Lockdown played havoc with the business model of the vegetable vendor outside Rama Bijapurkar’s Mumbai apartment. Local rules stopped him stationing his cart outdoors for passing trade and exposed his reliance on the city’s wholesale markets.
But like so many in India’s complex food supply network, he switched to online, offering to fill regular clients’ orders via WhatsApp and tapping into a direct supply from farms, which had also adapted swiftly to the crisis.
“Now he has minimal inventory and no loss of sales. And he’s got us well trained” to order from him, says loyal customer Bijapurkar, a consultant and director of, among others, Nestlé India and ICICI Bank.
Amid the disruption, distress and death wrought by India’s second coronavirus wave, she sees this as one small, optimistic example of the saying “when India wants, India can”.
But the lessons from how agile Indian businesses navigated the challenge of the pandemic have a far wider application. “Jugaad” innovations, based on the Hindi word for good-enough, jury-rigged solutions to tricky challenges, have cropped up everywhere. In the more staid economies of the US and Europe, it is easy to think the biggest change of the past 18 months will be more flexible white-collar work. A better and broader legacy would be more flexible thinking.
Sandeep Murthy, partner at the Mumbai-based venture capital firm Lightbox, adds another maxim that used to apply to his home country: “India operates on India Standard Time: we will get there, it will happen, it will just happen very slowly.”
The pandemic has accelerated India time, though, jolting consumers into the 21st century. Murthy’s parents, for instance, are suddenly comfortable buying online what they would previously have sought out in the market. This new behaviour is giving a fillip to companies such as Dunzo, part of the Lightbox portfolio. It’s a “quick commerce” delivery company that will “get anything to you”, from groceries to gifts, and is fulfilling 2m orders a month, according to Murthy.
Varun Dubey, head of marketing at Bangalore-based Ola Cabs, describes the Indian approach to the second coronavirus wave as “continuous monitoring”. Rather than applying a blanket solution to problems, companies react “in real time” to the latest challenge, and calibrate their reaction according to the local context. Ola partnered with giving platform GiveIndia to offer a free service via its car-booking app for ordering and delivering oxygen concentrators during the crisis. One Indian consortium, the M-19 Collective, is re-engineering an open-source US design for an oxygen generator that can be built and maintained by communities using locally sourced parts.
Meanwhile, in the west, where organisations used to count on everything working most of the time, people have uncovered hidden reserves of agility and lateral thinking, of the sort their Indian counterparts have to tap every day.
Like the Mumbai vegetable vendor, the Italian restaurant at the end of my street in the London commuter belt also pivoted to a new model, sourcing and selling hard-to-find groceries from a makeshift outdoor stall at the height of the first lockdown, as well as its staples of takeaway pizza and pasta. Pop-up shops, new home delivery services and click-and-collect options, for everything from beer kegs to books, have proliferated.
More importantly, life-saving medical innovations were cobbled together everywhere, including ad hoc personal protective equipment and 3D-printed masks and ventilator parts.
The practice of designing cheap, simple tools in emerging markets, such as portable electrocardiograms, used to be called, rather patronisingly, “reverse innovation”. But ingenuity flows both ways now, driven by cross-border communication of the ways in which existing ideas and tools have been reused, repurposed and recombined.
In reality, the gap was never as great as it seemed to the mighty US- and Europe-based multinationals that boasted about the cleverness of their people in India and China.
Judge Business School’s Jaideep Prabhu, who has helped popularise frugal innovation in a series of articles and books, also noticed the upsurge in Covid-inspired jugaad solutions globally over the past year. But he points out that doctors and medical staff are frequently called on to improvise solutions under pressure, whether in a global pandemic or not. Farmers, too, often have to rejig scarce existing resources on the hoof. “It’s a kind of mindset that can be applied to a whole range of contexts,” he says. “In times of crisis, people who have been practising those muscles suddenly come into their own.”
What’s clear is that it would be a tragedy to let those muscles atrophy even if the immediate need to use them fades.