Skip to main content

The Honey Bee Network: Voices from Grassroots Innovators

An assumption behind most approaches to the alleviation of poverty is that poor people are too poor to be able to think and plan on their own. The result is that most interventions are designed by others: civil servants, technocrats and NGOs. Despite much discussion of the wisdom of participation by the poor, they have seldom been given the opportunity to articulate their own agenda and visions and to determine the terms on which outsiders could participate. Even where people have solved problems through their own ingenuity there is seldom an institutional window available to recognize, respect and reward their creativity and innovation.

The problem is particularly acute in high risk environments such as droutht-proe areas, flood-prone regions, hill areas and forest regions, where both market forces and public sector institutions are weak. These are regions with extensive common resources; the resource of knowledge is particularly valuable. In such high risk situations, poor people have to be very inventive to survive. The difficulties they experience are reflected inn high rates of unemployment, illiteracy, female headed households and other indicators of socio-economic stress. Despite such constraining environment, there are sings of hope in the knowledge and experience of innovative people. And these signs indicate tremendous potential that exists for turning around the economy and ecological balance in these regions by building upon what people already know and their capacity to learn from one another.

About a decade ago, questions, of these kinds arose in our minds and led to the Honey Bee Network, which now reaches about 75 countries but is still primarily based in India, particularly Gujarat. The basic thrust of our work is to build upon what people know and do well. This approach has positive consequences even for professionals such as ourselves, because it generates humility; many solutions to the problems experienced by farmers and others have been generated without any contributions from outsiders. Also, it strengthens our respect for the experimental and inventive ethic of poor people, who can achieve so much with so little. We are led to ask, "What would be their potential in solving problems if the existing constraints could be relaxed?" The Honey Bee Network is an attempt to help remove some of those constraints, by facilitating communication among creative farmers, artisans, pastoralists and other grassroots innovators.

"Honey Bee" is a metaphor for certain ethical and professorial values. A honey bee does two things which development professionals usually do not do: it collects pollen from the flowers in a way that does not cause them to complain; and it connects flower to flower through pollination. When we collect knowledge from farmers or indigenous people, they certainly have a right to complain. When we communicate this knowledge only in English, French or another global language, we do not connect the sources of that knowledge with one another. Through the Honey Bee Network, both biases are corrected. Knowledge collected from farmers and other rural innovators is credited to them, and any benefit arising from the knowledge is shared with them. Similarly, we insist that this knowledge be shared in vernacular languages so that people-to-people communication can take place.

The Honey Bee Network pools the solutions developed by people across the world in different sectors; it links people and ideas. It also pools and links both formal and informal science and scientists. It is obvious that people cannot find solutions for all problems, nor are the solutions they find always optimal. Much scope remains for improved knowledge and effectiveness. But it is definite that a strategy of development, which does not build upon what people know and do well, cannot be ethically sound and professionally accountable or efficient. Alternatives to development: from grassroots to global

SRISTI (Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions) is an international NGO established to provide organizational support to the Honey Bee Network. SRISTI has developed a database on local innovations, emphasizing methods and approaches can be used around the world without much difficulty. Today, we have on of the largest databases in the world on farmers' innovations with names and addresses of the innovators/communicators of ideas, whether these are drawn from traditional knowledge systems or come from contemporary creativity on the part of individuals and collectivities. These innovations have been collected from different parts of the world but mostly from India, and within India from Gujarat. We neither use nor approve of any of the Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA) or Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) methods. These methods, represent short cuts to exploitative relationships between people. We believe that learning has to be mutual, patient and in categories that people use for defining their world view.

