Visit to Elephant Rescue Center

Bama STEM MBAs Visit Elephant Rescue Center

I posted a short story about this on Facebook a couple of days ago but am adding a post to our blog.

Yesterday we interrupted our itinerary.  Our host, Mahesh, received a call from an old friend, offering a visit for us to Elefriends 101, an elephant rescue center and sanctuary near Mahabalipuram on the coast of the Bay of Bengal.  It was a terrific opportunity and we jumped at the chance.

STEM MBA student Ben Guerra feeds one of the rescued elephants a chunk of papaya.

STEM MBA student Ben Guerra feeds one of the rescued elephants a chunk of papaya.

Three subspecies of the Asian elephant remain today:  Elephas maximus maximus, native to Sri Lanka;  Elephas maximus sumatranas from Sumatra; and Elephas maximus indicus from India.  Elephas maximus is an endangered species, having lost greater than 50% of its population over the last 60-75 years.

Elephants residing at rescue center, out for one of their daily walks.

Elephants residing at rescue center, out for one of their daily walks.

STEM MBA students watch the elephants leave their exercise area to head back to the center.

STEM MBA students watch the elephants leave their exercise area to head back to the center.

Like a lot of endangered species, the decline in population is largely attributed to decline in natural habitat, both in terms of area and quality of the environment, as well as capture and poaching.  In the recent past, Indian elephants were captured, typically as calves, and placed in zoos and circuses, Hindu temples scattered across India, and work farms.

The three Asian elephants catch a drink and splash mud on themselves to protect them from sun burn.

The three Asian elephants catch a drink and splash mud on themselves to protect them from sun burn.

 

STEM MBA students take in the sight.

STEM MBA students take in the sight.

Elefriends 101 is a fairly new venture and hopes to grow.  The center currently provides a home for three adult female elephants, all of which were rescued from Hindu temples.  The temple staff would typically chain a hind leg and a front leg, using shackles, to posts that provided the elephant negligible room to move around.  Additionally, the elephants were made to sleep on a concrete floor, which led to pressure sores on their hips, shoulders, and legs.  It’s estimated that the oldest of the three elephants at Elefriends 101 was in captivity in these conditions  for over 30 years before her rescue.

The team.

The team.

Students look on as the elephants play in the mud.

Students look on as the elephants play in the mud.

Filmmaker Sangita Iyer created a documentary addressing the capturing of Indian elephants and their use in these various ways.  It was covered in the Telegraph.  It seems that progress is being made, thanks to these efforts to publicize the problem and the efforts made to care for the animals.

The elephants love the papaya and the students took turns shoveling it in.  Josh perfected a two-handed technique.

The elephants love the papaya and the students took turns shoveling it in. Josh perfected a two-handed technique.

You can learn more about these elephants by visiting Elefriends 101 on Facebook.  Hope you enjoy the photos below of our group at the rescue center.

Juan feeds the elephant.

Juan feeds the elephant.

Jimmy tries his hand at feeding.

Jimmy tries his hand at feeding.

Jake feeds one elephant while Ben checks out the trunk of another.

Jake feeds one elephant while Ben checks out the trunk of another.

Elephants 2

Elephants 3

Trying to feed her without losing a finger.

Trying to feed her without losing a finger.

Elephants 5

 

Observations of the Caste System


As I return to India for the second time, I’ve been able to gain a better understanding of the intricacies and contradictions of this captivating country.

Last year one of our greatest takeaways from our time in India was that everything that is true in India is also untrue. And with 1.25 billion people, hundreds of languages and dialects, multiple religions and thousands of years of history, it’s not hard to see why this is the case.

One of the fundamental parts of Indian Society for thousands of years has been the caste system. The caste system is a five level pyramidal hierarchy originating with roots in the Hindu culture. 
 
It has survived all the changes in political systems, perhaps because although the rulers of India change (most recently the British, and before them the Moguls) the village system in remote areas has stayed virtually the same for thousands of years. 
 
1. The top caste is the Brahmans-priests    
2.Kshatria- warriors
3. Vysya- traders
4. Shudras-artisans/workers
5. Dalits/ Scheduled Caste- everyone without a caste who is not integrated into the system, it includes tribal groups
 
The Caste system is illegal constitutionally in India. You can be sent to jail for discrimination against someone because of the caste system. There are multiple government programs to promote inclusion of all castes in the work force and government. A 5-day temple festival was canceled completely today in the newspaper because the Dalit caste and the Brahma caste couldn’t compromise in sharing the temple. 
 
But everything that is true in India is also untrue.  The caste system is still very prominent in many places in India. In the cities, caste is typically brought up in terms of marriage, however in rural areas the caste system plays a huge part in everyday life. Since we have been visiting rural villages, we’ve been able to observe the present-day reality of the caste system in that region.
 
Sometimes when we are asking questions in the villages what is left in said is just as important, if not more, than what they are saying. 
 
Body language, spacial distribution, and who answers the questions shows very clearly the underlying heirarchies that have existed for hundreds of years. The best example can be seen from this picture taken during our field visit to a tribal village on the outskirts of a tiger reserve. 
 
 
When we entered the community we sat in a large circle on rope beds brought out from the houses. The women and children sat on the ground across from us, a little outside of the circle. The men sat in chairs, but two men sat in front and answered all our questions. These men were not originally from the Gond tribe like the rest of the men. They were from a higher caste and took it upon themselves to answer for everyone.   The men and women from the tribe sat and watched, but didn’t object to the questions being answered for them. 
 
Our guides were from the Brahman caste, and were very reluctant to visit the outcast village with us. Normally people from a higher caste don’t go into a lower caste home, so we had to push our guides very hard to allow us to visit inside the homes. They also took it upon themselves to answer the questions we asked instead of translating to ask the tribal people we were interviewing.  The caste system is in the minds of the people. 
 
The caste Hindu society has traditionally given menial jobs to the outcasts from the society (the Dalits or schedules) and an ingrained “check system” enforces the ideas in society. When we spoke to one of the tribal girls to ask what she wanted to be, she said a police officer in the city. Our Brahma guide told her that she should stay a farmer in her village, that the village was her place and it would be better for her to stay. A very real example of the social challenges to the Dalit class integration even with their aspirations to come into higher society.              
 
Especially in rural areas isolation leads to insecurity and acceptance of the caste system institution.         
 
The differences between laws and practice, between the past and present, between north and south and between rural and urban are important to understand if we want to accurately form an understanding of the people we are meeting and the potential for creating economic opportunities to help reduce poverty levels        
 
  
 
 ****Madhya Pradesh state is perhaps the state with the most existence of the caste system in India. It is located in the very heart of India, and we reached the rural city of Khajuraho only by a full-night train.                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Bama STEM MBA in India 2016

Culverhouse STEM MBAs are Back in India!

For the second summer, I’m spending about three weeks in India with roughly a dozen STEM Path to the MBA students.  It’s very hot, very humid, and we are having a terrific time and a great learning experience.  Our itinerary this year is roughly the same as last year – we are spending time in New Delhi, Kajuraho, Agra, Chennai and Mahabilipuram – but with all but one of the students making their first trip to India (Rachel Ramey is a veteran from last summer’s trip) and mixing in some visits to new sites and with new Indian villagers, slum dwellers, and others, it’s makes for a whole new experience.

2016 STEM in India students meet with Literacy India founder and director Capt. Indraani Singh (front center).

2016 STEM in India students meet with Literacy India founder and director Capt. Indraani Singh (front center).

Why Poverty in India?

You may ask why India and why study impoverished consumers? Why villagers in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, out in the middle of nowhere and slum dwellers in the middle of India’s largest urban areas?  It’s a long story.  Each summer, students in the STEM Path to the MBA program, from incoming freshmen right out of high school to UA graduates who are rising into their MBA year of study, participate in a common reading experience exercise.  The faculty choose a book and everyone in the program reads the book over the summer and writes a short reaction paper that they turn in during the fall.  Over the course of the school year, we bring in experts to talk about the topics addressed in the book.  Sometimes those experts are the authors of the book that was read.

