Local needs are the future for IT innovations
India's IT sector offers solutions for local problems — but entrepreneurs need help getting innovations to market, says Vineeta Dixit.
In an era where technology has transformed the world into a global village, with mass produced goods for mass consumption, local solutions for local problems may seem like a contradiction.
But scientific tools such as information and communication technologies (ICTs) seem to be bucking the trend. They are being invented, marketed, and some are even making money in India and other developing countries keen to explore local solutions.
They show that grassroots IT innovation works. But to benefit poor people across the world, there is a need to ensure that innovations reach the market fast.
Meeting local needs
Take the case of mobile phone-operated irrigation pumps. In India, a farmer may have to travel a few miles to turn on a water pump, and stay until irrigation is complete before returning — at any hour of the day, often late at night or early in the morning.
Nano Ganesh is an application that lets farmers turn their pumps on and off using their mobile phones — and it is gaining popularity, with over 5000 farmers across two Indian states already using it. In an industry dominated by ringtones and games, this is a welcome move towards technology that serves development.
Innovative technologies are also being used to generate electricity. In August 2007, an entire village was lit up for the first time using a technology that turns leftover biomass from rice plants into gas that fuels a power generator.
Today, the company, Husk Power Systems, operates over 60 mini-power plants that provide electricity to more than 250 villages and brighten the lives of over 25,000 households. Just as importantly, the company has generated employment for nearly 300 local people.
A Bangalore based company has created 3nethra: a portable, pre-screening fit for diagnosing eye problems that can potentially cause blindness. In the health sector, where innovations normally come at a high cost and are delivered at an even higher cost to consumers, this is an example of a simple technology that offers cheap healthcare to those who need it.
And there are examples of individualised agricultural extension services. The company Ekgaon has developed a mobile phone application that provides specialist advice to individual farmers in both voice and text forms, helping them enhance yields with information about when to plant seeds and which fertilisers to use, for example.
Lab to market
These are but a few examples of what is possible when IT entrepreneurs focus on innovations for local markets. The entrepreneurs' survival may depend on what Charles Darwin identified as the most important characteristic of species survival: adaptability — to the local environment.
As markets in developed countries continue to saturate, businesses are already turning towards developing countries and emerging economies, where they will need to create local solutions for local problems if they are to stay in the game.
In India, local markets are expanding and there is no shortage of entrepreneurs. What seems to be most needed is the support — financial, legal, and business management — to take these innovations from lab to market. Global platforms such as the International Consumer Electronics Show could also hasten that journey.
The government is aware of the challenges, and has enacted the National Innovation Act 2008, now being revised.  This Act defines special measures for supporting innovation, including direct and indirect tax incentives.
And in recent policy statements made by the Ministry of Communications and IT, the government has stated that it intends to provide preferential market access for domestic products. 
In addition, a host of academic institutions and private sector companies support and encourage innovation through various awards, the most prominent being the IGNITE from the National Innovation Foundation hosted in the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Ahmedabad. However, very little information is available on how many of these innovations have actually become commercial successes.
In India, the central and state government has an important role to play in supporting innovation. For starters, every year a few similar projects can be selected for replication across the country, with initial funding that would enable a project to reach the 'critical mass' that would allow it to self-finance as it scales up. This is already in place for e-governance projects, and could be extended to include innovations that support grassroots development.
Secondly, policymakers could create a Public Private Partnership forum where leading personalities from the public as well as the private sector can mentor these entrepreneurs.
And crucially, there are questions over how new technologies should be funded while getting to market. Venture capital or bank loans may be the conventional options, but we need solutions that, just like the innovations, are suited to the countries using them.
Most entrepreneurs are unable to access conventional finance — and therefore markets. So we need to create a mechanism by which long term access to need-based finance is available to these innovators.
These are but some of the options to explore. With the second largest population in the world, India needs to find and implement local solutions for its local problems. Both the government and the private sector can play a crucial role in making this a success.
Vineeta Dixit is principal consultant at the e-Governance Division of the Department of Information Technology, Ministry of Communications and IT, India.