What we have done is very simple. We ask university students during their summer vacations to serve as innovation scouts, looking for "odd balls" or eccentric people in the villages and learning from them. These are the farmers and others who experiment and do things differently, such as trying to control aphids in cotton by spraying them with lemon juice, an experiment done by Samantbhai Dharamsinhbhai Dholakia, in Surendranagar, Gujarat. An emerging theme of SRISTI and Honey Bee is that cooperation and competition go together. Thus, SRISTI has been involved in organizing competitions - among grass roots functionaries in Gujarat and Rajasthan, and among students of various schools - to scout innovations. Prizes are awarded for the number and creativity of innovations found. The competition for scouting innovation also helps in reorienting the thinking of the grassroots functionaries. Instead of focusing on the "lab-to-land" approach to applied science, they begin to see the importance of "land-to-lab-to-land." Further, the developmental alternatives are explored in terms of what people have and not what they do not have. As a consequence, the process generates humility and respect for indigenous and local innovators.

More than 2000 villages have been surveyed with the help of undergraduate students during summer vacation. Other nodes of the network are active in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat in India; and in Bhutan and Colombia. We have also collaborated with Gujarat Agricultural University; Jai Research Foundation; LM College of Pharmacy; Indian Institute of Science Bangalore; MS University, Baroda; and other institutions in order to add value to peoples' knowledge systems. Our goal is to develop such products which can be either commercialized or disseminated directly among the farmers to reduce the costs and move towards non-chemical sustainable agriculture and resource use. We realize that this transition is not going to be easy, given the massive influence that chemical pesticide and other input industries have on the public administrators, policy makers and the scientific establishment. Yet, we are confident that through the coalition among public spirited scientists, grassroots innovators and conscientious entrepreneurs, value added protects can not only be developed and commercialized. The part of the profits so generated will need to be shared with the innovators, and with the research institutions and networks, so that this coalition can evolve and survive through its internal dynamics. The fate of coalition will not depend upon the benevolence or bureaucracy or aid agencies. The science and technology establishment in the country has not even started thinking in these lines.

What kind of innovations are these? These are technological, socio-cultural, institutional and educational innovations that contribute to the conservation of local resources and generation of additional income, or reduction or prevention of possible losses. Farmers have developed unique solutions for controlling pests or diseases in crops and livestock, and for conserving soil and water. They have developed novel farm implements and methods for farm operations. They are involved in methods to store grains, conserve land races and local breeds of livestock, and conserve aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity.

The innovations often remain localized, sometimes even unknown, to other farmers to the same village. Through the Honey Bee Network SRISTI they can become more widely known and subject to experimentation and to possible diffusion on the part of farmers in other places as well as technicians and scientists.

Amritbhai Agrawat is an artisan who makes farm implements in village Pikhor of district Junagadh, Gujarat. He developed several innovative farm implements, including a wheat sowing box. In most sowing tools the lowest portion through which the seeds fall on the ground is in the shape of a pipe. The metering devices are located in the seed box. In the dry regions with strong winds, lodging of the plants can be a problem in irrigated fields, and plants seeded in the traditional way tend to lodge. Amrtibhai devised a box which spreads the seeds in a strip. While the seeds rate remains constant, the distance between the seeds is increased so that they don't fall one over another. With better root growth the crop does not lodge, and there is more efficient nutrient uptake. In addition, the crop is able to better withstand water stress.

Amrtibhai had an idea about solving another problem that has remained unsolved for centuries. In most tropical lands, farmers carry the farmyard manure to the field in a cart. After pouring the manure out at one point in the field, farmers scatter the manure in the filed laboriously, such as carrying basketfuls on the heads of farm workers. He thought that if a modification could be make in the design of the bullock cart, a farmer could tilt the cart and distribute the manure slowly and single-handedly over the entire field. He discussed the idea with SRISTI, articulating the possible risks and benefits.

This was an idea worthy of support by venture capital, but, as it well known, there is no Venture Capital Fund for small innovation such as this SRISTI realized the gap an decided to experiment in venture capital on a small scale. A proposal was prepared and reviews with two acknowledged peers. The cart was developed through a small risk-taking venture between Amrutbhai and SRISTI. This project was possible because of support from a grant from the International Development Research Center (IDRC). Amruthbai's idea helped us realize the critical importance of venture capital an the problem of its unavailability for projects like this. A large number of other ideas and inventions remain undeveloped or inadequately developed for want of venture capital.