During the summer of 2013, we all read “Reverse Innovation” by Dr. Vijay Govindarajan.  Vijay is an emeritus professor of strategic management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.  Vijay grew up in a relatively poor urban area of India and was fortunate enough to be invited to attend college in the U.S., at Harvard.  One of Vijay’s mentors was the famous University of Michigan strategy guru, C. K. Prahalad.  Prahalad was born and raised in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.  He attended one of the IIT engineering colleges and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering.  After practicing engineering and managing in tech-oriented businesses, he went on to earn his doctorate in business at Harvard.  Prahalad, like I said, was a thought leader in strategic management, but also an early contributor to thinking on development in emerging markets.  He pioneered the concept “bottom of the pyramid”, which refers to the roughly 4 billion poor people on the planet who live on less than $2 per day and make up the base of an economic pyramid.  Toward the end of his career, he encouraged companies to consider the fortune that could be made from doing business with this segment of consumers.  The idea is that these consumers have needs for products that are inexpensive and address basic human needs, and because of the sheer number of these consumers in our world’s handful of emerging markets, a fortune could be made by addressing their needs.

STEM MBA students engage in discussion with villagers in the small farming community of Mukarwa.

STEM MBA students engage in discussion with villagers in the small farming community of Mukarwa.

Vijay Govindarajan shares Prahalad’s vision and developed an approach for putting it into action.  Govindarajan encourages companies to practice “reverse innovation.”  Traditionally, a common approach used by companies accustom to doing business in developed countries (typically from the western portion of the northern hemisphere) when entering developing markets (typically located in the eastern and southern hemispheres) is to create stripped-down, low cost versions of the products they are currently selling at home and introduce them to developing markets.  The results of this approach have been, at best, mixed.  Govindarajan argues for a different approach.  Companies should instead, he argues, determine the needs of consumers in developing markets and create products that address those needs.  The logic is that products developed in this way, once introduced in the developing market, will have small profit margins but, because of the very large number of potential consumers of the product, overall profits will be attractive.  However, it is not intended that the story ends there.  Numerous examples of products developed through reverse innovation are modified and introduced to the home, developed market where higher profit margins can be enjoyed and make the entire effort more attractive.

STEM MBA student Rachel Ramey learns to make bread over the small wood-fueled stove used for cooking in the tribal village we visited in the Panna Forest.

STEM MBA student Rachel Ramey learns to make bread over the small wood-fueled stove used for cooking in the tribal village we visited in the Panna Forest.

In the fall of 2013, Vijay visited campus in Tuscaloosa and had a number of great conversations with the STEM MBA students.  The students were inspired and asked me to put together a study abroad experience in rural India to perform reverse innovation exercises.  We began working with Mahesh Sriram and his company, I-India, located in Chennai.  Almost two years later, we made our first trip last summer.  It was a big success and we had sufficient interest this past year to repeat the trip this summer.  This summer’s students come from majors in mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, and biology. All but two of them have started their MBA coursework.  Nine guys and two young women, they come from Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, and, of course, Alabama.

So, I have explained the students’ general motivations for making the trip, but let me share mine.  Part of my own motivation arises from being a huge fan of innovation and capitalism.  I’ll explain more in later blog posts, but I believe that the great strides forward that we have made over the last 150 years, and especially the last two decades, in lifting the world’s poor out of poverty have been fueled by innovation.  Innovations in healthcare have resulted in the eradication of small pox and the diminution of deaths and impairment from disease that had been common prior to industrialization.  Admittedly, industrialization has brought its own negative consequences, and many innovations have been introduced to reduce or eliminate many of those.  Innovations in agriculture have allowed us to make leaps forward in feeding the people of the planet.  Innovations in information technology allow us to better monitor, in real time typically, the phenomena that threaten human health and wellbeing all over the world.  I could go on but clearly, innovation has been key in reducing misery on the planet.  An innovation in how industry and commerce are conducted, capitalism, is a constantly evolving approach that supports and rewards innovation activity.  The media today report daily on misadventures in capitalism that can leave us with a bad impression of its overall impact, but my own opinion is that the conscientious practice of capitalism provides the best environment for innovation to occur and, in turn, increase worldwide wellbeing.

I could have spent hours  entertaining these kids in the tiny village of Devala taking pictures and letting them see themselves on the small view screen of my camera.

I could have spent hours entertaining these kids in the tiny village of Devala taking pictures and letting them see themselves on the small view screen of my camera.

More motivating personally, I’m one of the most blessed people on the planet.  I won the lottery and was born in America to parents who created a nurturing home and encouraged curiosity, learning, and compassion for others.  I had teachers throughout my school years, both in public K-12 and later in college, who were terrific educators and I ended up leaving school with degrees in biology, pharmacy, finance, and marketing that prepared me well.  For the last 25 years, I’ve been blessed to teach and do my research at the University of Alabama.  Colleagues, administrators, and students have provided encouragement, opportunity, thought-provoking conversations and, of course, a monthly paycheck.  For the last 30 years, my wife Julie and I have enjoyed a great time together that has included raising three bright, driven, compassionate daughters.  I have learned more from these four women than any other people in my life and I am very grateful to and for them.  Finally, but foremost, I have had the opportunity to enjoy a spiritual life full of growth, in part thanks to all of the aforementioned people and circumstances, but mostly by God’s grace.  Given all of these blessings, I seek most every day the opportunity to be a blessing to someone else.  I know of no greater source of those opportunities, given my strengths and weaknesses, than working with students to better understand the large emerging markets of the world.  Thus, in the latter half of my academic career, this has become one of my work passions.  I have a long way to go before I get good at it, but I’m encouraged every day by my family, my students and my colleagues.

Changing the Approach to Blogging

If you followed our blog last summer, students blogged from time to time as their schedules and interests allowed.  My own blogs provided a daily chronology of our India trip and comments on what we were learning.  Rather than repeat that style in my own posts this year, I’ve decided to take a different approach.  Reflecting the motivations for making the trip, I’m organizing my own posts around progress and opportunities that the students and I have identified for improving the lives of India’s impoverished people.

STEM MBA students were greeted by the political leaders of Kovilambakkam.

STEM MBA students were greeted by the political leaders of Kovilambakkam.

Where do we look for opportunities for progress in the developing world?  Well, think about the everyday areas of our lives that can make life seem much better or much worse.  Perhaps the first thing that springs to mind is health, physical and mental wellness, and the presence or absence of disease. We would likely also think of our current age and expected life span.  Though we may be bashful about admitting it, undoubtedly, we would consider our material wellbeing and wealth.  Today, a number of researchers from a variety of disciplines study personal happiness as well as attitudes that we would expect someone to enjoy more of as the previously mentioned circumstances improve.  The common thread for all of these things, as mentioned before, are innovations that take place in our environment.

Unfortunately, a fairly common scene in urban India.

Unfortunately, a fairly common scene in urban India.

Going forward, I plan to organize my own posts around a number of areas where my students and I see that opportunities exist for improving the living conditions of consumers in emerging markets, specifically focusing on Prahalad’s “bottom of the pyramid” consumers. Of course, the focus will often be further narrowed to the particular emerging market that we are studying together in this summer’s trip: India.  Three of the students and I, after finishing in India, will make a short stop in Tanzania – another emerging market – and so that experience might inform the discussion as well.

For now, the areas we see where innovation can occur or areas of life that can influence the practice of innovation, especially in developing economies, include:

  • Natural Resources
  • Education
  • Health and Healthcare
  • Access to Financial Assistance
  • Government
  • Culture
  • Physical Infrastructure
  • Housing
  • Clean and Abundant Water
  • Water for Irrigation
  • Sanitation
  • Environmental Stewardship
  • Communications Infrastructure
  • Religion and Spirituality

Many of these interact or might overlap in some areas, but should provide opportunity for substantial discussion.  I hope that you enjoy it!

Bye for now.

Bye for now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Days 15-20- Customer Discovery- Group 3: Renewable Energy

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“What’s next?” we asked as we closed in on the Esthell Resort near Mahabalipuram. After a remarkable tour of the Indian subcontinent, one would expect a little time for rest and relaxation. But, as we all had learned in the previous two weeks, throw your expectations out the window in India; they won’t do you any good.

To tackle the mountain of potential hurdles to health and wealth generation we’d witnessed, the group hoarded up in one of the property’s board rooms for a few hours during our first day. We created a sort of think tank in which discussion overwhelmed and ideas flowed like the Ganges. Here are a few of our initial consensus observations: 1.) The cold supply chain is totally nonexistent in India, 2.) The amount of available cow dung produced in the country is astonishing, 3.) Confirmation bias is a problem when tackling water safety, and 4.) Far too many hours are wasted per week by laborers looking for work. All of these topics are addressed in the blog.

