‘It’s basically getting rid of all the malarkey’

Practical science

High-tech, who cares. In many countries there’s a much greater need for pared-down, low-tech products. Professor Peter Knorringa about the promise of frugal innovations.


NAME: Peter Knorringa
AGE: 57
STUDY: Business economics, University of Amsterdam, Development economics, Open University Amsterdam
CAREER: Professor Private Sector and Development, International Insitute of Social Studies (ISS)


‘That’s all it is - getting rid of all the malarkey. Take your average smartphone. Of course – when you’re at party, it’s cool to have that slow motion HD-video feature handy. But is it indispensable? Not really,’ says Peter Knorringa. Whenever he asks his students, it turns out the majority use less than twenty percent of all the options on their phone. Yet they pay for the other eighty percent as well. ‘If you take all of that out, you end up with a simple, robust piece of equipment.’

On his bike
Based at the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa (CFIA), where he’s the academic director, Peter Knorringa conducts research on the potential of frugal innovations. In other words, products that are cheap to produce, and preferably indestructable. Knorringa mentions a few examples - an unbreakable thermometer; an EKG machine that can be transported on the back of a bicycle; a set of plug-and-play solar panels that provide enough power for several households in the middle of nowhere. ‘Many of these products manage to only do one thing, but they do it very well.’ Frugal innovation is popular. Companies like General Electrics and Philips have been delving into this developing market with relish, partly because they expect significant growth on the African continent. ‘We’re seeing that Philips is pumping large amounts of money into medical technology. Many developing countries are experiencing their own middle class boom, and corporations want to be front row when that happens.’

Eyes open wide
CFIA bloomed from an initial strategical collaboration between Erasmus University, Leiden and Delft. An ideal marriage, says Knorringa. Leiden (strong in humanities and African studies) will outline the context, Delft (industrial design, civil engineering) then builds the product and Rotterdam (business administration and development studies) finally invents a business model. The Centre focuses specifically on Africa. ‘That is where you’ll find the worst poverty and the most dire effects of climate change. It’s our impression that a lot of frugal innovation is happening locally in Africa that doesn’t get noticed or isn’t being scaled up.’

Unknown potential
One thing the frugal question always comes down to is this: what do you really need? And yet, that simple question isn’t always asked, even in places where people would benefit spectacularly from these innovations. There’s an unknown potential among the local population, says Knorringa. ‘I believe a lot of people are working on innovations that go unnoticed or aren’t being taken seriously. If I can help these people on their way, I’ve done my job as a scientist.’

TEXT: Geert Maarse
PHOTO: Piet Gispen

Peter Knorringa about frugal innovations