October 12, 2007

Building A Better Rat Trap Helps Alleviate Poverty

Research by Dr. Siri Terjesen

The case study, "Building a Better Rat Trap: Technological Innovation, Human Capital and the Irula," by Siri Terjesen, Management Professor at the Neeley School of Business at TCU, is scheduled to appear in November in the academic journal Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice .

The Irulas' accomplishments are due to two factors: the remarkable efforts of Sethu Sethunarayanan, founder and director of the Center for the Development of Disadvantaged People (CDDP), an organization dedicated to aiding the Irulas through a variety of self-help measures, and the hard work and determination of the Irulas themselves.

"It's difficult for most people to believe there is an entire group of people who catch rats for a living," says Terjesen, an authority on entrepreneurship, strategy and international business. "Until I visited the project, I was skeptical such a dramatic change in people's lives could be achieved. The Irulas are a great example of how bringing technology to the rural poor can help them improve their lives one step at a time."

Traditionally, the Irulas catch rats by lighting a fire in a primitive clay pot, then using their mouths to blow air through a small hole on the bottom to force the smoke into a rat burrow. The Irulas then dig out the stunned rat, along with any grains the rat had accumulated. The rats and grains are their primary food sources.

Farmers, who can lose up to 25 percent of a crop to rats, pay for every rat removed. However, the clay-pot method of catching rats is successful only 40 percent of the time, and the average rat catcher makes the equivalent of $15 to $30 per month, well below the $35 deemed necessary for basic needs.

Rat catchers also suffer from serious health problems, such as burned lips and hands, and smoke inhalation resulting in respiratory and cardiac illness.

Upon seeing the hardships of the tribe, the Center for the Development of Disadvantaged People sought to develop a better rat trap. Sethu and a mechanical engineer designed a steel trap with a wooden handle to prevent hand burns and a crank to eliminate smoke inhalation and lip burns. He then requested feedback from the Irulas, to make sure the design met their needs.

The CDDP applied for and received a $98,500 grant from the World Bank to help the Irulas make the new rat traps. After identifying the most needy Irulas among 170 villages, the CDDP selected 1,500 participants to make, earn, or purchase the traps.

The CDDP set up a small factory in an Irula village and hired 50 young women to run it. Since men and boys were expected to catch rats, and married women were expected to take care of domestic duties, hiring unmarried women was the best way to avoid disrupting their culture. The factory operates without electricity, utilizing hand tools, and has produced some 2,000 traps so far.

The traps are sold to the Irulas for approximately $25 apiece.

"In the past, the Irulas were given things for free by higher-status social groups and non-governmental organizations. But they found many of these things were useless to them and developed the view that unless they work for what they receive, the item doesn't have value," says Terjesen.

The new rat traps are distributed in special village ceremonies, where each recipient agrees to a 10-commitment pledge signed with a thumbprint.

"I was part of one of those ceremonies," says Terjesen. "Many of the women came from far away, all dressed up, to get the traps for their families. Sethu made a speech on the progress the people had made, and I handed the women the traps." 

The Irulas are proud of their first use of mechanized technology. With the new traps, the rat-catching success rate is 95 percent, and participating Irula families can afford to send their children to school, a promising development for a tribe that has 99 percent illiteracy.

"Many Irula children now go to school instead of catching rats," Terjesen says.

This is all just the beginning. Approximately three million Irulas live in India, and only a relative few have been helped so far. Sethu and the CDDP hope to expand the project, says Terjesen.

"As India becomes more globalized, it's important that large portions of its population not be left behind," she says. "Many more people can eventually be freed from the cycle of poverty."

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