MLM: Man, Message and the Movement

I deem it a great privilege and an honor to deliver this very first Memorial Oration in the memory of an iconic personality, a great son of India, Shri M.L. Mehta, whom we all have revered over the years.  I wish to thank the M.L. Mehta Memorial Foundation for doing me the honor.

I was personally a great admirer of Shri M.L. Mehta. Words like `innovation’, `integrity’, `humility’, `humanism’, `empathy’ `dedication’, `pro-poor’, `pro-people’ would go so well with any description of the incredible life and work of Shri Mehta. I was a personal witness to these noble attributes of his, when he was gracious enough to ask me to chair the Board of IIHMR. I learnt so much from him during these years.

Shri Mehta combined innovation, compassion and passion, like of which I have rarely seen. His pioneering ideas led to pathbreaking and truly inclusive initiatives such as Antyodaya, Swach, Apna Gaon-Apna Kaam, Gopal, Rajalaxmi, Jan Mangal, and so on. They were remarkable in terms of the originality of ideas, immaculate execution and great impact, especially on the resource poor people.

I was thinking of a topic, which would be fitting for the very first Memorial Oration of Shri Mehta. I found an easy answer in his initials itself!  Shri M.L. Mehta’s initials are MLM. I saw the message, philosophy and meaning of his life in these initials; MLM is getting ‘more from less for more people’, more precisely for more poor people. Interestingly MLM, with this specific meaning has become a big global innovation movement around the world today. This Memorial Oration is all about this MLM innovation movement, its origin, its spread and its impact in creating a better world.

MLM Innovation

How did the term `MLM’ arise in the first place? In 2008, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE)  honoured me with the Fellowship of the Academy. I was invited to give the ATSE Prestige Innovation Lecture in Canberra during the formal conferment of this honour.  I decided to speak to them about something that we as Indians are particularly proud of.

I asked myself, what was India’s greatest gift to the world in the 20th Century? I remembered what Einstein had said’ “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this, ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth”. Yes, it was, Mahatma Gandhi, that was India’s greatest gift to the world in the 20th Century.

Then I asked myself, what could be India’s greatest gift to the world in the 21st Century? A world that is deeply divided due to stark inequalities. A world, where 800 million people go to sleep every day without a meal. A world, which is threatened with crisis such as global warming, global economic melt down, terrorism and so on.

And then I remembered two of Gandhi’s tenets: “I would prize every invention of science made for the benefit of all” and “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not every man’s greed”. The first tenet referred to affordability. The second tenet referred to sustainability. And I felt they so relevant for solving all the problems that the world was facing today – so it was Gandhi’s way based on these two tenets — his solutions – his engineering – Gandhian Engineering – that would be the saviour for  the world.  And Gandhian Engineering could be India’s greatest gift to the world in the twenty first century.

The title of my talk in Canberra on 28 April 2008 to ATSE was decided there and then. It was `Indian Innovation: From Gandhi to Gandhian Engineering’.

I explained to the audience the essence of Gandhian Engieering. It was in MLM. This is how it was. The Industrial enterprises strive for getting `more from less for more’. What did it mean? That meant getting more (performance) from less (resource) for more (profit). But Gandhian Engineering has a different meaning and a message. It means getting more (performance) from less (resource) for more (people), not just for more (profit). Remember, what Gandhi had said – benefit of all – not for just a few but for more and more people. Getting More from Less for More (MLM) became the mantra that I have repeated around the world since then.

Moving MLM Forward

The concept of MLM got enriched when late C.K. Prahalad (CK as we fondly called him) and I wrote a paper `Innovation’s Holy Grail’ in the July-August 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review. Incidentally, this has been now ranked among the top ten must read paper in innovation. We explained that MLM innovation is any innovation that leads to affordable access of quality goods and services creating livelihood opportunities for the excluded population, primarily at the base of the economic pyramid, and on a long term sustainable basis with a significant outreach. We showed in our paper as to how industry could do well as well as do good by following the MLM strategy.

But we also emphasized that the objective of a MLM type of innovation would not be just to produce low performance, cheap knock-off versions of rich country technologies so that they can be marketed to poor people. That is getting `less for less’. MLM innovation gets `more from less’.  This will mean that we will have to harness truly sophisticated science or technology or truly creative non-technological innovation to invent, design, produce and distribute quality goods and services that are affordable for the majority of the people.