With all the ceremony of a recess kickball game, we divided into four teams and began organizing ourselves to best handle our respective subjects. This marked the beginning of the portion of the trip I like to call “Reverse Innovation Boot Camp.” We would wake up at around 8:00 AM  each day, eat, embark on an excursion, return around 2:00 PM, eat again, nap, construct a presentation, present this presentation to the whole group, receive feedback, eat once more, then either make a trip to the city or fall asleep early. Online MBA coursework was also squeezed in for the senior members of the group (myself included).

I had the opportunity to join the group focused on renewable energy from dung. We were affectionately called the “Poop Group” by our comrades, both for convenience and more so for humor’s sake. Other members included Ryan Hazel, Evan Rogers and Caylee O’Connor. As the week progressed, we began to get a feel for the problem points of the local villagers and how our solutions could provide feasible improvements to their lifestyles. This led to a pivot of the group’s direction into another equally interesting topic, which will be discussed further later in this post.

Cow dung.

Cow dung.

Our first excursion into the village was quite exciting. After a lunch with the village matriarchs at Esthell, we loaded up and travelled about twenty minutes from the resort in our psychedelic, florally patterned bus, which I titled “The Mystery Machine.” Upon our arrival, we were greeted by traditional music blaring on a PA system. We had come at the right time; the locals were observing a festival. At the town common area, there were beautiful altar and a large bowl of community porridge for the poor. We were treated to a heavily rhythmic performance of percussion and reed instruments, amplified by a microphone. The music felt distinct; it lacked virtually any Western influence and was basically without melody or harmony. While we sat and listened, children giggled and played. A man strolled by us casually with a sack of flour the size of an American college student balanced on his head. The children observed us outsiders without much subtlety. As I thought to myself how my Southern upbringing had taught me “manners” and how not to stare, I was advised to remove my outstretched bare feet from one of the smaller aspects of the altar. Serves me right, I guess. As some Eastern philosophy teaches, “Observe, don’t judge.”

Lunch with the brains behind the village

Lunch with the brains behind the village.

 

The Poop Group’s first visit to a farm was extremely informative. We observed a smaller plot with a mixture of cows and water buffalo. The animals were beautiful; each had a distinct color that contrasted greatly with my usual image of the Chick-fil-a variety cow. Their behavior was precisely what one would expect of their American cousins; standing still and eating straw, grass and paddy leaves. The buffalo weren’t much different. The logic behind the mix of animals is that the buffalo are used more for milk production while the cows are more for agricultural uses. One of these is the addition of cow waste into a type of fertilizer known as Pancha Gavya: a fermented concoction of milk, butter, curd, urine and cow dung. This will be discussed further later in the post.

Cows graze on hay in the back lot of village home.

Cows graze on hay in the back lot of village home.

The utility of the cows made sense when we noticed both a gargantuan pile of cow dung on the perimeter of the property and the massive amount of urine produced by each cow every hour, or so. Farmers will store dung for six months and use it for a number of purposes. To convey this, the ruggedly hospitable lady with whom we were speaking grabbed both a pile of dung and a handful of straw and combined them so that the straw formed a structural matrix for the poop. She then gracefully slapped the creation onto a tree, where it stuck. There it would sun dry into a product known as saani. These saani are the primary fuel for heating and cooking in villages. Surprisingly, they burn with no smoke, as was demonstrated to us. Thus, they can be used inside homes. Saani are collected from the trees each day, morning and night. A typical family uses about five or six patties per day. That’s not their only use, though. Saani provide the family a much-needed source of side income. When sold, saani are known as verati. Six to ten kilograms of verati are sold by the family every day to local tea shops and hotels for 20 rupees each, which adds up quickly. This episode conveyed the importance of the cow in Indian culture to me more than any other.

Villagers compost dung in huge piles.  This pile will be purchased by a local rice farmer to organically fertilize his fields.

Villagers compost dung in huge piles. This pile will be purchased by a local rice farmer to organically fertilize his fields.

Saani packed on a tree

Saani packed on a tree.

After touring the farm, we were shown the inside of the house, which proved equally informative. We were told that this was a middle-class family, which made more sense once we arrived inside. Though the house wouldn’t be considered luxurious by any Western standard, it provided most necessities an American would expect. The floor was dirt, but there were light bulbs in every room, a stove, fans and even a TV in the main room. An important observation the group made was the presence of a large cylinder of liquid petroleum gas in the kitchen. This is used primarily to light the stove, but can be utilized for other tasks. This Hindustan Petroleum lasts the four members of the family 45 days. It typically costs 700 rupees, but the government subsidizes 240 rupees of the cost, so in reality it only costs 460 rupees to the family. This subsidy is a highly political issue in India, so it was fascinating to see its effects in person. The family also purchases kerosene for 40 rupees per liter to cook cow food. For perspective, the family makes 600 rupees per day selling milk. We began to realize that energy may not be as pressing a need as we’d originally thought. As we mulled this over, we were treated to a delicious fresh coconut from one of the trees on the property. Only after we’d finished the coconut did someone mention that the homeowner hadn’t washed her hands between handling the dung and the coconut. Whoops.

Hindustan petroleum

Hindustan petroleum

After discussion, we elected to next investigate the benefits of this mysterious Pancha Gavya to see if perhaps we could provide low-cost agricultural solutions rather than energy-related ones. We woke up bright and early the following day to visit a local farmer with a big operation who was facing a number of business problems. In his backyard sat a large shaded structure resembling a pagoda. Underneath this structure were 24 mounds composed of manure and green leaves, which I initially (perhaps morbidly) mistook as graves. They were inhabited by huge night crawlers. These mounds produce organic soil, which the farmer sells in 50 kg bags for 250 rupees each. A non-government organization (NGO) two hours from his home trained him to create this product, which he’s been mastering for eight years. In addition to this practice, he also grows watermelons and rice. He owns a few cows, as well. His business situation is very interesting. He makes about 5,000 rupees per month selling his soil. He could definitely sell more, but local farmers simply aren’t educated on the benefits of organic soil. As a result, he must sell wholesale often, which reduces his profits. His business is very labor intensive, so he pays local workers to perform services for him fairly regularly. There are machines that do the same type of work in hours, rather than days, but they are far too capital intensive to be feasible for such a small operation. For example, sifting is vitally important to creation of quality soil and requires about two days’ worth of paid labor. A mechanical sifter can do exactly the same job in two hours; its cost? 400,000 rupees. As a result of these challenges, this farmer has run into some financial headwinds.

When we asked him about Pancha Gavya (P.G.), he informed us that he knows how to create the product, but typically buys it instead. The cost is 120 rupees per liter and he only uses it during watermelon season. His reasoning was that he’d read that P.G. is more effective for watermelons than rice and that watermelons are higher yield. Many of these farmers have access to educational materials, which was encouraging to the group. He’s currently pursuing producing P.G. on his own. This makes sense; P.G. can be stored safely for two years and requires only two hours effort to begin producing a 200 liter barrel. The stuff is in high demand and could be a boon for many farmers if they began to use it. It has been demonstrated to outperform typical fertilizers. Fertilizers also ruin soil, according to our hard-working farmer. His vermic compost in conjunction with P.G., in comparison, is much healthier for the land and produces visibly taller and greener plants.  It seemed clear at this point that there was definitely a market for agricultural improvements.

Our first experience with Pancha Gavya

Our first experience with Pancha Gavya

The man guided us over to an area where he had separate containers of milk, curd, urine, ghee, and water. He then unceremoniously grabbed a handful of fresh dung, dropped it in the vase of water, and stirred it by hand. The rest of the ingredients were then added and combined. This tasty blend would then be mixed twice daily for 15 days. At that point, the fermented mixture would be filtered and collected. This would then be added to water in a ratio of 1/10. Voila. Pancha Gavya. Ten liters of water and one liter of P.G. sprayed directly onto plants will improve yield and repel insects for an entire acre. “With such a simple procedure,” we thought, “why isn’t there more of this stuff available?” The answer was hidden in some basic fractions. The recipe the farmer used called for 250 grams of ghee, .5 liters of curd, .5 liters of milk, 1 kilogram of dung and 2 liters of urine. That’s four times as much urine as any other liquid component, besides water. Collecting ample urine is both an inconvenient and inelegant process: holding a bucket under a cow. The farmer already hands out plastic drums to ten of his neighbors and pays them to collect from their cattle. Buffalo urine won’t do, either. According to the farmer, cows eat more greens and produce “better” waste. Higher-tech collection systems exist, but they, as expected, are capital intensive (50,000-100,000 rupees) and require several more cows to run effectively. Travelling urine vendors exist, as well, but they’re not readily available as desired. This urine shortage is clearly a bottleneck to an otherwise efficient, low-cost process for farmers. At this point the Poop Group switched its focus to pee.

