Innovation and invention. It can be confusing at times to differentiate between these two words. There is a misconception that innovation always has to do with technology and technical knowledge. In reality, innovation is not always about technology, but can also be about adding value to what is already out there.
The World Creativity and Innovation Week was held on April 15-21. Over the last few decades, there have been many examples of innovation led by Bangladesh’s development organisations that reconstruct all commonly held notions.
Consider the “banana immunisation” that BRAC initiated in the early seventies. BRAC was struggling to reach rural poultry farmers and vaccinate their chickens to safeguard their livelihoods.
Since the vaccines needed to be preserved at a certain temperature, it was difficult to carry the vaccines to remote areas simply by storing them inside iceboxes. BRAC found a seemingly simple alternative - using bananas as the “refrigerator”.
Bananas were found to provide just the right temperature to preserve the vaccines, and consequently, BRAC staff started inserting the ampoules of the vaccines inside bananas and carried them to distant areas.
In spite of the absolute absence of technology, this innovation became a revolution indeed. Prior to BRAC’s innovation, there was only one commercial hatchery in Bangladesh. By 2009, the number of commercial hatcheries stood at 300.
In late 1970s, when BRAC started the vaccination programme, the challenge was not only to solve a problem but also to make the solution financially feasible. For BRAC, innovation was not a choice. It was born out of the need to survive under certain circumstances, where resources were limited on one hand, and on the other, problems were mounting.
Another significant story of innovation is from Bangladesh is Dnet’s “Infolady”, which created a supply chain of information utilising technology.
The story of Infolady started back in 2004, under the name Mobile Ladies. Dnet, a non-profit organisation, set up information centres in rural areas to help people communicate with experts to solve their daily problems. To avail the service, villagers had to travel all the way to the centre.
After observing the operation for a while, Dnet’s considered why not take the centres right to their homes?
This idea led to the inception of Mobile Lady, where a young woman with a mobile phone was connected with an expert help desk. The mobile lady visited households, talked to a woman, and identified their information need. Then the mobile lady connected the woman with a doctor, agriculture expert or a lawyer.
The concept of Mobile Lady, transformed into today’s Infolady with the spread of internet. Today the infolady, a young woman, goes door to door with a laptop, a digital camera and an internet-connected mobile phone in her bag, and helps villagers communicate with relatives via Skype, finds solutions to agricultural and health problems or to apply for a job.
Notwithstanding, Infolady is not all about creating an information and communication channel, but it has an enterprising aspect as well. The ladies, who are working as Infolady, are not employees of Dnet, but are entrepreneurs. They pay a certain amount as down-payment, and then installments for a certain period, for the equipment they carry. They earn revenue on the other hand, in lieu of the service.
Today, Dnet is planning to deploy 10,000 info ladies by 2021.
Besides local entrepreneurs, innovations in development sector have led to some big enterprises as well. BRAC Dairy is a classic example.
The idea of BRAC Dairy actually evolved out of the simple math of demand and supply in the market. In the early 1990s BRAC found that a good number of its microloan borrowers who had bought cows couldn’t sell the milk at a fair price because of their inability to reach the urban market, where the demand of milk is much higher than in the rural areas.
BRAC’s solution to the problem was to collect the milk from the farmers by directly offering them a better price, process the milk in a processing plant, and sell it across the country.
For this, BRAC turned cow rearers into producer organisations. Each organisation had one collector, who collected the milk from farmers and took it to BRAC’s chilling centre where it was sold. Each day, a truck from Dhaka went to the chilling centre to collect milk, and bring it back to the processing plant.
By 2016, BRAC Diary had turned into the third largest milk processor of Bangladesh, supporting thousands of rural families across the country.
Many of us are unaware of the fact that Bangladesh’s development sector has been spearheading major innovations since the country’s birth, transforming thousands of lives. Most interestingly, many of these innovations have little to do with technology, and rarely required any big investment. And all of these stories came from ordinary people, proving how innovation is everyone’s job!
*Aaqib Md. Shatil is a Joy Bangla Youth awardee, currently working at BRAC