Building a grassroots innovation ecosystem to mitigate human-wildlife conflict & catalyze local entrepreneurship

Build a globally replicable model to co-develop innovations that mitigate human-wildlife conflict, led by local grassroots innovators

Photo of Koustav Choudhury
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Eligibility Criteria

  • I confirm that I am fully aware of the eligibility criteria and terms of the Act for Biodiversity Challenge and that I am eligible to apply.
  • I am 18 years old or older.

Initiative's representative name

Koustav Choudhury & Shimu Saha

Initiative's representative date of birth

1985 & 1993

Initiative's representative gender

  • Man
  • Woman

Headquarters location: country

  • India

Headquarters location: city

Siliguri

Where are you making a difference?

The project is rooted in the northern Bengal landscape of West Bengal state, India (3000 sq km), with incipient connections to innovators in adjoining Bhutan, Nepal and southern Bengal.

Website or social media url(s)

Our organizational website: http://www.snapindia.org/ Individual social media handles: Koustav Choudhury (Project lead): https://www.facebook.com/actaeon.choudhury Aditya Gangadharan (Strategic advisor): https://www.linkedin.com/in/adityagangadharan/ Srilakshmi Krishnaswamy (Behavioral change advisor): https://www.linkedin.com/in/sriiyer89/

Date Started

March 2019

Project Stage

  • Start-up (first few activities have happened)

Yearly Budget : What is your current yearly budget for the initiative?

  • €10k - €50k

Organization Type

  • Nonprofit/NGO

1. Founding story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that led the founder(s) to get started or the story of how you saw the potential for this project to succeed.

As an engineer and nature lover in a small town, I always wanted to help solve the intense human-wildlife conflict occurring minutes from my home. So in 2019, my colleagues and I built an early warning system that uses sensors to detect elephants entering villages, and triggers an alarm for quick response. We tested the devices; they were a hit! But during testing, we met other grassroots innovators like us in remote villages. They had also built innovative prototypes (technological/behavioral) to mitigate conflict, but lacked the resources, key skills and network to convert them into finished products. We vowed to support them in co-developing these ideas, thus strengthening local agency to solve problems more sustainably. And here we are!

2. The problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

Depredation by wildlife causes thousands of human casualties and massive economic losses, in turn leading to retaliatory killing of endangered species. Mitigation measures are typically externally driven, making local communities (often poor indigenous people) apathetic and dependent, and rendering implemented solutions unsustainable. To resolve this, we will build agency among local communities, empowering them to address local problems while also participating in the modern innovation economy.

3. Your solution: How are you working to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

People in forest-dependent communities have innovative conflict mitigation ideas, but lack resources to develop them. By empowering such innovators with inclusive makerspaces, design thinking training, technical skills and entrepreneurship support, we can convert their ideas into refined products. Hence, we build skills that are valuable for the modern economy; catalyze a sense of agency among marginalized communities to solve their own problems; and ultimately, reduce human-wildlife conflict. Our steps: - Identify existing innovators with prototypes (we are already aware of 32 in North Bengal). Also identify a larger set of potential innovators, particularly recent graduates and students, to keep new ideas flowing. - Implement a capacity building programme for both existing and potential innovators, emphasizing creativity, peer-learning, team-building and grassroots level insight to develop prototypes (including remote learning via a custom app to reflect post-COVID realities). - Co-develop the most promising prototypes into finished products and sell them (with equitable profit sharing) as stand-alone solutions, bundled with our existing early warning system or via licensing.

4. Innovation: How are you innovating or using unique approaches to solve the problem?

Our fundamental innovation (one that few other organizations do) is to view the indigenous and marginalized communities that live among wildlife as a rich source of creative ideas for co-development, rather than passive recipients of paternalistic aid or authoritarian instructions. We believe rural communities aspire to participate in the ideas-driven modern economy just like you and me, so we focus on enabling them to develop their innovations (technological and non-technological). Thus, we help local innovators find and enhance their own agency, as co-creators of exciting new products that mitigate human-wildlife conflict. Even if their ideas don’t lead to a product, they will gain skills that are transferable to attractive modern jobs.

