Meet the village boy who won a President’s Award for thinking differently

20th Jan 2016
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Our society needs to change; we are generating a society of merits. We need to understand our children in such a way that education is mixed with passion.

These lines describe Abdul Kaleem’s life in a nutshell. In 2009, Abdul was felicitated by the President of India for his innovations, when he was barely 22 years old. That same year, he was also honoured by the National Innovation Foundation (NIF) for Grass Root Innovation.

Innovator and entrepreneur Abdul Kaleem
Innovator and entrepreneur Abdul Kaleem

But it was never about good grades or staggering dreams; as a student, Abdul always thought a little differently, a philosophy he still lives by:

Whenever something happens, I think about the logic behind it. I keep questioning.”

And this questioning always took the form of little innovations. In the seventh grade, he saved Rs 2 from his pocket money to buy a crystal bird, which he turned into a greeting machine. It would open out with banner saying Id Mubarak whenever someone entered his room. A theft in his neighborhood caused him to create an alert mechanism that would call the last dialled number on the owner’s phone as soon as the door was opened.

But the contrast of all this sets in when one realises that Abdul was brought up in a small village in Deoria, in Uttar Pradesh born to an Urdu tutor father and an uneducated mother, where an alert mechanism was unheard of!

His parents could never understand what their child was really up to. What they wanted for him was a basic education that would lead to a secure government job. His father was disappointed to see his son’s unconventional ways, and his neighbors constantly felt the need to remind them how he was wasting his time.

But Abdul was only interested in his innovations, electronics, machines, and not the world’s opinion of them. He was undeterred; he smiles and says:

“The shocks I got while creating my inventions were the strongest kind of shocks.”

From questions to innovation

On one hand, Abdul continued to think about wider impact and what the community really needed, while on the other, he finished his high school exams and joined a Psychology course in Deoria. Staying deeply grounded to his roots, Abdul started looking deeper at his inventions. He created a device that could gauge moisture in the soil using sensors, and water pots automatically. The device would stop watering the plants once the sensors gauged enough moisture in the soil.

Next in line was a flood informer system, with a scale fitted at different areas of the river, including the centre and the bed of the river. The minute the water rose to the third level, the sirens would alert villagers to look for higher ground.

Finally, it was a visit by his Psychology professor that put him in the spotlight. He convinced Dr Nagiz Banu to visit his home and the small laboratory where he carried out his experiments. Dr Banu was reluctant, but when she entered the room, she was in for a surprise. Seeing the scale at which Abdul had mastered his experiments, she asked him to send his innovations to NIF. He did and, on 21 November 2009, Abdul was awarded for his grassroots innovations by President Pratibha Patil; what followed was a slew of other recognitions by the state.

We ask Abdul why he pursued Psychology and not Engineering, where his passion truly lay. He replies

“If you see, technology is created by perceiving Psychology, similarly as Psychology perceives the invented technology. So every subject has a correlation, it depends on how you use it.”  

When we ask him what we feel is missing in innovations today, he says it is a lack of understanding of Psychology to create technology for the masses, while understanding their needs.

Abdul's meetup with various Presidents of India
Abdul's interaction and felicitation from the various Presidents of India

From innovations to business

However, Abdul says that while he may be a good inventor or engineer, he is not a good businessman. He has never understood business numbers.

Abdul constantly innovating, with his GPRS sensor
Abdul constantly innovating, with his GPRS sensor

In 2011, Abdul embarked on the Jagriti Yatra with around 350 strangers, a journey which completely transformed his outlook on where he aspired to use his potential to startup. Immediately after the Yatra, Abdul started working on a low-cost solar table lamp, another basic innovation catering to the masses.

This business idea required an initial capital of at least Rs 5 lakh. Unable to procure the funds, he shelved the idea and pursued other innovations.

Through reference of a customer Siddharth Jettar, in 2014 Abdul was introduced to G.K. Sinha, who was in awe over how solutions to complex issues came so easily to this young man. Abdul had created a universal light controlling remote for Siddharth’s house. G.K. Sinha was an angel investor, having the experience of guiding multiple startups.

He helped Abdul with starting his venture Eco tronica Pvt. Ltd.

Sinha also introduced him to Gautam Kumar, a graduate from Harvard University. Gautam felt the same potential in Abdul's innovation and worked with him to refine his soil moisture-sensor-driven innovation and mobile weather prediction station to a requirement at Centers for International Projects Trust (CIPT), which is affiliated with the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

The low-cost weather station of sorts, powered by solar power, works on cloud computing and the installation of sensors on rooftops of buildings. The industrial setup costs as little as Rs 15,000, while the user-friendly and domestic models cost up to Rs 10,000 and Rs 5,000, respectively. Jharkhand's Birsa Agricultural University has planned to set up this technology in the state's Angara block. This will directly impact 700 farmers of the area.

Today, Abdul is also working on solar powered lighting with dual LED lights, which he claims should work for 24 hours with just five minutes of solar charge. He says he still doesn’t understand the revenues or sales figures because he thinks he is an innovator at heart and will remain one.

Abdul says the biggest challenge in having a manufacturing startup is getting the right vendor, who gives the right product at the lowest cost.

He also adds

“The biggest challenge for me is my low confidence levels and other people looking to take advantage of my skills.”

But there is an important lesson for all entrepreneurs when Abdul speaks. Even as Indian entrepreneurs flock to create the next Uber and Amazon, he makes us question what truly comprises innovation for the masses. He makes us question whether business models and revenues are the only success metric for a startup.

For many Indian entrepreneurs taking their product to Silicon Valley – an enduring symbol of innovation - is the highest form of success. But what about innovations for the masses? Is our entrepreneurial ecosystem based on the same system of meritocracy followed in the US?

Innovators like Abdul even make us question our prevailing education system. He rightly says we need to harbor our own culture of innovation. Our challenges are different, and the only way out is to innovate through passion and dedication to solve a problem, rather than look at is as a business.

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