Educational Initiatives of SRF Foundation: Implications for Frugal Innovation


Dr. Rupamanjari Sinha Ray and Dr. Bibhuti Ranjan Bhattacharjya

In India, imparting quality education at the bottom of the pyramid has been  a major concern due to several factors including, lack of infrastructure and trained manpower, higher pupil-teacher ratio, etc. In addition to the existing challenges, the Covid -19 pandemic has had a debilitating  impact on teaching-learning activities in the country.

Like in other parts of the  world, online  education is promoted across  the country to avoid physical interaction. But, unlike the developed world, Indian households are not equipped with adequate digital tools to facilitate online teaching.  It has posed new challenges to the government, policymakers, educationists and other stakeholders. In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, across the world, both developed and developing countries are bound to adopt innovative solutions to address this present situation.  In the context of hurdles faced by the education sector, “mobile digital bus”, a voluntary program led by SRF Foundation- a not-for-profit organization can be seen as an alternative to the conventional education system. It bridges the vacuum created in the absence of physical classes in a more equitable manner as compared to online distant education. 

SRF foundation’s Mobile Digital Bus

SRF foundation has been relentlessly working on the academic and physical transformation of the rural education system since the 1990s. At present, the organization is working in the education sector in 12 states of India. They have four major program areas: imparting education, rural vocational skill, future skill, and natural resource management. One significant intervention in the education sector by the SRF foundation is the “mobile digital bus”.

Science laboratories in a majority of the rural Indian schools are in dilapidated conditions due to a lack of resource/infrastructure. Hence, buses were customized for  creating a mobile science laboratory. Each bus would cater to a number of government schools in the same neighbourhood for Science laboratory classes. The idea of this mobile lab is cost-effective innovation to provide quality education in science in a number of schools with the help of common infrastructure services instead of providing laboratory resources in each school.

Imparting science education at the doorstep is one objective, other objectives include: promoting digital literacy, improving the quality of the teaching-learning process in remote villages, etc. Adoption of the innovation is expected to bridge the rural-urban gap, as it enabled computer e-literacy and IT-enabled education in remote villages. Regular visits of the bus in remote villages brings digital tools into the door-step of the marginalized people that promote the villagers to participate in government’s e-governance platforms which otherwise is inaccessible for villagers due to inadequacy of infrastructure/resources.  The computer literacy education program integrated into the “mobile digital bus” promotes entrepreneurship and skill development of the rural youths.  To deliver education at the doorstep of rural children, SRF collaborated with Indigo’s “IT-enabled HP WoW bus project”. As part of this project,  a bus is converted into a teaching and learning platform. The bus is equipped with audio-visuals and interactive e-learning modules. The conventional bus which is used for transportation is redesigned to equip it with digital tools, like computers, learning software, internet dongles, interactive panel for video conferencing and digital learning, etc. It is also equipped with a big LCD screen that allows the organisers to live telecast their program in an open space where a group of children/ people can attend classes while maintaining necessary social distancing. One of the major challenges in remote places is the unavailability of electricity. To ease the problem, the bus is equipped with a solar power generation system. Although the program was rolled out before the pandemic, it has more relevance in the post-pandemic context as it eases the problem raised by the absence of physical classes in school.

Bus as classroom
Process of Innovation: Stakeholder Engagement and Partnerships

For a successful deliverable of frugal innovation, one of the necessary conditions is a robust stakeholder engagement. The partnership model emerging in SRF Foundation is two-fold:

  • Organizational level: SRF has a strong network of collaboration with the industries like IBM, Capgemini, HP, Snider, Tetra pack, America Indica Foundation, Indigo airlines, Amway, Brillio technologies, Times of India (future skills- training on AI) etc. These organizations provide support through their CSR funds and themes and the innovation team of SRF Foundation design and execute these innovations.  For instance, the digital bus is innovated by HP, whereas SRF Foundation’s innovative programs like STEM lab, coding for girls, etc. are integrated with the digital bus project.
  • Grassroot stakeholders- The R&D team of SRF foundation collect feedback/suggestion from teachers, parents, local government officials. Their feedback helps the organization to customize innovation as per the need and aspirations of the marginalized people at the bottom of the pyramid (BoP).

The approach to innovation has elements of a top-down strategy of corporations as well as a grounded approach by SRF foundation where ideas originate from the field through discussions with the ground level stakeholders. According to the Director, SRF Foundation, in a majority of the innovation cases, “situation made us think. Innovation is an organic process. Implementers have a lot of idea through community interaction”. Thus innovation factors in SRF’s initiatives are feedback received from the community, opportunity (external factors) and  funding. 

Process of innovation in SRF Foundation
Is the Mobile Digital Bus an expression of Frugal Innovation?

A major question that arises is how far these innovations can be called frugal innovations. Frugal Innovation literature has emphasized on two opposite dimensions of its contribution in Management (Prahlad, 2012) and Development Economics (Bhaduri, 2016). Though there is an overlap of the understanding of frugal innovation in these two literature streams in terms of their focus on BoP, they are different in terms of their approaches.

Frugal Innovation from the perspective of Management literature has been addressing business opportunities among the marginalized society by producing and selling  products at a lower costs through frugal innovation (Prahlad, 2012). This approach has been a more of a top-down approach (Leliveld and Knorringa, 2017). On the other hand, frugal innovation from the Development Economics perspective has incorporated both top-down and  at the bottom of the pyramid approaches. Frugal innovation for livelihood enhancement are delivered by people at the BoP themselves as an outcome of resource constraints (Leliveld and Knorringa, 2017). 

The prime objective of the SRF foundation through such innovations have  been to deliver quality education for underprivileged children in remote government schools. SRF Foundation essentially has a wider perspective of Development as its goals are aligned with two SDG goals – Quality Education and No Poverty. A complex system of frugal innovation process appears as follows:

  • Ideas by the Corporate sector of how they want to spend their CSR funds
  • Innovations by SRF based on the ideas of Corporate Sector
  • Some of the innovative ideas that come up from the ground level workers such as teachers and staff, who are engaged with community and constantly brainstorming on the solutions to deliver needs of quality education to the students

Thus this becomes a three-pronged strategy of Frugal Innovation for quality deliverables in education.

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