Frugal innovation or frugal engineering is the process of reducing the complexity and cost of a good and its production. Usually this refers to removing nonessential features from a durable good, such as a car or phone, in order to sell it in developing countries. Designing products for such countries may also call for an increase in durability and, when selling the products, reliance on unconventional distribution channels. When trying to sell to so-called "overlooked consumers", firms hope volume will offset razor-thin profit margins. Globalization and rising incomes in developing countries may also drive frugal innovation. Such services and products need not be of inferior quality but must be provided cheaply. While frugal innovation has been associated with good-enough performance, in some sectors such as in healthcare, frugal innovation must offer maximum performance without compromising on quality.
Several US universities have programs that develop frugal solutions. Such efforts include the Frugal Innovation Lab at Santa Clara University and a two quarter project course at Stanford University, the Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability program.
Variety of terms
Many terms are used to refer to the concept. "Frugal engineering" was coined by Carlos Ghosn, then joint chief of Renault and Nissan, who stated, "frugal engineering is achieving more with fewer resources."
In India, the words "Gandhian" or "jugaad", Hindi for a stop-gap solution, are sometimes used instead of "frugal". Other terms with allied meanings include "inclusive innovation", "catalytic innovation", "reverse innovation", and "bottom of the pyramid (BOP) innovation", etc.
Spotlighted in a 2010 article in The Economist, the roots of this concept may lie in the appropriate technology movement of the 1950s, although profits may have been first wrung from underserved consumers in the 1980s when multinational companies like Unilever began selling single-use-sized toiletries in developing countries. Frugal innovation today is not solely the domain of large, multinational corporations: small, local firms have themselves chalked up a number of homegrown solutions. While General Electric may win plaudits for its US$800 EKG machines, cheap cell phones made by local, no-name companies, and prosthetic legs fashioned from irrigation piping, are also examples of frugal innovation.
The concept has gained popularity in the South Asian region, particularly in India. The US Department of Commerce has singled out this nation for its innovative achievements, saying in 2012, "there are many Indian firms that have learned to conduct R&D in highly resource-constrained environments and who have found ways to use locally appropriate technology..."
Frugal innovation is not limited to durable goods such as the GE US$800 EKG machine, Reliance Jio's JioPhone or the US$100 One Laptop Per Child but also includes services such as 1-cent-per-minute phone calls, mobile banking, off-grid electricity, and microfinance.
- ChotuKool fridge
A tiny refrigerator sold by Indian company Godrej, the ChotuKool may have more in common with computer cooling systems than other refrigerators; it eschews the traditional compressor for a computer fan. (It may exploit the thermoelectric effect.)
Designed to cost no more than a dollar, the Foldscope is a tough origami microscope assembled from a sheet of paper and a lens. The Stanford engineer responsible more recently developed a string-and-cardboard contraption that can function similarly to $1,000 centrifuges.
- Jaipur foot
- Mobile banking
Mobile banking solutions in Africa, like Safaricom's M-Pesa, allow people access to basic banking services from their mobile phones. Money transfers done through mobiles are also much cheaper than using a traditional method. While basic banking can be done on a mobile alone, deposits and withdrawals of cash necessitate a trip to a local agent.
- Nokia 1100
Designed for developing countries, the Nokia 1100 was basic, durable, and–besides a flashlight–had few features other than voice and text. Selling more than 200 million units only four years after its 2003 introduction made it one of the best selling phones of all time.
- Sorghum beer
In Africa, several companies including SABMiller and Diageo, following in the footsteps of local home brewers, have made beer more affordable by using sorghum or cassava in place of malting barley and reducing packaging costs by using kegs instead of bottles.
- Solar light bulb
In some Philippine slums, solar skylights made from one-liter soda bottles filled with water and bleach can provide light equivalent to that produced by a 55 watt bulb and may reduce electricity bills by US$10 per month.
- Tata Nano
A paper-based device designed to support biochemistry and biotechnology applications. The Fold-Illuminator incorporates a USB powered heating element to incubate chemical reactions. It also incorporates LED lights and an acrylic filter to support fluorescence visualization. The device is modular such that only the fluorescent illuminator can be utilized for a cost of ~US$5, with an additional ~US$4 heating element add-on. This low-cost device provides the utility equivalent to laboratory equipment that cost >$10,000, with the added benefits of portability. Portions of the device can be recycled or composted while the electronic components can be reused.
In the media
In 2015, Navi Radjou and Jaideep Prabhu coauthored the book Frugal Innovation: How to Do More With Less, published worldwide by The Economist. The book explains the principles, perspectives and techniques behind frugal innovation, aiming to help managers to profit from the great changes ahead.
- Fontanella-Khan, James (May 19, 2011). "Supply chain: 'Frugal engineering' heads push into manufacturing". Financial Times. The Financial Times Ltd. Retrieved June 21, 2012.
- Bellman, Eric (Oct 20, 2009). "Indian Firms Shift Focus to the Poor". The Wall Street Journal. pp. A.1.
- Bhatti,Y. Khilji, S. & Basu, R. 2013. Frugal Innovation. In Globalization, Change and Learning in South Asia. Edited by Khilji, Shaista & Rowley, Chris. UK: Chandos Publishing. 
- Shibulal, SD (May 13, 2011). "Emerging economies: outside-in and inside-out". livemint.com. HT Media. Retrieved June 24, 2012.
