Frugal Innovation or frugal engineering refers to reducing the complexity and cost of the production of a good to make it available to a larger portion of the population. A few examples of frugal innovations around the world shall give a clearer picture to what it is.

CountryProduct Description
IndiaTata Nano CarA small four-wheel car launched by TATA group to help the lower middle class to get access to personal vehicles.[1]
GhanaToyota Charcoal StovePeople of Ghana cooked with inefficient charcoal stoves which required a lot of energy. Toyota Charcoal Stove is an inexpensive solution to that.[2]
ChinaHaier Washing Machine ‘Mini Magical Child’A smaller machine than usual washing machines with the purpose of meeting basic washing needs.[3]
KenyaM-PESA currency systemM-PESA is a mobile banking system which assists people to deposit, withdraw, transfer money, pay for goods and services (Lipa na M-Pesa), access credit and savings, all with a mobile device. 
Table: Examples of Frugal Innovations Around The World

Bangladesh: Lagging Behind In Innovation Despite Economic Growth

Bangladesh’s abysmal condition in innovation has been reflected in the most recent Global Innovation Index.

Figure: Rankings of the Regional Peers of Bangladesh in the Global Innovation Index / Source: Global Innovation Index 2019

This is also reflected if we look at the number of patents filed by Bangladesh in the past five years.

Figure: Number of Patents By Peers Of Bangladesh in USPTO / Source: StatNano

Bangladesh’s neighbor India, on the other hand, has been miles ahead of other countries with 897, 909, 1045, 1036 and 1218 patents in the same years . A major reason behind this is the low expenditure behind scientific innovations in Bangladesh.[4] Even in the Pharmaceutical Sector, where Bangladesh has shown significant growth, has shown little innovation and most of the growth can be attributed to the patent exemption Bangladesh has till the year 2033.

Frugal Innovations: Can It Be The Key To Boosting Innovation In Bangladesh?

Despite the growth of the middle and affluent class in the recent years, a large portion of the population still belongs to the lower middle class and below. Thus, to solve their problems, it is necessary to come up with innovations which are accessible to them.

Bangladesh has seen its fair share of frugal innovations as well which have solved many social problems. A few notable ones have been discussed in the table below.

ArsenicBangladeshi Scientist Dr. Abul Hussam invented an arsenic filter to help the rural Bangladesh from arsenicosis.[5] This was donated to many families around the country and they were given training on how to use it.
10 Minutes School 10 Minutes School is helping in providing education to students all around the country. While internet connection is still an issue in rural areas, the introduction of the 10 Minutes School Mobile Application can make a difference due to the spread of 3g and 4g internet. 
BkashBkash, a service like Mpesa in Kenya, is helping the lower income people of the country get access to some level of financial inclusion. A large portion of the population in the country belongs to the informal sector and Bkash is helping them slowly integrate to the formal sector.
Low Cost Cancer DetectionA group of scientists in Shahjalal University of Science and Technology have found a low-cost method for early detection of cancer. It costs only Tk 500 and takes only five minutes.[6]
Table: Examples of Frugal Innovations In Bangladesh

Frugal Innovation In The Time of A Pandemic

As the Covid-19 Pandemic is spreading rapidly, the importance of Frugal Innovation in the health sector is ever increasing. One of the main issues with Bangladesh’s fight against Covid-19 is the unavailability of healthcare technology. There has been lots of talk on how Bangladesh lacks sufficient ventilators, test kits, etc. This is where frugal innovations can rise up and make a difference.

The most important frugal innovation during the Covid-19 in Bangladesh has been the Rapid Dot Blot testing kit by Gonoshasthaya Kendra which would cost significantly lower than the test kits which are being imported currently.[7] If this test proves to be successful, it could be the weapon Bangladesh needed to fight the pandemic.

Bangladeshi doctors have come up with such innovations before as well. In 2017, a Bangladeshi doctor invented a ventilator by using shampoo bottles to treat infants suffering from pneumonia.[8] Inventions similar to this are necessary since traditional expensive medical equipment is getting scarce and is not enough for the growing number of patients.

Moving Forward With Accessible Innovations

Frugal Innovations can drastically improve the Bangladeshi lifestyle. While innovations in the medical sector is especially important currently, it is also important currently, frugal innovations can make a difference in other sectors as well. Ranging from affordable housing to easy access to power, frugal innovations have been an important tool in improving the lives of people. To encourage frugal innovations, the following steps can be taken.

  • Bangladesh has 13 Public Engineering Universities throughout the countries. These universities should be encouraged to come up with inexpensive solutions to social problems and the researchers could be incentivized with government sponsored scholarships abroad as long as they agree to a clause saying they shall return to the country. 
  • Bangladesh has over 40 Public Medical Colleges in different districts. These medical colleges can be promised funding for research, overall infrastructural development, government jobs for researchers etc if they can solve local health problems by coming up with sustainable innovations.
  • The government could arrange competitions with incentives such as research funding, scholarships, lump sum etc to crowd-source innovative solutions for social problems.

However, regardless of how Bangladesh chooses to encourage frugal innovations, it is necessary that the next budget prioritizes Research and Development. Without a technological revolution, Bangladesh could fall into the middle income trap, which has been the case for many middle-income countries.[9] Bangladesh has been relying on a few sectors like RMG Export and Remittances to ensure its growth for a very long time. A technological revolution might not only improve the lives of the general population but also ensure security for the economy of Bangladesh. 

Kidwa Arif, Trainee Consultant at LightCastle Partners, has prepared the write-up. For further clarifications, contact here: [email protected]

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