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  • Chaitanya Prathipati

There are no Prerequisites to Being an Innovator

Updated: May 12, 2023

In a residential women's degree college in Warangal, S.Umamaheshwari, B.Stella, M.Shanvitha and Md. Afreen, a group of young girls aged 16-18 noticed a significant wastage of raw food grains in their hostel mess. All of these girls are from rural and agricultural backgrounds, are students of arts, and have very limited access to technology. They discovered that the root cause of this problem was spoilage caused by pests and insects and found that this was also a common household issue in that area. These determined young ladies decided to do some research and seek the wisdom of their elders. They inquired at homes, and with teachers and community members about existing solutions to such problems.

Elders of the community told the girls about using high-odour spices like clove, cardamom, neem leaves as natural pest and insect repellents. They highlighted that this age-old solution didn’t have any adverse impact on food grains whereas with chemical substitutes we run the risk of chemical contamination.

With that knowledge and with a vision to prevent food wastage, the team of girls decided to take the idea further with help from their faculty members. After some online research, the team understood the behaviour and nature of various spices. The students used different combinations of spices and natural raw materials to make sample pest repellents in the form of powder, tablets, and capsules, etc. The team then tested these repellents with different grains under varied conditions and time periods, documented the results and finally arrived at the best possible solution for the identified problem.

Krimihaarini - students and their innovation

Such stories of innovation and problem-solving are not one-off occurrences but the norm across all institutions that we work with. Stories like this best embody the philosophy of Inqui-lab Foundation. In collaboration with UNICEF and TSIC, the foundation piloted the Youth for Social Impact (YFSI) program in 2022. The goal of this program is to provide a platform for students who are eager to create a positive impact through their actions. As a pilot program with broad and aspirational goals, the journey was incredibly challenging. The core vision of YFSI as an initiative was to take the concept of innovation to students of different backgrounds and make innovation inclusive. As a first step of outreach, the program team reached out to different institutions and government departments overseeing higher education in the state, oriented them with the vision and onboarded them. Each participating college was nominated with one in charge faculty member and all of them were provided with a one-day virtual orientation cum training program. Involving the stakeholders was a crucial component of this program as they are the face and resources involved in on-ground execution. The faculty members spread the word about this program to their students, encouraging them to enroll and register with the program. After enrollment, students were given online training through pre-recorded videos to introduce them to the concepts of sustainability, social innovation, design thinning and social entrepreneurship. The idea of this course is to provide students with some key knowledge points and tools which they can use in their problem solving journey. The course was more of a value addition and offered to students as a certification program. The program has reached over 13,000 students across the state where all of them have completed this e-learning course on problem-solving and innovation. What is most remarkable is that 95% of these students come from various government institutions, with backgrounds in arts, science, commerce, or vocational courses. A significant share of these students had little to no understanding of the concept of innovation or had a limiting notion that innovation requires a strong engineering background.

The program was able to endorse the narrative that innovative ideas can come from anyone and there are no prerequisites to be an innovator. Opening up new pathways to these students encouraged them to identify issues in and around their communities and share their potential ideas. The emphasis was on the process rather than the outcome. In other words, the focus was on developing problem-solving skills among the students. Faculty members, who were vital stakeholders, were also directly involved in the process, where they were oriented on the skills, knowledge, and tools of problem-solving. For instance, a team from BVRIT Engineering College of Hyderabad had read a newspaper article of frequent accidents in coal mines and the risk to lives of mine workers. That triggered an idea within the team and after discussion within their group and some online research, they dug deep into the problem and with the problem solving tools offered as part of the course and their pre-existing knowledge of technology, they were able to build a smart safety jacket for miners that works to pre-empt accidents and trigger faster rescue. The team tested the safety jacket with users and iterated the idea. This shows that problem solving is more about small actions to address something of significance.

These highly enthusiastic young people hold enormous potential. From the pilot program, ten teams were chosen and provided mentorship support for four weeks to develop their ideas. Experts who are startup founders, mentors or professionals from the innovation ecosystem were onboarded and attached to each of the 10 teams based on their expertise and need of the idea. For over 4 weeks, the teams had regular brainstorming and interaction sessions which were curated with specific timeline and milestones to help students improve their innovation and come up with a proof of concept along with a business pitch.

The teams were also connected with stakeholders from governments or other relevant organisations for validation and to explore further opportunities for their projects. With the right platforms and opportunities, learners today are flexible and able to go beyond their capacities, absorb experiences, and make the most of them. Students who once had aspirational ideas now have a plan on how to approach a problem and build a feasible solution. These students are also starting to view these problems as potential business opportunities, which allows them to think about entrepreneurship, which is the need of the hour.

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