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Simplicity drives frugal innovation

Developed in collaboration with users, frugal innovation is becoming better known, leading to more efficient and cost-effective products

A not-to-scale illustration of the butiá de-pulping machine

Alexandre Affonso / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

It had been a frustrating morning. A group of engineers from the University of Southern Santa Catarina (UNISUL) had traveled to Laguna, a town in southern Brazil, to install a new de-pulping machine for butiá, a type of palm fruit commonly used in the region to make sweets, juices, and jams. But despite multiple attempts, the machine had failed to function properly. In the afternoon, Everaldo Rodrigues, a representative from the local fruit-picking community, who had commissioned the machine, arrived at the facility. He quickly spotted the problem: the engineers were using unripe butiá fruit, which was not ready to be de-pulped. Once they switched to using ripe fruit, provided by Rodrigues, the machine worked flawlessly.

The de-pulping machine had been developed with funding from the UK government and the Santa Catarina State Research and Innovation Foundation (FAPESC). It was made primarily from recycled parts: a stainless steel tube from a junkyard fitted with screens of different mesh sizes. In July 2022, after three years of development, the UNISUL team successfully completed testing and delivered the machine—along with a user and maintenance manual—to a community association in Imbituba, a coastal town in Santa Catarina.

“Our de-pulping machine has a proven efficiency of 68%, higher than the 40% efficiency of the machine they were using previously,” says Ana Regina de Aguiar Dutra, who led the UNISUL engineering team. “And it also works with seriguela and acerola, which are similar in size and texture.”

The de-pulper is a classic example of “frugal innovation,” a term used to describe simple, efficient, and low-cost solutions designed for the needs of users such as small farmers or low-income consumers. Also referred to as constraint-based or reverse innovation, the term was first coined in an April 2010 article in The Economist about stripped-down versions of medical equipment or cars developed in India for low-income consumers.

“We learned about the concept in 2018 during a presentation at a conference at UNISUL by a researcher affiliated with Alexander Brem, an expert in the field at the University of Stuttgart, Germany, whom we would later start a collaboration with,” says Dutra. “In fact, we had already been doing frugal innovation without realizing it.”

In 2017, the UNISUL team had developed an improved cart for waste collectors. To inform their design, they interviewed 20 waste collectors on a beach in Palhoça. “They all complained that the cart they were using was heavy and unwieldy,” Dutra recalls. A prototype was built at a metalworking shop near the university, and the final cart design was completed the following year. Compared to previous models, it had a higher payload, was 60% cheaper, and was lightweight and easily maneuverable, as described in a 2020 paper in the Journal of Cleaner Production. The university team is currently working on a prototype to separate fibers and threads from the pseudostems of banana plants, which can be used in the production of clothes and bags.

Frugal innovation projects developed at UNISUL, typically as part of master’s or doctoral degree programs, “are not yet innovative enough to warrant a patent,” explains chemical engineer Anelise Leal Vieira Cubas, a member of the research group. The goal is not to develop a mass-produced product, but for each farmer association to develop their own, custom-built equipment.

Alexandre Affonso

Sometimes, however, a new design may contain sufficient innovation to warrant a patent application. In a study published in September 2021 in Revista Eletrônica de Administração, Bruna Hernandes Scarabelli, at Universidade Centro Universitário de Maringá (UniCesumar), and two colleagues at the University of West Santa Catarina (UNOESC), interviewed four manufacturers of ventilator models for patients with Covid-19. Three of them had submitted patent applications to the National Institute of Industrial Property (INPI) and planned to continue selling their newly developed products even after the pandemic.

The ventilators developed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic fall within the concept of frugal innovation because they met an urgent need for this type of equipment, were developed within a maximum of two months in collaboration with university groups and health professionals, and were built with lower-cost parts than conventional models.

“Frugal innovation, which addresses local problems, can be ideally suited for countries that, like Brazil, have major gaps in their innovation capabilities and face significant challenges in creating their own technologies,” says Francisco José Peixoto Rosário, an economist at the Federal University of Alagoas (UFAL).

Rosário coauthored a study, published in the Diversitas Journal in January, that reviewed 28 grant-recipient projects within the Centelha program in Alagoas. Centelha is an entrepreneurship support program funded by the Brazilian Federal Government and research-funding agencies in each state. One out of every four firms had used frugal innovation principles, often without their management being aware of it.

One example is Apícola Fernão Velho, a beekeeping business that worked with researchers at UFAL to improve its methods of collecting and refining red propolis, a substance produced by bees from the resin of a mangrove tree in Alagoas known as rabo-de-bugio (Dalbergia ecastophyllum). In another example, a network of artisans spanning 14 towns along the mouth of the São Francisco river, in Alagoas, perfected a process that uses a solution made from the bark of the angico-vermelho (Anadenanthera colubrina) tree to tan Nile tilapia (Oreochromis nicoticus) leather, which they then use to make bags and shoes.

In a study published in May 2021 in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy, and Society, German economic geographer Hans-Christian Busch, of the University of Cologne, explored the use of frugal innovation to advance solar power in Brazil. One of the case studies in the paper describes the development of a low-cost solar water heater in the 1990s by Augustin Woelz (1942–2022), a German electrical engineer based at the Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Technology (CIETEC) of the University of São Paulo (USP). Sociedade do Sol, a nongovernmental organization based in São Paulo, has since worked to disseminate the new water heater design to help reduce electricity consumption on electric showers.