5. Collaboration: How does your initiative seek to bring key players together to preserve biodiversity?

The most important, yet most ignored, players in biodiversity conservation are people who live alongside wildlife, and bear the costs of conservation through conflict but not the benefits. To remedy this, we collaborate with creative changemakers (our existing list includes farmers, teachers and carpenters) within these communities. Experts in design thinking, animal behavior, electronics and entrepreneurship (sourced from conservation technology companies, conservation organizations and research groups) will help us design the content of the capacity building programmes. The third set of key players are the administration (Forest Department), with whom we will develop the larger legal framework and safeguards of this programme. Their participation is crucial to ensuring our solutions integrate with their existing conflict mitigation work. Finally, elected representatives of local government will be key players in fostering an atmosphere of trust and building long-term sustainability.

6. Impact: how has your project made a difference so far — in terms of both business outputs and social impact? How do you plan on measuring progress?

Since March 2019, our focus has been to install our early warning devices in conflict hotspots (48 installed in 2 districts; 46 scheduled post-COVID; 50 orders expected) with governmental support. The devices consist of a sequential set of units mounted on poles, each combining multiple detection methods (e.g., artificial intelligence-based image recognition) to detect animals passing by, thereby triggering a warning siren for quick response. The devices have detected (with 97% detection rate ) ~200 incidents of elephants entering villages at night – each of which may have otherwise caused human casualties or triggered retaliatory killing of elephants. We have trained 30 community members in device maintenance and monitoring. We are already aware of 6 high-fidelity, 7 medium-fidelity and 19 low-fidelity prototypes already in use by innovators in North Bengal. These will be further developed and tested for efficacy, with quality measured in reduction in conflict incidents.

7. Growth strategies: what are your main strategies for scaling your impact?

In the short to medium term, our grassroots innovators model will piggyback on our own device installations (2-3 times growth expected over next 1 year) to reduce costs via shared logistics. Once we build a replicable model for a local ecosystem of innovation, we will expand to nearby wildlife-rich regions of Bhutan and Nepal, followed by other parts of Asia. We will increase reach through a custom learning app, which will also be essential in a post-COVID world. As the co-developed devices reach production stage in the medium term, we will also formalize the creation of a social enterprise to focus on selling them. In the long term, the grassroots innovator programme will be a separate vertical apart from our own device installations.

8. Creating shared value: How does your initiative create value for society? Or different stakeholders?

This initiative will support rural, marginalized and indigenous people in finding and developing their own agency. This fundamental behavioral change simultaneously upskills them for the modern economy, improves the efficacy of our own device installations and gives them the opportunity to become entrepreneurs with us. Thus, all participants will gain new transferable skills for modern jobs; some of them will develop into entrepreneurs and grow with us; and society (including local communities who bear the brunt of wildlife conflict, and forest managers who bear the brunt of local anger) will benefit from locally-developed, sustainable solutions to mitigate human-wildlife conflict.

9. Financial sustainability plan: can you tell us about your plan to fund your project and how that plan will be sustainable in the short, medium, and long term?

In the short term, our grassroots innovators project benefits from shared logistics and resources with our other projects like installation of our early warning systems. This has enabled us to already co-develop refinement plans for 6 of 28 prototypes developed by grassroots innovators, and conduct user research and design for our learning app. External funding will improve our pace in making this a replicable model. In the longer term, financial sustainability hinges on income-generating activities: a) conversion of the co-developed prototypes into monetizable products, b) expanding sales to new sites including outside India, c) developing the grassroots innovator programme into a course that donors will pay us to run in other sites.

10. Team: what is the current composition of your current team (types of roles, qualifications, full-time vs. part-time, board members, etc.), and how do you plan to evolve the team’s composition as the project grows?

Koustav Choudhury: Electronics engineering, conservation education and community linkages at grassroots level. Aditya Gangadharan: Strategic planning of conservation initiatives, project management, entrepreneurship. Srilakshmi Krishnaswamy: Social behavioral change strategist, to ensure we design for long-term sustainability of initiatives. Deep Shubhra Biswas: Conservation practice, human-wildlife conflict mitigation. Shimu Saha and Pradyut Roy: Software development, self-help groups.

11. How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Search engine

12. Connection to Biodiversity: How does your project directly contributes to preserving and/or restoring biodiversity? Please share data to support your answer.

