We need innovation from startups and game-changers to boost the economy: Harsh Mariwala of Marico

In a freewheeling chat with YourStory, Harsh Mariwala, Chairman of FMCG major Marico Limited, reveals why innovation is all-important and how the Marico Innovation Foundation is working with startups to positively impact the Indian economy.

12th Jul 2019
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Marico Limited, one of India’s leading consumer goods companies, has been fostering innovation and entrepreneurship through the Marico Innovation Foundation (MIF) since 2003. Founded and helmed by the Harsh Mariwala, Chairman, Marico Limited, the not-for-profit, CSR arm of the FMCG major also hosts the Marico Innovation Foundation Awards to nurture Indian innovation by shining the spotlight on “breakthrough innovations that hold the potential to generate large-scale impact”.

Claiming to be India's first innovation-focused platform, the foundation works closely with startups that are “innovative and impactful”, offering precise, time-bound interventions that can help businesses scale.

As entries open for the eighth edition of the Marico Innovation Awards, Harsh Mariwala speaks to YourStory on why the FMCG company is dedicated to innovation, how their platform is encouraging millennials to innovate and turn entrepreneurs, and fostering the next big innovation.

Edited excerpts of the interview:

YourStory: Marico Innovation Foundation has been fostering innovation since 2003. What has been your experience over the last 16 years?

Harsh Mariwala: Marico benefited a lot from innovation. We felt that if we, as a company, could benefit, so could the country - in business and social areas. The Marico Innovation Foundation was set up in 2003 with the intention of “nurturing” innovation in India at a time when innovation was not necessarily considered vital to business. “Innovation” was easily confused to mean “invention” and often used interchangeably with the word “jugaad”. Over the years, we have evolved with efforts in providing innovations with the right kind of support to help them achieve scale and - ultimately - create true impact.

Our objective was to raise awareness about innovation, how an innovation happens, and reward innovators. Our journey has evolved over a period of time, we’ve been doing a lot of things— from instituting the Innovation Awards, to a bringing out a book, titled Making Breakthrough Innovations Happen. We are now coming out with a second book. We are also doing an acceleration programme to help innovative organisations to scale. So, a lot of things are currently being done by the Innovation Foundation.

Marico Chairman Harsh Mariwala

Marico Limited Chairman Harsh Mariwala

YS: Why is MIF focused on both the business and social aspects of innovation?

HM: Our whole objective is to help. Basically, India needs a lot of innovation on both sides: business and social. We have to leap-frog looking at the challenges in the Indian environment, and innovation can play a very important role, whether its education or healthcare. Innovation can actually take you into a different orbit, just like the mobiles took us into a different orbit in the information age. It can help us leap ahead, especially if we can innovate in healthcare and education. We need some game-changers in these sectors, and innovation can help with that.

YS: What changes has MIF seen in terms of innovation over the years in India?


HM: The biggest shift that we have seen over the years is that innovation is no longer confused with “jugaad”.

Innovation in India isn’t a “me-too” product or a temporary fix, but rather a unique way of doing things that had not been explored before. That’s a very progressive shift. For example, one of our past award winners, Rivigo, has innovated in the logistics space with a “relay model for delivery”, a global-first innovation!

We have also seen more ideas emerge from different industries as a result of the shifting environment where startups were welcome and ease of doing business has improved. We have seen innovation now becoming a senior management agenda for corporates rather than a sporadic event in the lifecycle of a business. That’s great news because it creates a discipline and an organisational culture that is pro-innovation.

YS: Why did MIF start focusing on the agriculture sector?

HM: India’s agricultural productivity has tremendous scope for improvement. For example, the global average of rice and wheat yield per hectare is 1.5x that of India. Surprisingly, agriculture contributes to only 18 percent to our GDP. Thus, there is a need to improve productivity levels in Indian agriculture.

The need of the hour is strategic thinking and rapid - but thoughtful - action that will result in increase in production and reduction in wastage. This can be done by infusing innovations to solve for challenges across the spectrum, from seed to market across multiple crops. This led to our agri-focused programme #Innovate2Cultivate, which aims to bring agri-innovations to scale and eventually double farmers’ income through increase in production or productivity. 

We have seen significant progress in the first year itself, where solutions for the coconut crop for disease, pest, water, and soil management are being tested on controlled farms as we speak. The same framework can be applied to multiple crops in the future.

YS: How has MIF's experience been while engaging with agri startups?

HM: We have identified some innovative players in the agri system and how they can help in improving agricultural productivity. We have been working with a set of innovators in this area, and are right now prototyping something in coconuts. However, we intend on covering other crops also because there is huge opportunity and scope for innovations in the agri-economy. If we are able to boost that, it can have a huge impact on the productivity and the workforce could be lowered. Our goal is to play a catalytic role in collectively getting hold of all innovators and having a synergistic effect so that the impact on productivity is much higher.

YS: What changes has MIF seen from the innovation and entrepreneurship perspective in India over the last few years?

HM: It’s not just in India. Across the world, innovation has become one of the topmost agenda items for every CEO and company.

Overall awareness for innovation has increased dramatically because the competition has increased. Most businesses have realised that they will not be able to survive unless they innovate. It is very important that organisations innovate and do something different that creates value for the consumer.

Entrepreneurs can spur a lot of growth that can help the economy. We see that entrepreneurs today, especially the millennials, have a high tendency to take a risk. The entry barriers that existed earlier have gone because of digital developments. There’s high potential; the overall climate for entrepreneurship has improved. We still have much more to do, compared to many other western countries. But I think the beginning has been made, and, in time, the number of young entrepreneurs will increase and the whole ecosystem will improve.

YS: What challenges do you see in fostering innovation across the country?

HM: I think at a society level we need to be far more tolerant of failure. The Indian society does not tolerate failure; they look at it from a negative mindset. So, I think it’s very important that parents view failures as lessons to improve rather than see them as something negative. Not all business ventures will succeed; some of them will fail.

Many times in failure there are lessons that will enable you to succeed next time. So, it’s important to have the right mindset.

The second is the overall education system. It’s geared towards memorising and has to change. How can we drive creativity? How do you bring in diversity? How do you create new thoughts? Memory by itself is not going to. It’s important, but it’s more important to make people think differently. And that’s just not taught by the education system, you know. So, I think that the overall education system has to change.

YS: What do you expect from the latest edition of Innovation Awards, applications for which open this month?

HM: In the past editions, we have seen global-first ideas, real businesses creating real value. We have examples like Rivigo with their relay model in logistics or young innovators creating waves like the world’s lightest satellite to enter space.

Through each edition we are able to see the evolving definition of innovation. For example, last year, we saw a shift of “social” innovations from NGO and not-for-profits to “businesses with a heart”. This is paving the way for scalable innovations and sustained growth.

We expect to see exciting innovations in areas where India needs to take strides and make a difference. This could be agriculture, infrastructure, water management, or even technology that can be applied to various industries. We look forward to finding the next big innovations that will create an impact in society and all stakeholders in equal measure.

Products/services that are able to solve for a problem effectively, have not been thought of before, and seek to address a genuine challenge, are important lenses to view any innovation from. Apart from this, of course, commercial viability and scalability of the innovation matters as well!

The 8th edition of MIF Innovation Awards 2020 will be open for applications till July 31, 2019 and the awards ceremony will be sometime in February next year in Mumbai.

(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)

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