Achieving MLM

True MLM type innovation must include hundreds of resource poor millions – many of them have an income that I less than US $ 2 per day.  For this to happen, it should not just be affordable but `extremely’ affordable.  For example,

• Can we make an artificial foot priced at US$10,000 available at a price that is 300 times less not just 300% less?
• Can we make a Hepatitis-B vaccine priced at US$20 per dose available at a price that is 40 times less not just 40% less?
• Can we make a high quality cataract eye surgery available, not at US$3,000, but a price that is 100 times lessnot just 100% less?
• Can we make an ECG machine available, not at US$10,000 but a price that is 20 times lower not just 20% less?

Incredible as it may sound, all such `extreme affordability’ targets have been met.  And I am proud to say that all of these have been achieved by Indians in India. And I am even more proud to say that the jewel in the crown of MLM type of innovations is the incredible `Jaipur Foot’, created in this very city under the iconic leadership of Shri D.R. Mehta.

Achieving MLM

How do we achieve MLM type innovation? The strategy to achieve such goals can be sub-divided into six categories.

1. Product innovation: Examples include the Tata Nano, a low-cost US $ 2000 car based on a no-frills strategy, or the ChotuKool low cost refrigerator designed for people in rural India without access to stable electricity and priced at only US$ 69.

2. Manufacturing process innovation: For example, decentralized ‘inclusive’ textile manufacturing in India based on low-energy, non-damaging cotton-to-cloth conversion, providing affordable cloth for the local villagers who create it but at also high enough quality to be exported to Italy, France, Norway, the UK and the US.

3. Business model innovation: An example here is M-PESA in Kenya as a simple low-price mobile payment company that has become virtually ubiquitous in the country.

4. System delivery innovation: One example is the Indian low cost Medical Emergency Services, which brings together the discipline of emergency medicine, with the disciplines of call centers, IT and operations research. This has changed the nature of emergency management in India based on a private–public partnership combining the efficiencies of the private sector without losing the benefits of the public sector support.

5. Workflow innovation: Examples include Aravind Eye Care in India for low cost cataract surgery in which, instead of increasing the number of surgeons, ways to increase a surgeon’s productivity were found by perfecting an assembly line technique of surgery that increased productivity by a factor of ten. This was inspired by McDonalds’ espousal of delivering the same quality of products in diverse regions through highly trained staff by an assembly line operation. Another example is the Narayana Hrudayalaya Cardiac Care Centre, which provides heart surgery at a much lower price due to business process and workflow innovations, and which has now opened a unit on the Cayman Islands to serve the nearby American market at a fraction of the cost of US-based operations but with no loss of quality.

6. Grassroots innovation: One example here stems from the identification by India’s National Innovation Foundation (NIF), set up in the year 2000, of an innovation for a rural washing machine that can work without electricity because it is pedal driven. The original idea came from a school girl in Kerala who wanted to be able to wash her and her family’s clothes whilst also studying. Inspired by this example, the MIT D-Lab in the USA has also created a portable pedal powered washing machine with an estimated prototype price of US$ 127.

MLM & Affordable Excellence

Making high technology work for the rich is easy.  Making low technology work for the poor is easy.  But making high technology work for the poor is difficult.  To do this we need to achieve affordable excellence, which is a contradiction in terms.  MLM must achieve this impossible looking goal.

Let me give you some examples of affordable excellence based MLM.

In my mother’s name, I have created an annual Anjani Mashelkar Inclusive Innovation Award. This is an award for MLM type of innovation that enables the poor and the old to have access to the essential necessities of life at affordable prices. It is given to those, who achieve not just the “best” practice, but the “next” practice.

One of these awards was given to a 28-year-old innovator, Myshkin Ingawale. He found that women in villages were dying of anaemia because their low haemoglobin levels were not detected in time. He found out why: many of them were reluctant to give their blood. So he decided to create a non-invasive diagnostic tool, something that has never been achieved before. He used photoplethysmography, spectrophotometry and an advanced software for photon scattering to create ToucHb. This was technological `excellence’ achieved by using cutting edge technology, and not jugaad. Furthermore, he reduced the cost per test from Rs. 150 to Rs. 10.  This was `affordable’.  So he achieved `affordable excellence’.

