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What We Learnt from a Three-Month Long Experiment to Develop a Framework for Identifying and Enabling Grassroots Innovations in Bangladesh

By Mohammad Ruhul Kader, Founder, Future Startup, and Sarah Sabin Khan, Head of Solutions Mapping, UNDP Accelerator Lab Bangladesh

About three months ago, we embarked on an ambitious journey to develop a framework for identifying, supporting, and empowering grassroots innovations in Bangladesh. We consulted the existing literature on the subject, studied relevant works in countries like India, spoke with entrepreneurs, incubators and accelerators, teachers, development workers, trade unions, grassroots innovators, and experts, experimented with online calls to ideas, set up temporary local networks, and interviewed stakeholders and innovators. We encountered challenges, learned surprising new insights, and developed new realizations about grassroots innovations. In this post, we try to articulate what we have learned from that journey.

When it comes to development challenges in Bangladesh, one of our default tendencies has been to look to the government, non-government organizations, the private sector, and subject-experts to conjure up solutions. It is a well-established model and has so far produced meaningful results. Problems have been solved. Progress has been made. 

However, it is a top-down model at the end of the day with limitations. Some of these limitations are well documented and have been talked about by proponents of bottom-up solutions. When we design solutions from a distance, we risk approaching certain challenges with superficial understanding. We fail to see important details, missing critical local knowledge in designing solutions for local problems. As such, ideas and realities that come from the affected populations at the grassroots level are likely to be more potent in addressing their challenges.  Hence, empowering local people to solve their own problems can be more effective. It is akin to teaching how to fish instead of the old giving-a-fish approach.

This is often referred to as grassroots innovation. There is no hard and fast definition for grassroots innovation. They can be ideas, products, services, processes, practices, community initiative models, or methods that address a local problem, needs, or a development challenge more effectively and sustainably. These innovations are usually formed by people or communities affected by a problem themselves with limited local resources, are localized, cost-effective, sustainable, and affordable. The UNDP Accelerator Labs and the London School of Economics and Political Science define grassroots innovation as "indigenous solutions, created by actors in civil society and supported by limited resources, which aim to address local situations and often achieve sustainable development”. 

A core hypothesis of this approach is that people who are affected by a challenge or live closer to a challenge have better understanding and knowledge of the root causes. Listening to them and empowering their initiatives should thus prove effective in solving these problems instead of imposing superficially developed solutions.  

Due to its potency to address many persistent development challenges our world faces today, the idea of grassroots innovations has been gaining growing attention. Unfortunately, there has not been much mainstream discussion and initiatives around grassroots innovations in Bangladesh. 

Sporadic small-scale works have happened and continue to happen. UNDP has been working on empowering a grassroots innovations movement for a while. But concentrated effort to take it to the next level has been missing. This is amiss rather unfortunate given that Bangladesh is known for its grassroots resiliency and frugal innovation. 

That’s how we got into the business of creating a framework, a model for identifying and empowering grassroots innovations in Bangladesh. 


We are (the authors of this piece) sold on the efficacy and the power of grassroots innovation to address fundamental development challenges in many communities in Bangladesh. We have witnessed examples of this happening while working on this project. 

The idea of grassroots innovation gives agency back to the people. It assumes humans are inherently creative and capable. They have the agency to solve their problems. Sometimes they just need a little push to make progress. 

We have found that while many people consider a grassroots approach to be effective to tackle development challenges, it is a difficult model to incorporate. It is logistically challenging — finding ways to identify, evaluate, and then integrate these innovations can be hard. There are psychological and perception dilemmas about whether to consider and adopt the knowledge from the poor population. Consequently, many development design approaches leave out this potent tool. The path of least resistance is real. 

We thought a working model for identifying and empowering grassroots innovation across Bangladesh can help bring the grassroots innovation discussion to the mainstream consciousness and encourage other interested organizations to try the approach. 

Thus we began working on a strategy toolkit to develop a comprehensive framework for identifying and enabling grassroots innovations in Bangladesh. We wanted to create a working system for scouting, promoting, and empowering grassroots innovations that could work for anyone interested in using this approach. We reasoned that a functional framework might also help potential partners build institutions and initiatives to accelerate grassroots innovations. 

We also felt that a diversified and locally rooted innovation approach contrary to existing mimetic approaches to problem-solving that exist in many urban knowledge institutions and entrepreneurship scenes in Bangladesh can help change the dynamics of innovation practices across sectors and encourage a more locally rooted approach to experimentation, innovation, and entrepreneurship. In the long run, it can help create an ecosystem to support grassroots innovations to foster bottom‐up development in Bangladesh.


We started by looking into the existing work of grassroots innovation in Bangladesh and across other countries. As an obvious starting point, we looked into the work of the Honeybee Network, one of the pioneers in the field, which has done inspirational work in India and Africa. We looked into the existing research in this space to develop a comprehensive understanding of the grassroots innovation approach.

However, we were aware that the most important understanding comes through tacit knowledge of practical action. Formal learning is rarely a match for our lived experience. We decided to get out of the building and find out how to best identify and support grassroots innovators across Bangladesh in practice. 

We started by speaking with various stakeholders including entrepreneurs, incubators and accelerator programs, development sector players, organizations that have been running innovation challenges, trade unions, local development workers, and so on. We spoke with journalists who cover grassroots innovations, discussed with teachers from local universities and colleges, ran an online call to innovation campaign, interviewed stakeholders, entrepreneurs, and innovators, and ran a temporary local network to identify innovations. 