The next home we visited reinforced our opinions about the viability of the expansion of P.G. production. The resident here is named Sekar. He’s a savvy farmer who’s also involved in local politics. He produces watermelon, rice and peanuts. He informed us that he’d just begun using P.G. and that he is pleased with it. Unfortunately, no one near his home makes it. Thus, availability is an issue, not cost. His family believes in P.G. so much that the eldest son was currently over 400 km away learning how to make the product at an NGO. Bigger-scale farmers like Sekar prefer to produce P.G., whereas smaller-scale farmers typically buy it. Currently, though, the family is forced to use fertilizers and pesticides, which present further issues than those communicated to us earlier. Some residents are allergic to the fertilizer. Also, cows won’t drink water from fertilized fields. More, fish cannot survive in flooded fields with pesticides present. Finally, plants from fertilized fields taste noticeably worse than organics. The case against fertilizers and pesticides was pretty strong. Sekar insisted that word of mouth works in the region and that the transition to organics is taking place gradually. The problem is the time frame of P.G. implementation: the switch from fertilizers to organics decreases yield to about 60% in the first year but gradually increases by about 20% each year afterwards. Impatience is an issue to many wary of the transition, according to Sekar. Our group’s next step was to see how a high-end, fully organic farm operates.

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The group with Sekar and sons.

The group examines an organic rice field.

The group takes in an organic rice field.

The following day the team loaded up in the Mystery Machine and headed to a beautiful and colorful two-story home owned by a jolly retired government employee who worked in atomic energy for the length of his career. He invested his life savings into a sprawling farm in the back of his property, which houses dozens of varieties of plants. This man does it all; he farms, sells, distributes and even educates on good practices. After a friendly introduction by our translators, we were given a tour of the facilities. The man’s grown son accompanied us and spoke to me in excellent English about the processes involved on the ranch. Families of migrant workers live in a house toward the front of the property. The owner can pay them less than locals and the migrants receive desperately needed housing. There is an upgraded version of every sort of farming technology we’d seen in our prior visits on the property, including an intricate urine collection system with a sloped concrete floor. The cows stand on the floor and urinate. The urine trickles down into grooves, which are gravity directed into two collection bins in series. It cost him about 250,000 rupees. Everything about the man’s technology is impressive. He has even won government awards for some of his intricate systems. In short, this is an organic farm done right and to scale. After our initial tour, we got down to business by questioning him about P.G. This is one of a number of agricultural products he creates, and he was glad to share with us his process.

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The group examines the facilities, intensely.

Urine collection

Urine collection vat.

Urine collection complex.

Urine collection complex.

After the new moon, which occurs about every 21 days, he begins a new batch. The usual ingredients (milk, curd, ghee, urine and cow dung) are mixed along with a few extras to create his “special recipe.” These extras include sugarcane juice, bananas, coconut water, coconut sap and honey. These ingredients are combined in a large barrel that is rigged with wooden blades designed for clockwise rotation. This contraption costs 4,000 rupees. Once the recipe is mixed, the barrel is to be rotated 100 times, three times a day, until the next new moon. As a result, he produces 200 liters each cycle. In what felt like a warped wine tasting, we were able to whiff the finished product. It possessed a surprisingly sweet odor; hints of the honey and banana were definitely present. Then came the most shocking moment of our trip: the man took a tablespoon of the brown blend in his hand and casually licked it up! We were taken aback, of course, but he assured us that a quarter-sized taste of the stuff per day protects from diabetes, tuberculosis and many other conditions. He learned all of this from his guru and he’s been making it for four years; we still weren’t quite convinced. Regardless, this man’s product is in high demand. He sells 100 liters per month during watermelon season and 50 otherwise. He sells to both big and small farmers in orders of anywhere from 1,000-20,000+ rupees. What’s particularly interesting is that he sells his P.G. more to encourage organic farming than for business purposes— he only makes about 20 rupees profit per liter sold.

Disease-free for four years!

Disease-free for four years!

Wooden mixing rig

Wooden mixing rig.

People come from far and wide and spread word of his P.G. This confirmed what we’d been hearing about the power of word-of-mouth marketing in rural India. He also reaffirmed the wariness of some farmers to switch as a result of the initial drop in crop yield. The final results of the switch were convincing enough for us, though. We were able to eat some cucumber and a gourd fresh from the farm. They possessed a deliciously crunchy texture and were very juicy. As we ate he remarked that organic fruits are physically heavier than their fertilized counterparts. It was noticeable. As we closed our tour, feeling inspired about the future of an organic and green India, we noticed a huge burn pile of plastic. When we asked, he informed us that he burns all of his linings when he disposes of them. This lack of environmentally conscious consistency made us shake our heads, but as they say, “for every truth in India, there’s an untruth.”

Following this visit, we formulated an idea for a low-cost urine collection system that could be attached to a cow temporarily. After interviewing a few more local cow owners, it was evident that there is definitely a demand for urine. Some research informed us that a typical cow produces between 14 and 16 liters of urine per day. If we could collect even a fifth of that, we agreed, we’d have a winner. Interviews informed us that most cow owners would have no problem attaching something to their cows, as long as the cow was mobile and comfortable. Our main considerations as a result were durability, cow comfort and urine storage. We were also told that an owner would pay somewhere between 40-50 rupees (less than a U.S. dollar) for such a product. We believe that the benefits of the product will pay that off in a matter of weeks, if not days. If this is truly the case, and we can demonstrate this to the locals, we may have some flexibility with the price point. Still, this is the primary challenge in our design as we pursue prototypes.

We pitched our idea to a board of community leaders during our last night at Esthell Resort. The board was pleased with the idea and believes it has potential. This was crucial to the advancement of the project. Between the processes of gathering data, consolidating, translating and interpreting, it’s easy to forget that the ultimate goal of our product development is empathizing. It would have been very easy to formulate a solution that looks good on paper. This is a common approach to innovation in the Global South. Unfortunately, most of these never stick. The fact that our product could realistically solve a problem and improve the lives of others is extremely satisfying. To be effective, we’ll have to embrace local materials, businesses and distribution systems to not only keep costs down, but also to provide work to local community members to garner trust and build relationships. This is the only way to effect lasting, scalable improvements.

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Days 15-20- Customer Discovery- Group 3: Employment

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In a country of over a billion people with diverse sets of languages and customs, finding the right employees for a job can be a complicated task. I worked in a group with Geoff Goeters, Chris Ebright, and Nagasai Adusumilli to answer the simple question of “How can we best connect employers and employees?”, and our journey to find a solution taught us both about India and about business.

To learn how people in India currently seek employment, we first talked to a farmer that employed about 10 people. Our goal was to understand what traits he looked for in employees and what problems he faced, so our conversation was open-ended as we tried to give him the opportunity to steer the conversation towards areas that we wouldn’t have even thought to ask. He said that the main problem he faced was finding employees that would show up every day and were willing to work for the duration of the time they said they would. Interestingly, he branched outside of his village when hiring because he wasn’t satisfied with local employees. He said could hire workers from southern India and pay then 400 rupees for a few days of work. Instead, he hired workers from northern India for 600 rupees for the same amount of work. Of course, it’s not common to see employers voluntarily pay their employees 50% more than is needed so we talked with him more to understand his reasoning. He claimed that northern Indian workers were more likely to actually show up on days they are expected to and never show up drunk, unlike some southern Indian workers.

The important takeaway from this story isn’t that there is any innate difference between Northern and Southern Indian workers—no other employers we talked to mentioned northern Indian workers were more valuable, so that was probably just the experience of that individual farmer. The important takeaway was that employers are willing to pay a premium for employees that they can rely upon, or a service that could provide these reliable employees.

