Grassroots Innovation for Societal and Environmental Transformation

Empowering people to come up with their own innovative solutions to wicked problems

When you think of the word “innovation”, what comes to mind?

For most people, it’s something like this:

Innovation usually means “dope Jetsons-type shit” in the minds of most.

While hoverboards, new computing devices, and other gadgets are amazing inventions, I believe a different type of innovation — fueled by the will and ingenuity of local communities — has and will continue to change the world — Grassroots Innovation.

There are a few definitions out there, but they all revolve around one concept:

Invention and innovation of new methods for living sourced from working-class people.

These innovations also tend to solve sustainability problems either directly through intention or indirectly through side effects (you’ll see what I mean in the examples). I believe this tendency stems from the localized nature of these innovations.

Basically, it’s a type of innovation that sprouts from the hands and minds of farmers, villagers, and working class people instead of the tech geniuses and VC bounty in Silicon Valley. This distinction brings a few major implications for the products of this type of innovation. Grassroots inventions tend to be:

  • Small in scale and regional in the application.
  • Not easily commercially viable through conventional methods.
  • Not reliant on scientific discoveries and principles.
  • Low cost and using extremely basic technology.
  • Self-generated, with no organization on a larger scale.

There are a few inspiring cases of grassroots innovations that have transformed the livelihoods of many individuals.

Tree Farming in Burkina Faso

Imagine Subsaharan Africa — it’s the middle of a drought and many farmers are losing their livelihood. But all of a sudden, a farming innovation completely reverses the course of the region.

This farming innovation entails widening the rain-capturing trenches that farmers in the region already use and lining them with manure during the dry season, and sprinkling tree seeds on that manure.

Seems simple, right? Well, the results are incredible for the farmers and the planet. The trees have a symbiotic relationship with the land and lead to increased crop yield and nutrient density. Another incredible side effect of this innovation was the regeneration of water tables in the area, as the benefits of the trees invite more effective capturing of rainfall.

The man behind this innovation, Yacouba Sawadogo, found it through experimentation, and a bit of luck. This process is something that all innovators can relate to. But he had to motorbike across Africa in order to spread his incredible farming method. His efforts have yielded the re-greening of over 100 million acres (holy shit, right) of Sub-saharan Africa. Imagine if there were resources in place for him to leverage that helped him profit from and scale this innovation. I’ll talk more about this later.

Mitticool Fridge

This one is awesome. It’s a fridge…

That doesn’t use electricity.

Made in India by Prajapati Mansukhbhai Raghavjibhai (say that five times fast), this refrigerator uses four different types of clay local to his region to take advantage of the cooling power of evaporation. The water drips into the clay from a reservoir in the top of the fridge, and as it evaporates from the clay the items inside are cooled.

These fridges are now sold in India, and the creator has gotten significant acclaim for this innovation. Do you know what isn’t happening? This invention scaling to other localities that could certainly use it. I’m sure people in Africa would find great value in this invention. There’s no maintenance and it can also act as a water cooler/filter!

So these examples, from farming techniques to household appliances demonstrate that the products of grassroots innovation techniques are extremely useful for many people. There’s just one problem. They usually don’t scale or spread beyond the region around where they’re created. I wanted to dig into why this is…

What really triggers me is the fact that I can buy a poop emoji cushion with the click of the mouse but I can’t find a place to buy a dope fridge/water cooler that doesn’t use any electricity.

What are the factors at play that prevent grassroots innovations from becoming more accessible and broadcasted to the world at large?

I’ve narrowed it down to a few causes:

  • Lack of any systematic platform for communication between innovators, financial support, or research.
  • Disinterest by the scientific community because of the lack of documentation associated with these types of innovations. Less funding = less ability to spend time on documenting the technical specifics.
  • Inherently local nature of the products and creation.
  • Lack of inventor marketing skill and ambition to scale.

Since most grassroots innovation arises organically, without the pre-defined purpose of inventing a product that will have a large imprint on the world, it’s difficult to get any type of momentum going to accomplish the difficulties of large-scale manufacturing, starting an efficient business that scales, and getting the attention of investors.

This sucks. Cheap and green refrigerators created in the backyard of a working-class citizen in India provide unimaginably more value to society than poop emoji pillows or $400 Juicers that receive $120 million in funding.

So, how do we change this reality? No single policy, service, or maker-space is the solution. This is a systematic problem that needs systematic solutions. A couple of things that might be helpful:

  • The democratization and globalization of venture funding.
  • Government-sponsored contests similar XPrize in rapidly growing countries such as India, China, and Africa.
  • Widespread implementation of makerspaces, or spaces with resources where people can invent and explore ideas. Imagine how much people would be able to innovate on a small scale if makerspaces were as common as a library?

Do you know of other initiatives promoting grassroots innovation? Let me know about them in the comments!

While these initiatives could bring some useful innovations to the limelight, I believe the appreciation and widespread adoption of grassroots innovation will come when our society understands the power in creating value with limited resources and through small-scale community movements. When we collectively appreciate the brilliance of communities and truly feel the limits of this planet in sustaining a growing population. Then, and only then, will grassroots innovations will have a societal foothold on which to grow.

Social Impact + Marketing + Design. If you need marketing or design for your social impact venture, hit my line at adam@emote.design.