- Bhatti, Yasser (March 19, 2012). "About Frugal Innovation Research". Frugal Innovation Portal. Said Business School, University of Oxford. Retrieved Nov 19, 2012.
- Bhatti, Y., Basu, R. R., Barron, D., & Ventresca, M. J. (2018). Frugal Innovation: Models, Means, Methods. Cambridge University Press.
- Crabtree, James. "More with less." FT.com. May 19, 2012.
- For Santa Clara University's lab, see "About Frugal Innovation". Santa Clara University. Retrieved June 20, 2012. For Stanford University's course, see "Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford: Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability". Stanford University Institute of Design. Stanford University. 2010. Archived from the original on July 13, 2012. Retrieved June 20, 2012.
- Nirmalya Kumar, Phanish Puranam (2011). India Inside. Harvard Business Press. p. 114. ISBN 9781422142400.
- Platt, John (February 2010). "Introducing Gandhian Engineering". The Institute. IEEE. Retrieved June 20, 2012.
- "Asian innovation". The Economist. The Economist Newspaper Limited. Mar 24, 2012. Retrieved June 20, 2012.
- Bhatti, Yasser Ahmad and Ventresca, Marc. 2012. The Emerging Market for Frugal Innovation: Fad, Fashion, or Fit? (January 15, 2012) Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2005983
- Kelland, Kate (Jun 20, 2012). "Analysis: Healthcare sees emerging future in frugal innovation". reuters.com. Thompson Reuters. Archived from the original on June 21, 2012. Retrieved June 20, 2012.
- "First break all the rules: The charms of frugal innovation". The Economist. The Economist Newspaper Ltd. Apr 15, 2010. Retrieved July 6, 2012.
- Woodward, David. "Plain and simple". Director Magazine. Director Publications. Archived from the original on February 3, 2014. Retrieved July 6, 2012.
- Magnier, Mark (February 8, 2012). "India group's prosthetic device a boon for thousands of amputees". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 24, 2012.
- Tiwari, Rajnish and Herstatt, Cornelius (2012): "Assessing India's lead market potential for cost-effective innovations", Journal of Indian Business Research, Vol. 4 Iss: 2, pp.97 - 115
- "U.S. Commerce Secretary John Bryson Visits Jaipur Foot". US Department of Commerce. March 28, 2012. Retrieved June 24, 2012.
- Roberts, Sandy (March 16, 2014). "Origami Microscope for Just 50 Cents". makezine.com. Maker Media, Inc. Retrieved 25 May 2014.
- Yi, Hannah (March 19, 2017). "A 20-cent lifesaving tool that's made with only paper, string, and PVC pipe". Quartz. Atlantic Media. Retrieved 30 March 2017.
- Lahiri, Tripti (June 6, 2012). "Q&A: Why the West Needs 'Jugaad' Creativity". WSJ's Indiarealtime blog. Dow Jones & Company Inc. Retrieved June 23, 2012.
- "The power of mobile money". The Economist. The Economist Newspaper Limited. Sep 24, 2009. Retrieved June 23, 2012.
- For transferring money with only a mobile, see "Send (Transfer) Money". Safaricom. Retrieved June 23, 2012.
- For paying bills with only a mobile, see "Pay Bill". Safaricom. Retrieved June 23, 2012.
- For necessity of visiting an agent when depositing money, see "Deposit Cash to Your Account". Safaricom. Retrieved June 23, 2012.
- For necessity of visiting an agent when withdrawing money, see "Withdraw Cash". Safaricom. Retrieved June 23, 2012.
- Virki, Tarmo (May 3, 2007). "Nokia's cheap phone tops electronics chart". reuters.com. Thompson Reuters. Retrieved June 20, 2012.
- Herrman, John (Oct 19, 2010). "The Most Popular Phone in the World". gizmodo.com. Gawker Media. Retrieved June 23, 2012.
- "Beer in Africa: From lumps to lager; The race to slake a continent's thirst". The Economist. Mar 24, 2012. Retrieved August 12, 2012.
- "SABMiller strives to make beer affordable in Africa". reuters.com. Thompson Reuters. Mar 13, 2012. Archived from the original on April 20, 2012. Retrieved August 12, 2012.
- Orendain, Simone (December 28, 2011). "In Philippine Slums, Capturing Light In A Bottle". NPR. Retrieved June 20, 2012.
- Meredith, Robyn (Apr 19, 2007). "The Next People Car". Forbes. Yahoo! - ABC News Network. Retrieved June 6, 2012.
- Logan R. Burrington, Emran Baryal, Katherine Hui, Emmett Lambert, Sarah T. Harding, Javin P. Oza (June 21, 2021). "The Fold-Illuminator: A low-cost, portable, and disposable incubator-illuminator device". Synthetic and Systems Biotechnology. 6 (2): 95–101. doi:10.1016/j.synbio.2021.04.003. PMC 8099501. PMID 33997359.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- "Navi Radjou: Creative problem solving in the face of extreme limits". TED.com. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
- Karun, Shenoy (22 June 2020). "Ignitho Technologies banks on frugal innovation for disruption". timesofindia.indiatimes.com.
- Kumar, Krishna (28 November 2016). "Ignitho Technologies to expand activities in frugal innovation space". economictimes.indiatimes.com.
- "US-based product engineering firm Ignitho Technologies offers enterprises its platform for digital business". www.thehindubusinessline.com. 22 June 2020.