In the Honey Bee database that has accumulated through the work of the innovators and the student scouts, we have a large number of examples of plant protection problems. Farmers have found news uses of existing plant biodiversity to control pest and disease problems. For instance, "naffatia"(Ipomeae fistulosa), is a plant often used for fencing purposes. In some places, the branches have been dried and used for making baskets for storing seeds or grains. Otherwise there are few uses of naffatia. It is toxic to animals.

In 1973, when there was a steep hike in the price of oil, many farmers started looking for substitutes for chemical pesticides, and new inventions occurred. Later, when many pests became resistant to chemical pesticides, the farmers' search for alternatives intensified. In one such area where farmers were tired of using chemical pesticides, a school teacher named Gamel Singh thought of using the extract of naffatia as a herbal pesticide. There are many tales of how the idea of using this plant for controlling pests originated. In one view, farm workers were taking tea. For some reason, one of the farm workers had to go out for a short while. His wife covered his tea with the leaf of naffatia. When the worker came back and took the tea, he became very ill and barely survived. An idea was born that if the tea became toxic by merely covering the cup with a naffatia leaf, then the plant might be used as a herbal pesticide. Subsequently, we found through research that it is quite effective not only against some of the plant pests, but also against certain microbial and fungal cultures.

In another case, Bhogilal Rajawadia, a tribal person in Bharuch district, devised a unique method of pest control. What he did was to take help of 8-10 farmers or laborers who stood in a line. They took the leaves of a "creeper" plant (Combretum ovalifolium) and put these in a shoulder bag. After catching "blister beetles" from the air and crushing them with the levels already collected, the farmers moved in a windward direction. The combined effect of insect and leaf extract seemed to produce some signals which repelled other insects. Such a heuristic of combining plant and insect extract doesn't exist in modern technology.

A large number of other plant extracts (other than neem tree) have been developed by farmers and could help in making crop cultivation in marginal regions more profitable. Building upon this experience is difficult. Most countries do not have a fast track approach for developing or registering herbal pesticides. If there can be a special fund for supporting formal research on farmers' innovations in public or private sector labs, a whole range of sustainable technologies which are cost effective could be developed.

Indigenous innovations are particularly widespread in the livestock sector, perhaps because people have had to evolve their own coping strategies because the liverstock health care system is much less developed than the health care system for humans.

For example, a common problem is yoke gall in young bullocks being trained to carry the yoke on their shoulders. Apart from the pain it causes to the bullock, there is a considerable economic loss because of lost power. Rahmatbhai found a local plant called "Zipta" (Cordia spp.) whose extract mixed with saliva of bullocks seems to provide relief from yoke gall within a week or ten days.

Some of these innovators combine the sacred with the secular. Rehmatbhai is a Muslim healer of livestock who is respected so much by the Hindu pastoralists and the livestock keeper in the dry region of Gujarat that they call him "Goval Bapa," the name given to Lord Krishna, the Hindu God known for taking care of cattle.

This knowledge base has tremendous opportunity for generating cross-cultural and regional linkages. For instance, pastroalists in Mongolia used a home-made lick out of onion leaves with wheat germ, sodium bicarbonate and dried milk for their animals. It was found that this lick was very rich in selenium. The deficiency this element could cause the young calves to die prematurely, apart from causing other problems. While discussing the idea of the Honey Bee Network with the indigenous Akwasasne people in Canada, it was discovered that they were facing a problem in the livestock which was traced to the deficiency of selenium and might benefit from the Mongolian idea. This is the potential of the Honey Bee Network: A practice in Mongolia, documented by a professor it Scotland, published in Honey Bee, becomes available to indigenous peoples in Canada. Rewarding Creativity: Incentives

Considerable attention has been given to the problem of identifying and safeguarding the intellectual property rights of individuals, families and communities that are the source of much new knowledge. The usurpation of local knowledge does not take place only through multinational corporations or foreign companies. The national ayurvedic companies in India exploited the tribal people as much as multinational pharmaceutical companies have exploited tribal peoples throughout the world. There is a clear need to correct the unfair and unjust system of extracting local knowledge from people for corporate benefit.

