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The Life of Field Researchers in India – Our Five Takeaways So Far…

Students of NUvention: Impact work to identify social/environmental challenges faced in communities around the world and design sustainable business models that can address these issues. Read about their experiences in this special blog series.

NUvention: Impact India team: Jon Gaw, Karina Radulescu, Olivia Ching, Katie DeLaurentis, Laila Goldberg, Mariana Mack

1. Just say “okay”

After 30 hours of travel and several logistical hiccups, we arrived in Dehli.  Our first moments in India were filled with excitement as we geared up for two weeks of field research.  We were ready to put our field guide in action as soon as we arrived in Kotri, the town that would be our home base.  However, our 2 hour car ride to Kotri from Jaipur, quickly turned into 5 hours.  Our driver made pitstops to refill tires, make unknown ‘tax payments’, chat with friends alongside the road, and have a cup of chai. With each stop, he would look at us and say, “okay?”  Unable to understand exactly was going on, we hesitantly replied, “okay….”  

Learning to just be ‘okay’ with the unexpected was our first lesson in India and one that reinforced what design research really is all about.  In class, we explored the steps in the design process – gathering observations, developing insights, brainstorming solutions and prototyping – and it seemed clear and structured.  However, things were rarely clear and structured in the field.  At times, our host would take us on day trips that initially seemed irrelevant to our research questions.  Despite our best efforts, it was impossible to avoid feelings of frustration as the pace at which we crossed items off our to-do list was slow and our plan was reworked on an hourly basis.  

However, we reminded ourselves everyday of our first lesson in India, learning to just say ‘okay’ opened us to richer cultural experiences, bright spots of creative problem solving in a resource constraint environment, and unique observations that would be key to crafting our insights.   At the end of the day, complete immersion in end users’ lives is what design thinking is all about – feeling comfortable letting go of preconceived notions and getting to the heart of how people live, their choices, their challenges, and even their success stories.  Design thinking is not only a process; it is just as much about telling a story.

2.  Manthan and Barefoot College are bright spots

Teja Ram Ji and his colleagues have accomplished extraordinary things in the face of extreme challenges, both at Barefoot College (an internationally-recognized NGO dedicated to improving the lives of rural communities by empowering women through solar power, clean water, and education initiatives; http://www.barefootcollege.org/) and Manthan Kotri (a small nonprofit that empowers rural villagers to improve their well-being while emphasizing local knowledge and traditional know-how;http://manthankotri.in/). We felt very fortunate to be in the company of innovative leaders that are truly having an impact in rural communities across India and were inspired to prototype our product with the goal of finding new ways to make life better for the people of Kotri.

By observing both the work of the organizations and the daily lives of the rural villagers we also learned a lot about what might and might not work for our product and business model. For example, we were able to learn about how NGOs motivated potential customers in rural areas to pool their community’s resources to invest in high cost solar lights produced by rural women (instead of aggressively reducing product costs or outsourcing production to lower cost/higher automation facilities).

We also learned the upsides of partnering with NGOs and CBOs, such as the ability to leverage their already-established outreach networks, personal relationships, and credibility.  We also became aware of potentially mismatched goals between their efforts and our business endeavor (such as Barefoot’s lighting goals focused on local job creation/manufacturing) and limited opportunities to scale quickly through their existing network.

3. Community relationships are important           

Through visiting retailers, headlamp users, and families in Kotri, we learned about the importance of community relationships. People heavily rely on their families and other community members for support.  We noticed this starts at a young age as we watched children work alongside their parents, and older brothers and sisters take care of their younger siblings. Because there are so many day-time chores required for subsistence, children are unable to attend school during the day. Night schools that run from 6pm-9pm allow students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend school to learn how to read and write. People are very self sufficient, but also form a strong connection within their families and neighborhoods.

These strong community relationships were evident in our field research into purchasing behavior. Word-of-mouth was the primary way that users learned about the headlamps, and the relationships between the users and the storekeepers helped mitigate the purchase risk and convince users to take a risk in purchasing the headlamp.

Surprisingly, relationships even came up as a potentially major factor with retailer adoption. When we found that there was already a substantial wholesale and distribution infrastructure, we also found that there was no “push” way for the wholesaler to get new products into those shops. Retailers tended to place orders just to replenish depleted inventories of things they already stocked. The main avenue that shopkeepers told us that they used to select new products was through talking with other shopkeepers and users in the community.

We hypothesized that for a community based culture that word of mouth would be important, but we didn’t realize how much it would impact the entire experience.

4. There are opportunities to make a real impact

The Indian government has made a huge push towards electrifying villages and hamlets across India, succeeding to the point where even the poorest home in Kotri has access to electricity.  Nonetheless, our experience highlighted how much need there still is for more lighting.

Our first night in Kotri, we jumped in the car to go to a nearby village to watch one of Manthan’s night schools.  We soon found ourselves speeding over the humps and bumps of a one lane dirt road in absolute darkness, narrowly avoiding pedestrians, bicyclists, wandering livestock, and other cars. Our driver explained, “This is ghost highway.  Very much danger.  Three men dead.” It immediately showed us how even tiny changes, such as introducing something as simple as bike retro-reflectors, could make a huge impact on people’s lives.

We had the same feeling when we started doing user research around headlamps.  In one of our most important excursions, we watched a farmer, Bhanarwal, tend to his farm at 4:30 in the morning using one of our headlamps.  We saw him move around in the darkness and assemble irrigation piping with a level of efficiency that wouldn’t have been possible without the headlamp. As he explained to us, it made his work faster and his life easier. In the time we spent observing him, everything became less academic and more real. It reminded us that if our project could scale and become as impactful to others as it had with Bhanarwal, then we would have a genuine opportunity to make a real difference.

5. Chai Time is the Best Time

Chai is a large part of Indian culture.  Chai is consumed at least 5 times a day and if you say no to chai, you’re fighting an uphill battle.  We continuously baffled our hosts by barely eating their food and sometimes not drinking the chai.  They didn’t feel disrespected, but they were certainly confused.  Anytime we said “chai nie” (no chai) our gaze was met with pure confusion, and then we’d get tea anyway. 

Nonetheless, Chai time was the perfect opportunity to reflect on our work and relish our immersion in India.  Our constant experience with Chai proved to be a reflection of Indians’ passion for their culture, and additionally helped us realize that creating a successful lighting product could be influential to these consumers in more ways than one.  Better lighting could even allow for earlier Chai to be brewed and consumed earlier in the morning!

Visit the Kellogg full-time MBA blog for stories from Indonesia and more. Check back for more blog posts from NUvention: Impact students.
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