Take note of India's frugal engineering

CARRYING two worn bags full of toothbrushes and toothpaste, Raj Verma rides his battered bicycle around villages in India's northern state of Uttar Pradesh, leaving fresh supplies of Colgate products at the small shops he visits.

For centuries Indians cleaned their teeth with a piece of bark from the neem tree, known for its antiseptic properties.

While most urban Indians have long used toothpaste, many of the 700million rural Indians still brush with a neem twig or their fingers. While that represents an obvious opportunity for toothpaste brands, the marketing and distribution methods to reach those remote customers are not so clear.

Enter blue-sky thinking Indian style. India has pioneered the science of breaking up complex products or business models into their most basic forms and then rebuilding them in the most economic manner possible to tap the market.

They call it frugal engineering.

The term was coined by Carlos Ghosn, the chief executive of Renault and Nissan, to describe the automotive engineering that went into Tata Motors' Nano, a small car that retails for just R15000 in India.

Tata itself sometimes refers to its low-cost innovations as "Gandhian engineering" in honour of India's independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, a renowned proponent of self-sufficiency.

Over the past few years, India has gained a reputation for creating a wide range of products sturdy enough to handle its demanding environment, easy enough for people to use - and most importantly, affordable - from solar-powered ATM bank machines to a detergent requiring little water.

One of the earliest and most simple business process innovations was started by health and beauty company, Velvette, in the 1980s. Keen to reach Indians who aspired to use shampoo but could not afford to buy a bottle, Velvette began putting small quantities, enough for one or two washes, into plastic sachets.

India's historical tradition of swadeshi (self-reliance) has provided a social incubator for today's frugal engineering and business innovation. Gandhi adopted swadeshi as an economic strategy in the independence movement, boycotting British products in favour of Indian-made products and production techniques.

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