Through these discussions and experiments, we came up with a five-component framework to find and enable grassroots innovation that includes 1) active and open scouting 2) verification and evaluation 3) documentation and promotion 4) support and value addition, and 5) policy advocacy. 

This framework is not new. Organizations such as HoneyBee use somewhat similar frameworks. One difference is that we have put each component into action to see what works and what does not in the realities of Bangladesh. You can call it a map that quite closely resembles the territory.


In scouting, we have found that there is not really any concentrated effort to identify grassroots innovations. While many platforms talk about innovations in general, there are not any that specifically focus on grassroots innovations. The government and several development organizations run some regionally focused initiatives, but almost all these initiatives lack enthusiasm, consistency, and rigor. 

We have realized that some of the barriers to finding and documenting local innovations include a lack of platforms that document local innovations and offer incentives for doing it. We think making it easier to document and spread local innovations by creating online and offline platforms can help to some extent address this challenge. Platforms that focus on innovation can also expand their attention to grassroots innovation and engage with these local innovators. 

Call for ideas/hackathons/innovation challenges on specific issues/sectors can help to collect ideas and innovations. We experimented with a call to idea announcement through the digital publication and research platform Future Startup, which one of the authors of this piece runs, and found out that it works. However, an overreliance on such a method alone can leave out many important ideas and initiatives. Moreover, they can be exclusive to those with access. This exclusivity can sometimes benefit the same ideas and groups repeatedly on different platforms. So, such efforts should only be used in conjunction with other methods. 

Similarly, working with teachers and development workers in Rangpur, Barisal, and Cox’s Bazar, we experimented with the idea of a community-led scout network that will actively seek out and identify grassroots innovators. We have found that creating volunteer scout networks at the community levels involving local stakeholders, including NGOs, academia, private sector partners, students, social connectors, entrepreneurs, etc., and tying the whole thing with an appropriate incentive mechanism such as recognition, and small remuneration to document innovations can work. These communities can also become hubs to organize gatherings and events to promote existing initiatives and encourage new ones. 

Nevertheless, our experience says that such networks will only work when there are meaningful incentives in place that everyone buys into. Focused and intentional initiatives should be deployed regularly so that these networks remain active. These initiatives can be grassroots innovations scouting sprints or competitions organized every six months or so in collaboration with stakeholders. 

Regular outreach programs and workshops can be conducted to encourage innovators to come forward and share their solutions. Summer grassroots innovation program/camp can be organized to involve students during their summer break to document grassroots innovations in their hometowns. Although we couldn’t test these two ideas, we believe these ideas have potential. 

We came across a large number of fascinating innovations using our strategies for scouting. However, the next challenges we encountered were documentation and evaluation. How do you verify a grassroots innovation idea? How do you decide which one to pay attention to and which one to ignore? What should be the criteria for promoting grassroots innovations? 

We have realized that developing a standardized framework for verifying and evaluating grassroots innovations can be useful. These criteria can vary depending on the location, sector, and type of innovation. In our instance, we consider an innovation if it has social or/and economic benefits for the innovator or the community, has long-term local relevance, good for the community and environment, and can be replicated and scaled. We think collaborating with academic institutions, entrepreneurs, and experts can be an approach to validate and verify the impact of innovations. 

However, we are also in favor of making this process less stringent and more optimistic and experimental. Thus, in our initial scouting, we have used a flexible set of criteria to select some 15 grassroots innovations. While speaking with some of these innovators, we have come to realize that promotion can be extremely powerful for grassroots innovations to attract support and mainstream adoption. 

We also think that organizations can create sector-specific platforms to document and feature grassroots innovations in their sectors. Currently, no magazines or media initiatives that we know of dedicatedly cover grassroots innovation stories. While mainstream media platforms do cover grassroots innovation stories, it is not regular. Similarly, we haven’t come across any regular events, conclaves, or gatherings to showcase and promote grassroots innovations. 

Along with the promotion, we have also looked into how best to support grassroots innovation once identified and verified. While promoting some of these innovations can itself be a major support, dedicated strategic support can help many of these initiatives to multiply their impact. Many grassroots innovations fail or languish in obscurity despite their potential purely because of a lack of strategic and financial support.  

We have identified two broad practices to support grassroots innovations: mentorship by connecting grassroots innovators with experienced professionals in their respective fields, and access to finance by collaborating with a range of innovation investors, financial institutions, and philanthropic organizations. Other approaches such as connecting with relevant incubators and accelerators and creating new incubator programs targeting these initiatives, connecting them with new types of funding opportunities are also helpful.  

What is still missing but can be game-changing forms the final leg of our framework – meaningful policy advocacy to create an enabling environment for grassroots innovation. This is possible through the creation of regional hubs, engaging local knowledge systems, leveraging the innovative minds of youths, and utilizing existing institutions and resources to support innovators, creating new funding opportunities, and facilitating scaling up.  

We believe hosting regular events and discussions on grassroots innovations can help build awareness, generate mainstream discussion, and gain attention from relevant policymakers. We have also felt that there should be more research and discussion on grassroots innovation in academia and policy discourse.

This article first appeared on the UNDP Bangladesh blog, republished here with permission.

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