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One of our next trips was to talk to Sudhakar, a man responsible for overseeing employment for his region. He had a network of contacts that he would use to try to find employment for people that came to him looking for help. An issue is there’s a sort of “one strike policy” in the jobs connectors we talked with. If an employer says that an employee showed up drunk or committed other such violations, then they will not be given a second chance. This makes sense from his end, as he needed to ensure he protected his reputation for providing quality employees so companies would keep coming to him with job openings. However, this policy left employees that made a mistake out of luck when it came to looking for jobs down the road. We wanted to develop a solution that could reward the most reliable employees without ejecting those whom had mistakes from the system completely. Sudhakar also pointed out that it was relatively easy for college educated people to find jobs, an idea that was confirmed when we talked to a family of electrical engineers in Chennai later about how heavily companies are recruiting on college campuses in India.

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The next step in our group’s journey was to visit a group of fishermen. These strong men had to go out early in the mornings to cast their nets and gather the fish, then sort them and prepare the fish to be taken out to the market (the selling of which was usually done by their wives). The issue the fishermen then faced was that they were done with their work for the day by the middle of the day, and didn’t have jobs they could work during the afternoon even though they would have liked to earn additional income. When asked how far they had gone to work, they replied that they only has searched in their village even though they’d be willing to travel to adjacent villages for work. We realized that there was an information blindspot amongst some job seekers when it came to jobs outside of their immediate area, and an opportunity for technology to bridge that gap.

Later that day after meeting with the fishermen, our group talked with a man operating a motorcycle and bicycle repair shop. Like a lot of service jobs, his work schedule could be very inconsistent. If several customers came by in the morning with motorcycles that needed to be fixed, then his work schedule could be completely filled up for the next few days. If no one came by his shop, then he could go a day without working or being paid. The fishermen and the motorcycle repairman demonstrated the two different ways there could be a gap in an employee’s work schedule—predictable unemployment like the fishermen faced, and intermittent breaks like the motorcycle repairman dealt with.

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Before we could develop a solution, we first had to assess the resources that would be available for us to use. Seeing as a crucial part of our idea was going to be connecting people, we had to understand the communication technology available. Surprisingly, almost everyone had access to cell phones, no matter how remote the village. Even if every person did not possess a cellphone, they would often share phones with family members or friends to ensure everyone had access. In addition, there are widespread internet cafes that provided internet access and guidance for a cheap price. Knowing that almost everyone had access to cell phones or internet cafes would become a crucial piece of information for our group later. We needed to develop a solution that could take advantage of the level of technology available to us while working within its limits.

So to sum up, the biggest concerns facing employees were finding more jobs and working with employers they could trust, and the biggest concerns facing employers were finding reliable employees. Our product idea took a few days of discussion to coalesce into anything concrete, but after a lot of group discussion we came up with a service that could fit both employer and employee needs.

The core of our idea is simple. When a company needs workers, they could go onto our website and enter the job and any relevant details. Our network would then send a text notification to job seekers near the area of the job, with the chance to send a simple text back to reply whether or not they plan to show up for the job. Then, after the job had been progressing for a period of time, we would ask both the employees and the employer to provide feedback by answering some simple questions about each other.

The two way feedback system protects both employee and employer, and is the unique element that other job services don’t provide over a large scale. We talked to some construction workers at one of our hotels that said they were wary of working in dangerous conditions, but did not know much about the job before showing up. In addition, several of the construction workers we talked to had been cheated by previous employers that promised to pay them at the end of the job, but just disappeared after the work is done. The workers had no financial recourse in that situation, but by leaving a review of this company then can warn future workers about the company’s shady habits.  And, as previously demonstrated by the farmer paying 50% more for north Indian workers, employers place high value on finding employees that have been certified as reliable.

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There is a common (and unfortunate) stereotype that unemployed people are lazy, but when we went the ground to meet with people looking for employment we found that couldn’t be further from the truth. It was heartbreaking to hear one of the fathers we talked to say he would love to save up some more money for his son’s education, but didn’t know of any jobs that were hiring. These are the kind of people we wanted to develop a business solution to help. After talking to so many wonderful people over our few weeks in India, our group came up with a solution we were proud of to the question of temporary unemployment and came away with a much greater understanding of India and its people.

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Days 15-20- Customer Discovery- Group 2: Cold Supply Chain

Last Thursday, many of us traveled to Birmingham for a meet and greet with AIBP, a group interested in strengthening the relationship between Alabama and India. While we were there, the president of the organization mentioned that he had been following our blog and was wondering when we were going to finish it. With classes going on, we never got around to blogging about our last week in India, where we set out in groups to conduct field research and work on product development. We would like to follow through on our promise to Sanjay (shoutout to you if you’re reading this!) and talk about what each group did.

My group consisted of two people – me (Sheela) and Meagan. Initially, we wanted to tackle the problem that the farmers were having with their grain storage. Many of their storage containers and bags were torn and/or were difficult to transport. As we talked to more villagers, however, our focus changed and evolved. We were noticing a greater problem involving their storage of produce. When we went to a fishing village in Cheyur, the fishermen were tossing around their freshly caught fish in the sand. This was their way of preventing flies from surrounding the fish and spreading diseases.

fish covered in sand

fish covered in sand

After doing so, they placed the fish in large metal vessels without ice. When asking them about this, a fisherman told us that there was a false perception in India that the use of ice to preserve fish is an indication that the fish is low quality. Therefore, they would not be able to sell frozen fish at a high price. The wives of the fishermen would typically  sell the fish in the afternoon (around 7 hours after going out by boat).

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fish market

fish vender

fish vender

It was then that we wanted to create a product that could keep the fish cool and fresh without freezing them. This product could also be used by vegetable venders who kept their produce out in the hot air all day. Therefore, we hope to make our product a fabric of sorts that could be converted into a bag or lining by the villagers themselves. We think it is important for the Indians to be involved in the manufacturing of the product for two reasons. First, if they are involved in making it, they would be more inclined to actually use and promote the product. Secondly, it would create local jobs. We were able to talk to a women’s support group that currently sews together jute bags for a variety of purposes. We feel that they would be an excellent channel for the manufacturing of our product.

womens support group

womens support group

After presenting our idea to a panel of Indians and the Board of Visitors here, we are working with Phifer Wire and DuPont to continue this product development. The seniors even chose our idea to use for one of their senior design projects, focused on the cold supply chain in India. We can’t wait to see what happens!

Days 15-20- Customer Discovery- Group 1: Water

Day 15 (Water)

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We broke our group into 4 teams to tackle 4 issues of water treatment. The water team for the week is Joey, Laura and me (Rachel). Water fascinates me. All over the world, everyone needs water. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, on a same basic level everyone needs it to drink, cook, wash, and water plants or crops. Without water there is nothing.

It is a vital part of life, but also one that most people take for granted. Huge quantities of water are moved, purified, pumped, sprinkled, consumed, and wasted each day, and most people are unaware of the magnitude of work that takes place to make that water available for use.

In India we had heard about problems with water before the trip. We had heard about sanitation problems, millions of people without access to toilets or clean drinking water, and widespread outbreaks of Typhoid or Malaria. But most of the villages we’d visited so far had not identified water access as a problem. When asked, they pointed us to a well where they got their water and reported no issues from drinking it. A man in Barara village had had a reverse osmosis machine to purify water at a low cost, but otherwise no one we saw treated their water. And although in the slum they said it tasted strongly of chlorine, there were no complaints about health.

The purpose of reverse innovation is to start with a clean slate and walk into communities looking for a problem they have and listening to them to develop a solution.

So far no one had said they had a water problem so some people in our group were skeptical about us focusing on that for a week.

However, sometimes people don’t know their needs until you show them what is possible. Steve Jobs is famous for his quote: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” In 2001, when the first iPod came out, people didn’t know they needed it, and in 2007 when the first iPhone hit the stores, I guarantee you the over 300 million people who use iPhones today did not know they needed them. I was one of them.

Henry Ford said it, too: ““If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” They wouldn’t have said they needed a car.

Water, cars and iPhones share very little in common, but what this quote tells us is that sometimes customer feedback should be taken with a grain of salt. Perhaps our customers didn’t know cleaner water was a cheaper solution, perhaps they didn’t realize their clear-looking water was dirty and didn’t identify sicknesses they caught with water quality or poor hygiene. We had heard about millions of people in India with access to inadequate water, and I was not willing to give up on tackling this fundamental problem after only 6 village visits.

Almost all of the world’s largest countries have problems with water access for a portion of their population, and I was skeptical that India had perfect water consumption. The trash floating in every river and the examples of infrastructure challenges we saw everywhere around us did not have me convinced.

