood, natural resource management, energy, circular economy, assistive technology, and waste management — GRID provides information on over 1,500 solutions and their innovators.

Delhi-based Shristi Pandey’s innovation to tackle crop burning in Delhi- NCR comes under the category of livelihoods under this network. Her company Strawcture has found a great way of generating livelihood while discovering a utility for agriculture residue through her Agri-Fiber Panel. 

An eco-friendly substitute to the brick-mortar system, this innovation compresses residual straw into panels (every 10×4 feet panel uses around 100 kg of straw) working in conjunction with a steel framework. The technology is even approved by the Building Materials & Technology Promotion Council (BMTPC), Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Government of India. 

Then there is the solution thought up by Maclec Technical Project Laboratory, a small Delhi-based lab, in the category of alternative energy, to assist places without round-the-clock power supply. Maclec developed a simple, sustainable and indigenous hydropower innovation, VARUN-III — surface water velocity driven hydrokinetic turbine — which can generate power ranging from 1kW-100kW when installed in a perennial water source. Armed with a debris-free turbine technology, the installation and running cost of VARUN III is similar to an off-grid solar power plant, but it can generate power continuously till there is adequate flow of water. 

Meanwhile, Kochi-based Lakhshmi Menon decided to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic head on and do something about the mammoth load of PPE waste being dumped. She engaged local women, who had run out of jobs during the lockdown, to braid the waste material uniformly and tie them up into rolls to form a mattress called ‘Shayya’, categorised under ‘circular economy’.

The field of assistive technology has several thousand examples. For instance, to fill the gap of high-cost defibrillators[1] — Jeevtronics developed the world’s first Dual Powered Defibrillator (Grid Electricity Based + Hand Cranked). This device works even in areas without reliable electricity and costs about one-fourth of the existing devices, creating an innovation that can save thousands of lives.

Waste management is yet another field which witnesses many innovations that can make a real difference. Every year, around 1 billion waste tyres are generated, of which only 100 million are recycled. Similarly, huge volumes of denims are discarded while manufacturing even a single pair of jeans takes up around 8,000 litres of water. 

Rajasthan-based Atul Mehra and his initiative Solecraft deals in textile and tyre upcycling, working closely with marginalized communities and fashion designers. They transform old denims and tyres into beautiful products and accessories, such as footwear, which are distributed for free to marginal school children. 

Social entrepreneurs like these are driven by the thought: an idea can change the world.

(Several other examples can be found on GRID’s website. Visit GRID's website to navigate solutions or to connect with innovators to make a larger impact. In case you are an innovator yourself and would like to contribute with your suggestions and innovations, contact us at:

Prof Anil K Gupta is Founder of Honeybee network , GIAN 

Rozita Singh, Head of Solutions Mapping, Accelerator Lab UNDP India

Swetha Kolluri, Head of Experimentation, Accelerator Lab UNDP India

Dr. Krishnan S Raghavan, Head of Exploration, Accelerator Lab UNDP India

With thanks to Dr Anamika Dey and the team at GIAN for their inputs.