The heater can be user-assembled and installed using a manual provided by Sociedade do Sol and parts purchased from local hardware stores (such as a 310-liter water tank, plastic tubes, a mixer, pipe fittings, and a showerhead) and four solar panels. If a user chooses instead to hire a professional installer, the total cost of parts, assembly, and installation amounts to approximately R$1,800.00, half the price of commercial models according to physicist Roberto Matajs at Sociedade do Sol.

Marcelo Martins / ISA; Renato Nestlehner / ISAA solar panel near a classroom hut on the Panará Indian reservationMarcelo Martins / ISA; Renato Nestlehner / ISA

“We don’t care if people copy our design,” says Matajs. “In fact, our goal is for more and more homes to do so.” At least 2,000 of these heaters have been installed so far in Brazil.

Another case study describes the installation 108 photovoltaic systems at schools, health clinics, community centers, and internet access points in 93 communities on the Xingu Indian reservation in Mato Grosso and on the Panará Indian reservation in Mato Grosso and Pará. With funding from local and international institutions and companies, and technical support from experts at the Institute for Energy and Environment (IEE) at the University of São Paulo (USP), “the solar panels are installed at priority locations selected by the communities themselves, and have led to a reduction of up to 80% in diesel consumption by generator sets,” says Marcelo Martins, a crop scientist at Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) who has worked in the Xingu area since 2004.

“Frugal innovation can support energy transitions by reducing process and outcome complexity and enabling scalable deployment strategies,” notes Busch in his paper on these case studies. “This perspective expands beyond the focus on cost to emphasize the reduced number of components that make up the core of frugal solutions in energy transitions.”

Although frugal innovation as a concept is recent in Brazil, it has a long history of success in India and China. Local companies and multinational subsidiaries in these countries have created simplified versions of their products to appeal to low-income consumers, which have gone on to become highly popular with consumers in Europe and North America.

In 1992, Chinese company Galanz developed a small, low-cost microwave oven designed for small-footprint kitchens. In 1996, Chinese home appliance manufacturer Haier designed a compact washing machine designed for smaller everyday loads as an alternative to large and expensive models.

The mini-washing machine “was an immediate success, and a similar product based on it has now been marketed worldwide,” write Marco Zeschky, Bastian Widenmayer, and Oliver Gassmann from the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, in a paper published in December 2015 in Research-Technology Management. Their paper also reviews a portable ultrasound machine developed by a Chinese subsidiary of General Electric for use in rural areas, and the Nano minicar launched in 2008 by Indian carmaker Tata Motors. After being reengineered for compliance with safety standards, these products gradually gained popularity in other markets.

“In India, frugal innovation is still often associated with the term jugaad, a Hindi word denoting a makeshift, low-quality solution created without sustainability in mind,” said Brem in an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP. His article describes a methodology for developing products using a frugal innovation approach from day one, rather than as an afterthought (see table).

In Brazil, people unfamiliar with the concept are often impressed by the simplicity that is the hallmark of frugal innovation. “When I tell people that they’re doing innovation, they’re often surprised because they tend to think of innovation in terms of high-end technology, not simple solutions,” says Rosário.

The different types of innovation
Although there is now an extensive body of knowledge on frugal innovation, it has not yet been included among the three recognized types of innovation. The definition of these types can vary depending on the products and markets they are applied to. The three widely recognized categories are:

Wikimedia CommonsCoca-Cola bottles from the early 1900s to the 1980s: an example of incremental innovationWikimedia Commons

Radical innovation: a technological breakthrough that fundamentally disrupts a business and attracts new customers. An example would be the introduction of the iPhone by Apple, which revolutionized the mobile phone market and ushered in the era of smartphones.

Incremental innovation
: minor improvements or upgrades to existing products, services or production processes, typically without resulting in significant impact. A good example of this type of innovation is the evolution of Gmail by Google, which began as a simple email service and has since incorporated additional features such as real-time chat and video calls. Another example would be Coca-Cola introducing new flavors to maintain consumer interest.

Disruptive innovation
: this type of innovation transforms a technology, product or service into a simpler, more affordable or better solution that reaches a broad customer base and is highly disruptive. An example would be Netflix’s introduction of internet streaming technology to deliver video content for a monthly subscription fee. In a relatively short period of time, the company disrupted the traditional DVD rental industry, which consumers had previously relied on to watch add-free movies, series, and documentaries. Another example is Spotify, a music and video streaming service that addressed the unmet needs of consumers who were dissatisfied with the limited playlists offered by CDs.

Innovation can also be categorized into: product innovation, which is often initially disruptive and then incremental, such as with television technology; service innovation, such as food ordering apps; process innovation, such as developing more environmentally friendly methods, like cruelty-free cosmetics; and business model innovation, such as the Amazon marketplace platform, or the advent of virtual banks without physical branches.

Other approaches classify innovation as either open or closed. Open innovation resembles frugal innovation in that it relies on external sources and involves collaboration with research institutes, startups, suppliers, customers, or other companies. In contrast, closed innovation is self-contained within the company.

Scientific articles
BREM, A. et al. How to design and construct an innovative frugal product? An empirical examination of a frugal new product development process. Journal of Cleaner Production. Vol. 275, 122232, pp. 1–15. Dec. 1, 2020.
SCARABELLI, B. H. et al. Inovação frugal: Estudos de caso sobre a criação de ventiladores mecânicos para a pandemia de Covid-19. REAd – Revista Eletrônica de Administração. Vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 870–95. 2021.
BUSCH, H-C. Frugal innovation in energy transitions: Insights from solar energy cases in Brazil. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy, and Society. Vol. 14, pp. 321–40. May 17, 2021.