This year’s Anjani Mashelkar Inclusive Innovation Award was given on 17th November, which is my mother’s death anniversary.  It went to Rahul Rastogi, who is in his early thirties, for designing and developing Sanket.  This is an extremely affordable but high tech credit card-sized heart monitor, which acts like a portable ECG machine, making it possible to monitor the heart condition, making it as simple as monitoring the body temperature.

The high-tech 6-lead ECG recorder connects to a smartphone wirelessly, and displays and records ECG graphs on a smartphone. The ECG report can be shared instantly with a doctor via e-mail, Bluetooth – or even via WhatsApp! The affordable device marks a dramatic shift in the way we approach cardiac care – doing away with expensive ECG machines, distant hospitals or laboratories, and skilled technicians. Sanket is all set to bring about a revolution in cardiac care and disrupt this space, since it brings the cost of doing an ECG from a few hundred rupees to few rupees.

The new MLM message is simple.  India can and must move from mere jugaad to affordable excellence.

Towards an MLM Business

MLM business provides great opportunities.  First, firms can benefit from seeking alternatives to high-cost traditional innovative processes, which are based on the principle of ‘More from More’. Second, they benefit from innovating over constraint-induced hurdles, rather than avoiding those challenges by lowering product quality or changing the target market. Third, the mindset matters: accomplishing these tasks requires a special attitude that relentlessly pushes ‘More from Less’.

Conventionally, the business leaders believed in doing well and doing good.  That means one made a lot of profits, and then set aside a small fraction of it for some public good. No, we have to shift to another model.  And that is ‘doing well by doing good’.  That means a fundamental commitment to ‘doing MLM business’. Again this requires paradigm shift is thinking and action.

MLM Spreading its Wings Globally

MLM innovation began in the east but it is spreading to the west as the west moves from times of `abundance’ to times of `austerity’, as the middle class is squeezed and governments curb spending, and as the refugee and migrant issues are creating new challenges.

From my personal lens, I am seeing this growing awareness about MLM around the world. I have spoken on MLM from Beijing to Brussels, from Bangkok to Bangladesh, from Paris to Washington, from Copenhagen to Cape town, from Seoul to Singapore, from Melbourne to Manila and from Hanoi to Harvard.

I was invited by the European Commission to do a strategy paper on MLM type of innovation for EU in 2013.  Following this paper on 11 March 2014, I was invited to give a talk on ‘Innovation under Adversity’ in Innovation 2014 organised by European Union in Brussels.  I spoke to an audience of around 2000.  The theme was how the combination of adversity and aspiration inspires MLM innovation.

At the end of this talk, someone asked a question: what does it all mean for European Union.  And someone else answered it on my behalf.  He said ‘Prof. Mashelkar’s plea for MLM type innovation is to ensure the magic of access equality despite income inequality.  And EU needs it as much as India and China do.  Look at the income inequality in EU’s 28 member states’.

This thought process has taken a concrete shape in EU now.  In June 2015, EU floated a tender for a scoping study on frugal innovation (a subset of MLM innovation). The idea was also to make this as a theme in EU’s Horizon 2020 program, whose aim is to increase the EU competitiveness. This is since EU now realizes now that quality, sustainability and affordability together are going to be the key to EU’s competitive advantage, not just the quality and sustainability on which EU had focused so far.

On 19 November, 2015, Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (FhG) held a symposium titled More from Less for More in Munich. I gave a keynote address via videoconferencing. The keenless of the German participants on learning and adopting the MLM philosophy as well as strategy was obvious.  So my friends, MLM is spreading its wings globally.


Finally, we must understand that MLM innovation forces us to measure opportunity by the ends of innovation—what people actually get to enjoy—as opposed to just an increase in their means. In important ways, this rationale invokes a return to the traditional case for innovation alongside the usual objective of competitiveness—its ability to produce break-through improvements in the quality of life. In other words it is through MLM that we can hope to have a better world, not for just for few privileged but for all and that is something that Shri M.L. Mehta devoted all his life to.

Ladies and gentlemen, I will like to end this very first M.L. Mehta Memorial Oration by dedicating MLM, its message, its philosophy, its very soul to Shri M.L. Mehta.