Billion Dollar Ideas (for Rural India)

I recently read a Slate article on billion dollar problems. It gave 10 problems and suggested finding a solution to any one of these problems would make you a billionaire. But the problems given are not for Silicon Valley. They’re not even for Bangalore. They’re for rural India.

For nearly all of the problems on their list, rural India is the perfect testing ground to find a solution to these global challenges. Here is the Slate list:

  1. Wireless power
  2. Rural, remote internet
  3. Cheap, scalable solar
  4. Clean coal
  5. Super low-cost international payments
  6. A pill that really makes you lose weight
  7. Cheap desalination
  8. Detecting or predicting major weather or natural events
  9. Unhackable passwords
  10. Death

PANO_20130224_140902

Let’s take a look at a few.

1. Wireless power: When designing solutions, why not have in mind the country where an estimated 300 million people are not connected to the national electrical grid?

2. Rural, remote internet: Why not start in a country where those who do have internet access are leading the world in online learning and collaboration?

3. Cheap, scalable solar: Plenty of sun in India. And the country’s existing solar power capacity is growing.

4. Clean Coal: India has the world’s fifth largest coal reserves.

5. Low-cost international payments: Who sends more money home than the Indian diaspora? Nobody. India topped the global chart of remittances in 2013, receiving $71 billion. Moreover, as India continues to move up the world’s back office chain, more and more people who know the most about international payments will be in India.

7. Cheap desalination: India has got plenty of seawater coastline. It is after all shaped like an “aircraft carrier jutting out into the Indian Ocean”, as it has been described to me.

8. Predicting major weather events: Try naming a country where more people are affected by weather. In addition to being able to predict natural disasters like typhoons with greater accuracy, how many people’s lives in India would be dramatically improved with greater ability to predict monsoon patterns?

9: Unhackable passwords: Why not India? India does have the third most internet users of any country in the world despite penetration rates of only 11.4%.

What’s most surprising to me is that rural India is never seen and discussed in these terms. Instead it’s almost distasteful in polite circles to discuss rural India in terms of a business opportunity. It’s a place that needs our help, but not serious investment or business interest.

Just from living in Delhi I know of many NGOs doing tremendous work across rural India. And the idea of social entrepreneurship has started to fill this space somewhat. But I think for the most part it’s fair to say that rural India is not anywhere near the minds of the world’s top innovators: scientists, engineers, business executives, entrepreneurs, etc.

But why not?

India’s challenges are global challenges. If you can find a solution to a challenging problem that works in rural India, not only have you affected the lives of millions of people in India, but I bet you’ve got something that can translate to the rest of the world—both poor and rich countries.

If you’re a scientist for example, why study water pollution in the Schuylkill River when you could study water pollution in the Ganges? I’m from Philly and would like to see a cleaner Schuylkill as much as anyone. But think about the scale of impact a solution found for pollution in the Ganges—how many more lives would that change? Most importantly, I bet the solution for India could be applied to the US (and the rest of the world) much more easily than a solution for the US could be applied to India.

Or to use an example from this list, if you’re designing the next generation of solar panel, why not think about one that will work for rural India? If a farmer in Rajasthan can buy it, I bet one in Arizona could too.

And I haven’t forgotten the last point on the list: Death. The article was trying to be cheeky, but India has already solved that one– reincarnation!

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