SEHORE, INDIA: It’s 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and professor Anil Gupta has been hiking the scorched plains of central India for hours. But he smiles widely as he enters a tiny village in search of another unsung genius.
“If you have any new ideas or you have any new inventions, I’m here to promote you,” he tells farmers squatting beside a dusty roadside shrine to the Hindu god Shiva.
For more than two decades, Gupta has scoured rural India for its hidden innovations, motivated by the belief that the most powerful ideas for fighting poverty and hardship won’t come from corporate research labs, but from ordinary people struggling to survive.
Gupta and his aides have uncovered more than 25,000 inventions, from the bicycle-mounted crop sprayer to the electric paintbrush that never needs to be dipped in a paint can.
Many of the cheap, simple ideas he spreads for free from one poor village to another with the inventor’s blessing. Some he is working to bring to market, ensuring the innovator gets the credit and the profit that will spur others to create as well. Many ideas are simply documented in his database waiting for some investor to spot their potential. He routinely dispenses tiny grants, either from a government fund or his own web of organizations, to help poor innovators finish their projects.
The 59-year-old management professor with a thick graying beard reminiscent of an ascetic holy man says he gets no financial benefit from his finds, reveling instead, with almost childlike joy, in the process of discovery itself.
“Every time we walk in a place we discover a solution that we would not have imagined, and we find that eagerness,” he said.
Many finds focus on agriculture: a more productive strain of peppers, a makeshift seat that lets coconut harvesters rest high up in trees, a hollow spear that pierces a hole in a field and drops in a seed.
There are traditional herbal medicines for cracked heels and sore muscles, stoves and engines modified to be more efficient, and a rice cleaner designed by a 13-year-old after he watched his mother wearily picking pebbles from yet another sack of grain.
And there are the eyebrow-raisers: the washing machine mounted on the back of a scooter and powered by its engine, the bulletproof vest packed with herbs that absorb the concussive force of the bullet, the amphibious bicycle.
Gupta has received the Padma Shri, one of the Indian government’s top honors. He works with India’s president to fete the innovators. He helped found the government-sponsored National Innovation Foundation, routinely addresses top business conferences and recently linked up with one of India’s largest retailers, Future Group, to bring some of the most promising finds to market.
Consumers will be attracted to the products — from all-natural cookies to a toothbrush that adds its own toothpaste — because the profits go to a good cause and because of the subtle simplicity of the inventions, said Ashni Biyani, a top Future Group executive.
“These are ideas that are rooted within the context of India,” she said.
Gupta’s explorations have boosted inventors throughout rural India who, much like the “mad” uncles tinkering away in garages around the world, are dismissed as nuts by their neighbors until he arrives and declares them geniuses.
Take Nattubhai Vader, a farmer from the state of Gujarat, who watched women and children harvesting an especially troublesome variety of cotton and figured there had to be a better way.
Vader designed and then obsessively tweaked a massive apparatus of spinning rubber hoses and vacuums that fits over a tractor and can pick as much cotton in one hour as 10 people can in two days, he said.
He sank more than $20,000 into the harvester before his wife threatened to divorce him if he didn’t save the family’s remaining money for their kids’ education. A few years later, Gupta found Vader, gave him the funding to restart and now plans to bring in a team of engineering students to refine it.
12-mile daily hikes
At the heart of Gupta’s mission are his grueling weeklong Shodh Yatras (journeys for the search of knowledge), consisting of 12-mile daily hikes in the searing summer and frigid winter, nights spent sleeping in school courtyards, meals of watery lentils.
The idea is to scare off uncommitted “tourists” and let participants taste peasant life.
“Your eyes will open and you will see things you’ve never seen before,” Akash Badave, 23, a rural administration student, said Gupta told him. “And that was the case.”
Gupta’s most successful finds include more productive varieties of rice, wheat and other crops that have been widely adopted. He has licensed out pest control mixtures, pet medicines and a psoriasis cream and is looking for partners to market crop growth promoters, a treatment for animal diarrhea and a natural mosquito repellent.