Endangered large mammals like elephants, tigers and rhinos are not just important in themselves, but also act as flagships that spur efforts for habitat conservation – thus also conserving all the biodiversity that share the same habitat. If these flagship species are hunted out from sites, habitats will slowly lose protection and change to human use areas. A major contributor to such illegal killing (particularly in densely populated countries where forests are small and surrounded y human habitation) is retaliation by local people, who suffer enormous economic losses and casualties at the hands of large mammals. Around 400 people are killed by elephants every year in India, and 100 elephants are killed by human causes; corresponding numbers for tigers are around 100 and 20 respectively. Thus, large mammal conservation can only be sustainable if the people (typically indigenous and marginalized) who have to share the same landscape with them are able to live in safety like you and me.

13. Example: Please walk us through one or two concrete examples that show how your solution will solve the problem you’re trying to address.

Hypothetical journey for the farmer in our cover photo: Tired of crop-raiding pigs and deer, he has tied a rod attached to a cement sack that acts as a sail, and forces the rod to pass between two heavy beer bottles. The bottle are pushed apart, then hit each other, making a loud noise and scaring animals. He then signs up with us to improve his design. He now learns that animals habituate to sound, so he decides to create multiple sounds, only at night. He uses design thinking to develop a new sail that uses the strong diurnal change in local wind direction to function only at night; he also supplements the beer bottles with a range of other materials that make different sounds. By now, he has also learned how to generate such sounds electronically, so he does that and 3D prints a rainproof case in our makerspace. He evaluates each prototype model using data on number of animals scared off. He then markets the final production model locally and beyond. We support this entire process.

14. Marketplace: Who else is addressing this problem in your environment? How does your proposed project differ from these other approaches?

We base our approach on makerspace principles, which are common in the development field but rare in the context of biodiversity conservation. The few biodiversity-related outputs from such makerspaces (e.g., producing elephant repellent out of chilli and dung, or making charcoal briquettes) are modest in their scope, ambition and replicability. They are also of limited interest to young local people, who want to participate in the modern economy – which is driven by ideas, innovation, technology and entrepreneurship. A project more in line with our approach is from Kenya, where an incubator supported a village team to develop a motion-sensor based early warning system that detects lions entering villages. We applaud such efforts, and want to build a model that does not just support one-off ideas, but incubates many such ideas. We are building the modules of a system that can easily be replicated globally in areas where human-wildlife conflict needs creative solutions.

15. Awards & Recognitions: What awards or recognitions, if any, has the project received so far?

We conceived of this project in January 2020. In the three months since then, we have successfully been empanelled to the ‘Curated List’ of high-impact conservation projects by WWF-Panda Labs via the ‘Impactio Innovate for People & Wildlife Challenge’. Our organization has functioned as an informal network of ~127 wildlife enthusiasts since 2018; as of April 2020, we have been approved as a formal non-governmental organization.

16. Financial Sustainability – funding breakdown: Please list a quick breakdown of your funding, indicating an estimated percentage that comes from each source.

For this particular project, individual donations make up 95% of our funding so far. When our work under other funded projects take us to areas where innovators are present, we use that opportunity to informally interact with them and strengthen our connections with them (in effect, this functions as in-kind support). We expect a grant from WWF- Panda Labs (an NGO) though the amount is not yet known. More generally, our members (in their spare time) have implemented ~USD 25,000 worth of field projects funded by 4 donors and local supporters between 2019 and now. At the organization level, 80% of activities are funded by external donors; 10% by local donors and 10% by voluntary contributions. We aim to increase the contribution of earned income to 15%, initially via our existing early warning systems. Over time, we expect this percentage to increase as the grassroots innovators projects we support make the transition into production.

17. How do you plan to influence your field of work if you are a winner of the Act for Biodiversity Challenge? How would you invest the prize money to leverage your work?

The field of biodiversity conservation is currently broken. Historically, it relied on authoritarian measures that conserved biodiversity, but at great cost to local people who had no choice but to share the landscape with conflict-prone species, leaving them bitter and resentful. With increasing democratization and awareness of rights, it has moved to a more paternalistic model that ‘helps’ communities through low-skill jobs with little growth or sustainability in the 21st century economy. We want to build the third stage of wildlife conservation: where local communities exercise their own agency to solve local problem within the legal framework; where this problem-solving is driven by creative ideas that come from local changemakers; where these innovative ideas enhance modern skills, create new jobs and open up entrepreneurship opportunities; and, where the role of external agencies is to equitably support this process, rather than build capacity ‘up to here but no further’.

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