I wanted to spend the week diving into the water issue. Finding out where it came from, how it was transported, who was willing to pay for cleaner water. I’d studied water problems personally in Peru, Colombia, and United States, and I wanted to see water issues from an Indian perspective.

Our first task of the week was to find someone who had a problem with water and was looking for a solution. We had requested to visit a water treatment center, homes that had pumps for water, and an NGO that worked with water on our first day.

And amazingly, at breakfast the next morning we were handed a schedule that had almost all of our wish list. Mahesh explained that in India, people don’t like plans, most operate on more free-flowing schedule, ready for anything that comes their way. And although this challenge had made our earlier travels and tours difficult, now, we were able to arrange opportunities on a few hours notice. We could show up in homes, explain who we were, and families would be willing to welcome us in and answer our questions.

We were all together for the first visit. A return to the fishing village for Sheela and Meagan who were working on the cold supply chain issue. They wanted to see how the fisherman preserved their fish after catching them until they got them to the market.

We were supposed to be on the beach by 9:00am to see the auction on the beach after the fisherman brought in their morning catch, but we got a late start. We made it to the fishing village around 9:45, but we missed the auction and could only stand in the hot sun asking the few remaining fishermen how their catch was and how they stored their fish.

Our next stop was the village where we would split into teams to tackle our problems individually. We started the day with a hypothesis that in India, ‘people have diseases from water but solutions are costly or they are unaware there is a solution.’ We visited a water purification plant that was started by an entrepreneur to sell bottled water.

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They sold water in bags which were filled through an automated machine and dropped onto the floor where a woman sat picking them up. They sell liter bottles to weddings and restaurants, a 20 L containers to families and hotels.

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The owner walked us through the plant, past the pump at the back which pulled up groundwater, the purification room with 7 filters, sand, carbon, reverse osmosis, UV, etc. And finally to the room where there was a hose of clean water and they filled the bottles by hand before screwing on a cap. They were investing in an automated capper for the liter bottles.

Upstairs they had a lab where they tested the water for common contaminants. They said they tested the water once in the morning and once in the afternoon, and the results took 2 days. They had never had a problem with water quality, and they said the reason people buy the water is for the taste and to avoid getting sick.

As we continued walking down the streets, we learned there were 2 sources of water in the village. Each village had a pump of water that came from underground they used for washing and other purposes, and a pipe from the government that brought water straight from the Palar River, untreated for 3 hours a day. The untreated river water was used for drinking and supposed to be cleaner than the pump water.

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We went to interview 2 homes, a Hindu priest who invited us in warmly and explained how he used just the ground water for all his needs and had never gotten sick. Instead of a tank on his roof he used a tank in his living room which he bleached every few weeks to clean. They had a shower room, a toilet room, and a washing machine in their very modest house. They said they had had no problems with water.

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So we continued through the village, stopping at a water tower which provided the government water. We visited a home where several women showed us their pump out back of ground water. They modeled how they turned on the pump, collected the water and carried it in jars on their hips. They also had no complaints about their water.

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As the morning wore on it became hotter and hotter and I was sweating through my kurta. We had a final stop at the center we stopped at yesterday where the women were folding bags. Our group was assembled in chairs under the shade of a tree drinking coconut water and listening to a panel of men talk about work in the village. We were able to ask them about water in the village and they said that migrant workers tended to have the most issues with water diseases and poor water access and that there in the village, some homes didn’t have a problem with the water and some on the other side of town did. So the next day we needed to visit migrant workers and people on that other side of town who may be looking for a solution.

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DAY 16 

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After our first full day studying water in the villages, we regrouped with all the teams and presented our findings for the day. Then we turned in our ‘wish list’ of people we would like to talk to the next day. We wanted to visit a hospital, migrant workers, and people with water problems.

The next morning, we had a schedule very close to what we had asked for.

Our first stop was with the bag group to visit the fish auction on the beach. It was a beautiful place to spend the morning before the heat of the day came. The fish were placed in crates by each fisherman, and they were lined up along the sand waiting their turn to be auctioned. Women crowded around in beautifully patterned saris as the fish were dumped out by the crate onto a small tarp and bought as a lot. A man directed the auction, and although it was in the local language Tamil, I could follow the basic format of the auction similar to car auctions in the US. If an older woman went against a younger woman in a bid, the older lady would win by social circumstances.

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They were selling a whole array of interesting fish, including a lot of sting rays which a woman held up for us to take her picture.

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The boats were pulled high up into the sand after the morning catch, and fishermen sat in the large blue nets untangling and pulling out stray shells and baby fish, preparing it to store for the next day.

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Kids crowded around us curiously, and we bought fish to serve for lunch later in the day.

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Next we visited a small clinic where a village health nurse worked. She deals with a population of 9800 people and she focuses on children and expecting mothers. She said when she sees sickness from water her first question is “did you boil it?” They usually say no despite her frequent advice to purify the water before drinking it.

 

She told us that very few people were willing to pay for water, and although boiling the water is free, no one wants to wait for it to cool. This is understandable

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She buys water in 25 L tanks for her patients.

Our next stop was a government hospital. This hospital does mostly outpatient work, and has very few beds for overnight. It was run-down, had no air-conditioning, and a long line of patients sat outside under an awning waiting to see the doctor.

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The doctor was able to meet with us for a few minutes between his rounds of seeing up to 250 patients a day. The hospital was understaffed, over capacity, and under-funded. He said he usually saw waterborne illnesses in migrant workers or other people living in temporary housing with poor sanitation.

If there is an outbreak of sickness (Typhoid, Malaria, etc.) They will go knock on doors in the area of the home to find more sickness and quarantine the ill.  We realized this was probably one of the reasons people had been telling us there was no sickness in the village. They didn’t know if we were from the government looking for people to quarantine. They were suspicious of our intentions and questions.

In the hospital they boiled the water for the patients, and the staff had a small-scale filter for their water. They were hoping to buy a reverse osmosis filter for the entire hospital from donations when enough funds were raised.

From the hospital we made our way to the government water pump station. This was an eye-opening visit, not because of the large machinery they use to pull water from the Palar River and underground then propel to the filtration station, but because of the information we learned about water scarcity.

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Water is getting harder and harder to supply in India as in many of the largest countries in the world (U.S., Brazil, etc.) This pump station was working at only half capacity because there was not enough water being supplied. They told us that they kept having to pull water from deeper and deeper sources. (This was consistent with families we met who had been forced to dig deeper and deeper personal wells as they dried up).

They mentioned the problem that the water they did manage to pull up from the ground was getting saltier and saltier. This is consistent with coastal areas that pull water from aquifers at a faster rate than they can be replenished. Major pumping causes the aquifer of fresh water to shrink and the salt water encroaches into the area previously filled. As shown in the diagram below, areas that were once fresh water become saltier (zone of diffusion) as the salt water seeps further into the coast.

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Source:< http://kanat.jsc.vsc.edu/student/spatafora/setup.htm> James Spatafora, Johnson State College

A desalination plant had begun construction along the road to Chennai to try to purify salt water to drinking water. Water scarcity is a huge problem in India, one of which we had been relatively unaware of until we were told first-hand.

After our morning interviews we returned to the same building we had visited the past two days to eat lunch made by the local women. They served us the fish we had bought at the market, rice, potatoes, spinach, buttermilk (which was chunky and fermented), a sweet pudding-noodle desert, and bottled water. They served us on large banana leaves and we ate the traditional way with our fingers.

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When we returned to our home we showered, worked on summer MBA class homework online, and made presentations of our findings. We turned in a request to visit migrant workers and an NGO that worked with water.

DAY 17 

On our third day our schedule of events began in the afternoon. In the morning we got up to do yoga in the grass on shower towels. Laura is a certified yoga instructor, so she led the morning class.

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After yoga and breakfast, we made a call to a man called Sai who Mahesh put us in contact with. The call dropped 3 or 4 times throughout our 45 minute conversation, but we learned lots of valuable information about water in southern India.

He told us about government focus on conservation initiatives especially rainwater collection. He said the government was also considering charging money to homes after they used a certain amount of water. There were social entrepreneurs transporting water around urban areas with water scarcity making money for themselves and providing water to homes, and a drip irrigation system that had been implemented for farmers was highly successful and saved large quantities of wasted water.

