How do you make products and services accessible to millions of people with a minimum income?

Prof.dr. Peter Knorringa is a Professor of Private Sector & Development at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, part of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Additionally, he is the director of the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa (CFIA), a research partnership between Leiden, Delft and Rotterdam. From this centre, he conducts research into the potential of frugal innovations.

Frugal innovation is the development of smart design solutions that can make relatively advanced products, services or systems affordable for millions of people with a minimum income. It is about (re)designing products or systems, at substantially lower costs and with a longer life, without compromising on functionality. Examples include affordable water treatment equipment, mobile money transfer services (M-PESA) and portable medical instruments with basic diagnostic functions.

What do you do primarily, and how does it have an impact?
“My research is mostly about the various roles and impact of business on development. At the CFIA, we want to involve many different actors in projects and look for the effects of frugal services and products in the widest possible sense. We focus on SDG-related issues, including promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and stimulating innovation.

Could you give an example of research?
“One of our current projects is an extensive literature study into the actual impact or types of impact of frugal innovations and the context in which they work best. In another research project conducted together with the Dutch companies Philips and Hatenboer-Water, we do research into how companies can make products accessible to larger groups of consumers with a minimum income. Companies are important partners to us. If we want to move from theoretical research towards more applied research or even prototyping, we need companies.”

"It's interesting to find out how technologies can be applied and used, also in poorer areas, and provide employment opportunities"

The Dutch family business Hatenboer-Water, specialised in drinking water treatment, wanted to produce clean drinking water with Dutch Water Limited (DWL) for the population in the major cities in Kenya in the cheapest possible way. In the Mombasa area, the Schiedam-based company established a small drinking water facility, where 140 locals fill 10,000 jerrycans a day on busy days. This was one of the cases from a big CFIA research project, which has recently been completed. The project was aimed at developing business models which combine profitability with creating social value for the local population. Another case from the same study is about how Philips set up the first Community Life Centre (CLC) of Africa in 2014 in a former dilapidated community centre, in close collaboration with the province and local community of Kiambu County, an area near Nairobi. The Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa not only works in Leiden, Delft and Rotterdam but is also represented in India and Kenya. Research and educational opportunities are currently being explored in South Africa.

In an interview in ea. magazine (spring 2018) you said: ‘The potential among the local population is unprecedented. Many people are working on innovations that are not seen or taken seriously. If I can give these people a helping hand, I've done a good job as a scientist.’ Could you explain?
“We did a project in Lebanon about Syrian refugees and about how they start new businesses to generate work for themselves. In the project, we studied the use of ICTs by refugees in vulnerable environments and the positive effect this can have on their ability to support themselves. There are many new entrepreneurs and small businesses, partly in the informal sector. It's one of the ways to get work. When someone tries to set up a local Airbnb or Uber, it's actually also a form of frugal innovation. It's interesting to find out how technologies can be applied and used, also in poorer areas, and provide employment opportunities.
Even in the poorest areas in Africa, where we do research and where people have had very little education, good entrepreneurs emerge. These people are everywhere, but they should be given an opportunity. That's another thing we're trying to find out: where and when would be best to help people move in the right direction. What solutions can we think of to give them a leg up? We look for patterns and want to help establish policies to stimulate entrepreneurship.”

Professor