Newswise — Because someone built a better rat trap, members of a rural tribe in India have more money, access to better health care and schools, and improved social status.

That's what a researcher from the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University found when she visited and wrote a case study on the Irula Tribe of Southeast India whose main source of income and food comes from catching rats in farmers' fields.

The case study, entitled "Building a Better Rat Trap: Technological Innovation, Human Capital and the Irula," by Dr. Siri Terjesen of TCU in Fort Worth, will appear in the November 2007 issue of the academic journal Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice.

"It's hard to believe there's a whole group of people that still catches rats for a living," says Dr. 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."

Sethu Sethunarayanan, founder and director of the Center for the Development of Disadvantaged People (CDDP), an organization dedicated to aiding the Irulas, enlisted the help of a mechanical engineer to make a rat trap that is effective 95 percent of the time compared to the old method which was successful only 40 percent of the time.

The results: Irulas using the new traps have doubled or tripled their incomes, greater numbers of Irula children are going to school, and more Irulas are receiving health care. The tribe may also be enhancing its social status, as other Indian peoples see the success the Irulas are reaping from improved rat-catching technology. The Irulas' main source of income and food lies in catching rats in farmers' fields, on which they have barely been able to survive. In fact, some Irulas have starved to death over the years. But now assistance in the form of a more efficient rat trap is helping some tribal members to help themselves.

Traditionally, the Irulas catch rats by lighting a fire in a 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 primary food sources for the Irulas.

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 less than half of the time, and the average rat catcher makes the equivalent of $15 to $30 per month, below the $35 deemed necessary for basic needs.

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

Upon seeing the hardships of the tribe, Sethu and the CDDP 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.

Sethu and the CDDP then applied for and received a $98,500 grant from the World Bank to help the Irulas make the new rat traps. After identifying the neediest 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 Dr. Terjesen. With the new traps, the rat-catching success rate is 95 percent, and the Irulas are proud of their first use of mechanized technology. Also, 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," Dr. Terjesen says.

This is all just the beginning, however. 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 Dr. Terjesen. "As India becomes more globalized, it's important that large portions of its population not be left behind," she says. "So many more people could eventually be freed from the cycle of poverty."

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Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice (Nov-2007)