In January 1995, we organized a workshop in Ahmedabad on sustainable pest management which involved 13 farmer innovators and two entrepreneurs. It was an outcome of the doctoral research of Mr. Astad Pastakia. At this workshop the innovators also discussed difficulties that they experienced and anticipated in getting new products registered and patented. At present, any innovation once published comes into the public domain and becomes noon-patentable unless one applies within a year. People-to-people networking can take more time than that and promotes open communication rather than secrecy; it requires dissemination of ideas in different languages of the world to promote learning and experimentation.

To balance the goals of secrecy for Intellectual Property Right protection and dissemination for people-to-people networking is a challenge that may be resolved by setting up an international registry of innovations. This registry, like the ISBN number used for books, should provide a cheap and quick way of giving limited protection for each innovation. Later, with the help of an international fund for promotion of sustainable technologies and value addition in local innovations, more detailed patent applications can be filed on behalf of the individuals as well as communities. It is up to the communities or individual innovators to decide whether they would like any gains from the commercialization of those innovations to be appropriated for their collective or individual benefit.

The concept of knowledge centres and networks, elaborated by me and being promoted by SRISTI and the International Fund for Agri Development in Rome, could be one vehicle through which these goals could be pursued and operationalized as given below: a. to create a network of individuals, institutions and social movements engaged in generating solutions to the problem of hunger and poverty; b. to operationalize various articles of the International Convention to Combat Desertification in order to network existing information channels so as to make innovative solutions accessible to people in a manner that they can use these and share feedback or feed forward; c. to generate reciprocity among providers and receivers of information, so that incentives (for problem solves to network with a knowledge centre) continue to grow; d. to develop and operationalize an international fund for recognizing, respecting and respecting and rewarding creativity and innovation at grassroots level, and ensuring sustainable use of natural resources, protection of basic human rights, gender equality, and ethical discourse and conduct of business; e. to network with existing efforts all over the globe with similar goals such as International Foundations for Science, Sweden (IFS); Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI); Honey Bee Network for indigenous innovations; etc.; f. to mobilize volunteers from the private and public sectors, the third sector and even religious organizations to generated and support local trust funds to be managed by communities trying to augment innovative solutions developed by them or others; g. to set up a venture capital fund for small innovations which my a support innovators directly or may underwrite risk or provide bank guarantees for similar funds to be set up in different parts of the world for augmenting people's capacities to solve their own problems; b. to fulfill an ethical obligation towards poor people by ensuring (I) all the information concerning any program/project is made available in local language to the people's representatives at local level before designing and implementing the same; (ii) sharing of information during the course of project implementation and respecting the right of people to information; and (iii) protecting the intellectual property and cultural heritage rights of local communities. Conclusion

For most of the marginal communities living in fragile environments, standardized solutions as developed for "green revolution" regions will not work. The organizational arrangements which generate incentives for scientists to work with the people to develop technologies with limited potentials for diffusion generally do not exist. Much restructuring is required in the international and national research organizations if technology development and diffusion process is to be relevant and meaningful for marginal environments and disadvantaged communities.

Neither market nor existing national or international channels can be relied upon to connect the knowledge nodes around the world in ways that empower local communities and individuals to generate local solutions for applications in different parts of the world. The Honey Bee Network with its limited resources and experiences have demonstrated that such a transformation is indeed feasible. The SRISTI model of empowerment and sustainable technology development works toward the goal of improving income and livelihoods of knowledge-rich but economically poor communities and individuals through documentation, value addition, experimentation and people-to-people communication about local innovations. Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.