He also cautioned us that most people consider water a basic necessity, so people are not willing to pay a lot. This is a common problem in the US as well, we consider clean water a personal right, and people would not be very accepting to higher water prices even though this would promote water conservation.

He talked about the huge issue of water wasting which relates to the scarcity problems, and he advocated the direct use of collected rainwater instead of storing it underground like the present method.

A huge barrier to water access in India are the high infrastructure costs and the corrupt people in government.

His final thoughts to us were the importance of educating people about water conservation and to look at purifying sewage to clean water. In reality, dumping sewage directly to the ocean to pull ocean water back into the desalination plants was just wasting a step in the process. There is a strong stigma about purifying sewage water to drink, but there is very effective technology to do so (the space ships and cruise ships already do.)

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In the afternoon we joined the poop group (the group researching biofuels and manure) to an organic farm. This farm was run by a man who had retired from a high-paying job and simply chose to go into organic farming. He had a drip irrigation system that was highly effective, and used a type of fertilizer called Panchagavya. Panchagavya is an organic fertilizer made from cow poop (yes, poop), cow urine (yes, pee), curd, gee (like yogurt I think) and a few other cow ingredients. He had a concrete floored feeding area for the cows to collect their urine, and he generously walked us through the process of making this Panchagavya.

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He said he eats a spoonful a day (yes, this man ate cow poop and urine every day) and it would prevent diabetes and a whole collection of other ailments supposedly. After demonstrating how he would eat it he shook Caylee’s hand…ew. Then he handed us a whole pile of cucumbers grown organically on his farm…with the same hands…

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They showed us their drip irrigation system and several of the plants that were hanging to grow on vines.

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The poop group had started to change their focus from utilizing cow manure as biofuel to focusing on Panchagavya. The limiting ingredient (the hardest one to get) was the cow urine which was in quantities almost double the cow pool. But Cow urine is hard to get. Following a cow around with a bucket waiting for him or her to take a leak is not ideal. So they were considering a urine collection system to facilitate Panchagavya production.

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After the organic farm we drove to find construction workers (migrant workers) whom we found next to a large bridge construction. We climbed down a steep dirt hill to reach the place where they were cutting large sections of rebar. We were hoping to finally find people who had water problems, however according to the workers (carefully monitored by the foreman standing within earshot) they had perfect lives. No health problems, no water problems, good food made by a chef. We went into their homes built along the side of the site and they did look pretty nice.

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At this point we were stilling looking for someone with a problem…

DAY 18

For our 4th day, our wish list was only to find someone with a water problem.

Our first visit was further inland in what we would call the country in the US. There was a small home right beside the road with a huge rice field behind it. There is a pump by the road where they get their water from the government which is only turned on for an hour a day, around 6:00am.

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They said they have problems with sickness when the water source changes. (Sometimes the water from the government comes from a different source when the water tower or pump is in need of repair.) The sickness that corresponds to the change in pipes makes sense because it would be different bacteria they are exposed to.

When we asked them if they filter their water they showed us a strainer like we would use for flour and said they put it under the spigot to catch the worms that come out.

Not exactly the type of filter we were asking about.

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They said they had paid about 15 rupees (25 cents USD) for the strainer and would be willing to pay about that much for another filter if we designed one. They weren’t really interested in paying for water.

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We talked to them about how they store water and they showed us the metal containers they keep water in throughout the day. They said they share the water with their neighbors when they have extra after their needs for the day are met.

They showed us their house and their cows and they said that if they had a way to collect the urine they could make 10 rupees a liter (15 cents).

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After their home we went to visit a community leader who talked with us for a few minutes. They said they boil water during the rainy season, but summer season is when the sewage from the unlined septic tanks begins to leak into the water. He also said his people are lazy and choose not to boil the water.

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We didn’t stay long visiting them, they didn’t tell us much we hadn’t already heard.

Our final stop of the day was at a government-built library that had a rainwater collection system. They had built it as a model for the village and offered 50% subsidy to build your own 5 years ago. No one installed them, primarily because water scarcity is an issue in the cities and not so much in the rural areas.

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There was also a government sign with health information about the importance of using toilets and not defecating in the open, washing hands, not walking barefoot….but they told us that the villagers chose not to follow the government instructions.

Venkat had been with our group since the airport in New Delhi the day we arrived. I think culturally, he didn’t feel comfortable sharing opinions with us while we researched water, but on this day we asked him his opinion on the water problem and he provided a wealth of information that would change the direction of our project.

Venkat lives with his family in Chennai and he said everyone in the city (if they have money) buys water. If they don’t have the money, they have to move. People in urban areas all have rainwater collection systems on their rooves that store in an underground tank.

A truck brings in 1000L of water per week in the dry season which is four months of the year. These people are transporting water from up to 600 kilometers away due to water scarcity. He said the wells people use have to get deeper and deeper to reach the water.

One of the most interesting cultural insights he told us about was visiting his wife’s family in their village. When he travels home with his wife, he drinks the water in the village knowing that he and his children will get sick. He said it would be rude to not drink the water in the family home even though they know it carries bacteria and viruses.

Again we returned back to our base to compile information, prepare our nightly presentation and compile a wish list of people to see on our final day.

 

DAY 19

We started the day looking for the groups of women who collect water at the spigots every morning when they are turned on for a short period of time.

We found a large group of women sitting by the road, and a woman standing ankle-deep in a puddle of water holding a pot to a pipe.

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They explained to us that instead of paying the government to install a pump to their water line, they simply dug a hole themselves and sawed off the pipe (one of the oldest women in the group explained this to us with exaggerated animation.)

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They had a ground pump to use for washing clothes (there was a coke bottle tied to a faucet to funnel the flow).

They said they do get sick from the water sometimes with fevers, colds, and headaches. They travel 3 kilometers to get water that they believe is clean (not the pump water). Their method for determining if the water will make them sick or not is a “rice test.” If they boil the rice and it is yellow then the water is bad. If they boil the rice and it is white, then the water is good.

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I couldn’t help but laugh as the women shared their stories with us, talking over each other and trying to explain directly to me what was going on, though I clearly didn’t speak Tamil and could only read their body language.

These women gave us hope for a solution. They were the first ones to recognize there was a problem with water, and they would be interested in a solution. They were spunky ladies who took control of their own lives and sawed off a pipe if the need arose.

They told us they would be willing to pay up to 150 rupees ($2.50) for a solution. The solution should attach to the existing spigot and not fall off in heavy flow.

Our final stop was at a home/local post office. This woman was the postmaster so there was an extra door in the front with a sign that said the post office opened at 10:00am.

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They had three sources of water in their home, 2 wells with pumps, and one government water source. She had two well pumps because the first well had dried up and she had to build a second one much deeper. She said the neighbors use each other’s pumps when one runs dry. And there was the possibility to dig 10 feet deeper, but the improved well would only last another two or three years at the current rate of water scarcity depletion.

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Her plastic hoses had fungus growing inside, and they had a problem in the summer months with sewage seeping into the wells as well. I used their toilet out back and it was simply a concrete structure built on top of a pit that served as the septic tank. But since the tank isn’t lined it is no surprise that it leaches into the wells.

She buys her mineral water to drink from across the street, but the problem is they never know where the “purified” water actually comes from.

She said she would be willing to pay 150-200 rupees every six months for a filter or pump and would be willing to clean it daily.

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This woman also used the rice test we had heard about from the ladies earlier in the day.

This rice test is apparently a very commonly held idea. Venkat told us that of course everyone uses the rice test. In the words of a 5th grader… “DUH”

This is one of the best examples we had of the importance of being on the ground doing research for a reverse innovation project. This rice test may or may not actually reflect the true quality of the water. The water could look completely clear and make white rice, but there could be dangerous microscopic bacteria and viruses. In the same way, extra sediment may make the rice yellow, but the water could be safe to drink by other standards.

But whether or not the color of the rice is truly a mark of purification, any solution we create would have to produce white rice. We can filter the water to be 100% safe for drinking, but if the rice turns yellow, no one will believe in our product.

This little detail is so engrained in society, and it was something we would have never thought to ask about, we just had to discover it over time. It was a valuable insight that would allow us to relate to potential customers and hopefully develop a viable solution to the water problems in India.

I see it as a reminder of the importance time on the ground getting into the mindset of the people you want to help.

