Book Review: ‘The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator’, pt 1.



reluctant innovator coverInnovation is more than just a development buzz word, it’s way of approaching some of the world’s most pressing problems. Through our articles we parse out the ideas that people have designed to solve intractable issues in communities around the world. We look at how these ideas take shape and what methods they employ, because they are all changing the world, one step at a time

But what of those behind the idea? The tinkerers, the thinkers, the dreamers? After assessing their work, there isn’t much space left to look at the innovators who are changing the landscape of international development.

Each Friday this month we’re featuring a series of articles focused on the innovators themselves– their light bulb moments, the struggles, and importantly, how they came to make a difference.

Ken Banks, author and innovator, is the editor of a book every international development student should read, The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator. This series will review the first four chapters of the book. Over the next month, we will be rolling these out each week, giving you a snapshot of the innovators whose work has already made a significant impact on the lives of many.

If you are interested in the book, download a sample by clicking on the cover image, or better yet, support their work and buy a copy (available in hard copy and ebook).



Chapter One: Let a Billion Readers Bloom, by Brij Kothari


Chapter one of this inspiring collection of innovative tales is all about determination and stick-with-it-ness. It is also about serendipity and stumbling upon a creative solution to a monumental problem. Who knew that an ethnobotanical knowledge researcher watching a Spanish film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, with English subtitles could come up with a way to improve the literacy of millions of people in India?

Author Brij Kothari describes how he was in the final stretch of his PhD studies at Cornell University and avoiding the daunting task of writing his dissertation on the conservation of indigenous ethnobotanical knowledge in Andean communities of Ecuador. Using Spanish lessons as a diversion, he was testing his comprehension skills by watching Pedro Almodovar’s quirky movie when it occurred to him that he could learn the language better if the subtitles were in Spanish, not English. Extrapolating, he realized that barely-literate and illiterate Indians could benefit the same way if popular Hindi film songs on TV were subtitled in Hindi. The seed of this idea was planted in 1996. The rest of the story is dedicated to its 11-year germination and eventual blossoming.

Brij KothariKothari approaches the grueling process of gathering evidence and convincing policy makers in a thorough, academic fashion. He details his initial literature review to see what, if any, conclusions had been reached on same language subtitles (SLS) and literacy, and found almost no research had been done on the subject. After graduating and becoming a faculty member of the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, India, Kothari was able to nurture his dream of SLS helping the masses. Testing subtitled song videos on street corners, he recorded reactions and assessed eye movements. Then he asked public broadcasters to include SLS on their Hindi film song shows. Though his initial research was promising and showed viewers’ engagement, time and again, he hit a brick wall with broadcasters, who believed it would detract from the shows’ entertainment value.

Kothari ‘s early education at Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education in Pondicherry, India, instilled in him a determination to do good in the world. The school’s guiding philosophy was to “awaken a love for learning, built on the precept that every life has a higher transformational purpose.”

Much of Kothari’s story involved searching for funding to continue the research as broadcasters hemmed and hawed about providing support. Money came in dribs and drabs from the Indian Space Research Organization, then the World Bank granted the project $250,000 and Kothari was able to snag a commitment to run SLS on one of the longest running nationally telecast programs of Hindi film songs.

Every step of the way, Kothari continued his research, comparing baseline results and measuring the same audience a year later. Ambush techniques were employed to start a conversation with the CEO of the Broadcasting Corporation of India. After an elevator pitch in the CEO’s car on the way to his hotel, SLS was put on songs in feature films and was allowed on more national programs.

Despite the progress, money was still an issue since all the broadcasters stipulated there could be no cost to them.

A Reuters Fellowship led Kothari to Google Foundation money for a couple of years and fellowships from Ashoka and Schwab Foundation. The project’s research proved literacy among viewers had increased. SLS exposure doubled functional literacy among school children.

In 2009, Bill Clinton endorsed SLS at the Clinton Global Initiative and still, Kothari experienced roadblocks within the Indian government. Appeals for SLS to become part of government literacy policy fell on deaf ears.

The project received many awards and support, including from the USAID All Children Reading Grand Challenge in 2012 and in 2013 Gordon Brown, UN Special Envoy for Global Education, became a fan, spreading the word in sound bites.

Kothari had reached the top rung of policymakers and was waiting for a financial commitment of five years for 50 programs at the end of this piece. I got the feeling he would push for however many years it might take to get SLS under Bollywood musicals. A simple idea, matched with Kothari’s indomitable spirit, might just result in literacy for the Indian masses. Stay tuned.


Check back next Friday for part two of the series.


Maureen Littlejohn

Maureen, a seasoned travel writer and communications consultant, currently lives in Hanoi and works with the Uniterra program as a communications/marketing advisor for a local partner college.


  1. Thanks for the wonderful introduction and review!

    By way of an update, Brij is indeed continuing his work and has had some amazing successes, which shows that if you persevere things can pay off. Although he’ll admit he still has some way to go, upwards of 300 million children are getting their first taste of literacy skills today thanks to SLS.

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