In the evening we further developed our filter and prepared for our final presentations to a panel of local Indians who would give us feedback on the feasibility of the designs we had worked so hard on. Mahesh would be our translator.

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We presented our water filter design with all the features added to fit the needs of our consumers

  • A removable filter that could be manufactured by local women and sold in a corner store
  • The familiar bottle-shape of the existing pop bottles attached to spigots
  • An extra tie to ensure the filter won’t spring off the pipe
  • An expandable balloon-type material to ensure water flow is not slowed
  • And of course our filter would have to pass the rice test

The panel was extremely receptive to our pitch, and it was truly rewarding to see them nod in agreement as we shared our findings from the week and how we had incorporated the small nuances into our designs.

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We are continuing development of a water filter for our STEM Path to the MBA Senior Design Project this year and we will keep this blog updated with our progress.

Student Perspective: Free Healthcare in Andhra Pradesh

When I visited my family after the STEM Reverse Innovation program ended, I had the opportunity to shadow my cousin Kishan who was doing his Residency in the surgery department at a government hospital in Vijayawada, the capital city of Andhra Pradesh. My family joked that I would not continue to want to be a doctor after seeing the conditions of the government hospital, but I braced myself and powered through to explore what the government of India is doing for the healthcare of the poor.

Kishan had “injection rounds” that evening, basically checking on patients and providing painkillers for pain management of post-operation patients before the attending physician’s rounds. People often say that visiting India overwhelms your senses, an understatement when visiting the government hospital. Words cannot describe the unimaginable combined smell of wounds festering in the humid heat, of body odor of patients and families who have not showered in days, of bathrooms not cleaned for who knows how long, and of expired antiseptics. Families wailed at the bedside of hundreds of patients while nurses clamored around to appease families and communicate with other nurses about patients. Visually, all of the equipment was dilapidated, from the beds that looked like they belong in a World War II movie set to yellow-brown respirator tubes. The hospital provides completely free medical services to anybody who shows up at the door, typically geared toward those at the poverty line and below. As a consequence, government hospitals are overflowing with patients but lacking adequate supplies to provide them full medical attention.

As Kishan and the other residents started filling syringes for painkiller injections, it quickly became apparent that any sterility guidelines were thrown out the window. Filled syringes were tossed on the table that was clearly nowhere near clean, much less sterile. The tops of glass medicine vials were hacked off and onto the floor for janitors to (probably not) sweep up later. Exam gloves were not even in sight. When I voiced my concerns, the residents replied that the sheer volume of patients that they go through does not allow the time or resources to be sterile. One resident shrugged off my appalled look, saying that during a surgery earlier that day, HIV-positive blood was dancing on her bare hands. Bare hands. During a surgery. They went on to tell me that I came on a good day, at the beginning of the month when they still had supplies. The hospital receives about a week’s worth of supplies and drugs that have to last a month. The shortages get so bad that syringes and needles will be kept with the patient to reuse them for a couple of rounds of painkillers. Some days, the residents are forced to inject only saline and pretend that it’s pain medicine (which often still alleviates pain but that’s not the point).

Despite such challenges, the doctors were clearly brilliant and practiced excellent medicine. We saw patients recovering from miraculous surgeries, ranging from limbs that could have been amputated to brain tumors cleared right up. Naturally, such working conditions and stress from overwork put these doctors and nurses in terrible moods, but they treated each patient with the utmost respect and embodied the humanistic side of medicine that is increasingly absent today. If the attending physicians saw or heard about any nurses or residents putting in IV ports too roughly or snarking at patients or families (even something as minor as using informal rather than formal pronouns to address), they got an earful in front of everybody. Likewise, most patients treated the doctors with respect and adoration. As soon as a white coat strolled into the room, hands go up in Namaste to greet the doctors who don’t have to work here, don’t have to put up with frequent patient and family abuse, and don’t have to endure these working conditions to help people who are way below them in caste (a system still strong in the minds of many Indians). The ability to give hope to people who have nothing is why my cousin purposefully picked the government hospital over private hospitals for his residency, and that wholehearted Namaste is his reward.

Days 16-20: Reverse Innovation Customer Discovery Projects

The objective of this study abroad trip to India was for the students to learn about the various segments of poor people in a developing country and then work in teams to develop ideas for products and services that the poor could afford, that would improve their lives, and that, optimally, could provide jobs that would lift some out of poverty.

Students in UA’s STEM Path to the MBA are taught a process for innovation and design that involves repeated, quick development of ideas, testing these ideas through customer interviews, and pivoting the idea until the students arrive at an idea that they believe is ready for prototyping.  Once a prototype is created, students go back to potential customers, in much larger numbers, to validate the business model.

On days 16-20 of our trip, each day the four groups of students (team 1: product that makes use of cattle dung and urine; team 2: sustainable clean water; team 3: container for human transport of materials; and team 4: mobile web site for coordinating employment opportunities and potential employees) traveled to one of the local villages and talked about their business idea.  These clusters of interviews typically lasted 3-5 hours each day.  During the afternoons, the groups would work on adjusting their business models to better fit what they had learned that morning.  In the evenings, we would all gather, the groups would pitch the new iterations of their ideas, get feedback, and then hit the villages again the next morning.  After five days of iterations, the students presented their ideas one last time to the group and four leaders from these local villages.

I was able to go with a different group each morning, except for the employment app group, so this and the next couple of blog posts will share sort of a day in the process.  I hope you enjoy following their progress!

 

Student Perspective: A Naan-Fiction Experience

It’s been about a week since we left India and I am slowly coming to terms with what that means. I never imagined how impactful the trip would be for me, academically and psychologically. I do not think that we could have ended on a better note, relaxing at a beach resort in Mahabalipuram after a busy week of field research in Cheyur Village.

Looking back, there are so many memories that I will cherish for years to come. In the first place, traveling to my parent’s home country for a research project for school was never something that I had imagined would be possible. I also could not have foreseen being able to bring one of my close friends from the trip to my grandparents’ house, where we were able to talk about all the incredible experiences we’d had so far.

Unfortunately I had to miss the first three days of the program, the Delhi portion. However, during my time in India, I learned quite a bit about poverty in developing nations. Too many of the poor Indians that we talked to told us that they wanted guidance and help to get out of their economic situation. It seemed that, throughout their lives, they had been told that they were not capable of helping themselves and that they would have to rely on governmental programs and external aid to make any progress. While I feel that the government definitely plays a large role in the healthcare and education of these villages, it appears they have an artificial understanding of how much the administration can do. It was heartbreaking to see how few children were able to make it to high school, let alone college. Although it was neat to see that there were many governmental programs being implemented to promote education, such as providing each student who graduated from 12th grade with a laptop computer to continue their education.

A computer is a tool that may have a high cost, but has an almost unlimited value. These are the types of things Indians needs. The same goes for traditional merchandising. Indians are very interested in buy extremely low-cost products if they are able to produce at least 80% of the effect or the full-price (or developed world) version. Speaking of money, everywhere we went, we were told that, in India, it is far more common to see women make financial decisions than men.

At first this thought seemed a little peculiar to us. We tried coming up with all sorts of deep explanations for this phenomenon, but it seemed to boil down to this: women are generally better at saving money. Since they are used to making sacrifices for the children and family, women are less prone to taking large financial risks. Although, after seeing the closets of the some girls in Alabama, I’m not sure that is true in the US.

The role of women is actually hugely controversial in India, because they are expected to take of money, but they are also far more often forced to stop school and get married early. In the remote villages, we saw a number of women cover their faces with their shawls as the men in our group walked by. One lady even covered her face as I played with her baby girl.

Because of the great disparity between men and women, a number of women self-help groups have sprung up in India recently. We talked with many of these women. We were even able to host a number of women of one group at our hotel in Chennai.

This lady was an incredible woman with an unimaginable strength. She has done so much for her village and her people and meeting her gave us motivation to pursue our research.

Ultimately we came up with 4 products that we are hoping to pursue further. Here is a brief description of them for now.

  1. Two-ply fabric made from jute and  Tyvek ® to store produce fresh longer
  2. Job app to bring together employers and employees in search of each other in rural areas
  3. Cow urine capture system to use for organic fertilizer made from cow urine, feces, and milk
  4. Low-cost water filtration system for rural India

We presented our ideas to a panel of local Indians near Chennai and they liked all of our ideas a lot. We’re going to obviously do a lot more research if we want to proceed, but it’s going to be a fun road ahead.