Immersive journeys to help leaders make more impact in the world.

Infusing Compassion with Technology—Rosie Walford on Jaipur Foot

December 06th 2013 00:12
Jaipur Foot provides provides free and affordable artificial limbs and other rehabilitation aids to amputees and disabled people. This enables the physical, economic, and social rehabilitation of physically challenged people living in poverty. Rosie Walford is a leadership coach, psychologist, branding expert, and journalist based out of New Zealand.
 
 
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A moving last visit
As we step through the gates of Jaipur Foot, I don’t know quite where to look. We’re surrounded by amputees, not in shiny wheelchairs, but at ground level on shortened legs, on crutches, or even being carried in by strong friends. In the shade of a tree, one man is re-bandaging the end of his thigh with a grubby rag. 
 
This hospital is not only our last visit on our Journey for Change, but the most moving. The very poor and handicapped turn up without appointment or prior consultation, knowing that they’ll be fitted with a prosthetic leg and foot (or a hand-driven wheelchair if a limb won’t work). One day later, those who hobbled in can literally walk out, absolutely free of charge.  
 
This year, an astounding twenty six thousand people were fitted with the Jaipur Foot – and each one cost just $45, instead of the usual $8,000. We meet with the founder, Shri DR Mehta, to find out how this life-changing care for the penniless can possibly work. 
 
 
A peculiar business model
Silver haired Mr. Mehta is surprisingly jovial in his Nehru jacket and Ronnie Barker specs. He waves a model foot around as he speaks. We grill him on his business model – why not ask beneficiaries to pay just 10% of the foot’s cost? Or why not charge those who can pay? 
 
Mehta explains that of India’s 10 million handicapped, the vast majority are the extremely poor – they are the ones who work down mines and travel between carriages on trains. They don’t have 40 cents, let along $4 to their name. Means testing would only raise tiny sums, and would compromise the powerful appeal of this place. As a totally free service, word has spread without publicity and the poor stream in from far and wide. 
And in 39 years, funding has never dried up. Guffawing at the words of consultants who called his model unsustainable, Mr Metha has discovered that as long as the care is free the proposition is pure, the call to compassion rings true, and private donations continue to flow. 
 
 
Affordable and effective design
I loved touring the limb-fitting labs, with their shelves of toes, foot shaped moulds, doll-pink thighs being sculpted, and at every opportunity, technicians who would roll up their trousers to show us their own prosthetic limbs. 
 
We saw how the Jaipur Foot can be so much cheaper than any other prosthetic. It’s hand assembled using expensive carbon fibre only where flexibility is most needed, around the toes. The leg material is – literally – gutter pipe, unbelievably strong and cheap. Though patient measurements are precise, the tailored moulding of each limb uses really low-tech plaster and cloth – materials you might find in a school art room. 
 
But that’s not to say the Jaipur Foot is crude. Mr Mehta partners both with Stanford (to design the self-lubricating Jaipur Knee, which replicates the natural joint’s many movements for $20) and with MIT (on the development of a low-cost hand). A cutting edge, hyper-technical gait analysis research facility opened this month. The enormous number of patients make this a world-class research lab for universities, at the same time as it’s a model of low-cost innovation.
 
 
Coming from far and wide
Stepping outside, Mr Mehta took us amongst the ranks of bedraggled new arrivals, who tell us they’ve come from the four corners of India, from Bangladesh and Pakistan. Seeing their extreme handicaps and meagre resources, it’s clearly a godsend that the hospital has overturned usual medical process so that it can complete the whole manufacture and fitting in one visit. Such journeys couldn’t be made twice. One man – a teacher before he lost his legs – spontaneously launched into a tear-jerking speech on behalf of all present. It ended by thanking Mr Mehta for ‘returning to us the glory of life’. 
 
We agreed afterwards that though fully funded by donations and grants, Jaipur Foot was nonetheless, astounding social innovation in action. It had brought about new technologies which made limbs available to the poorest in vast numbers; with process innovation, it had eliminated the need for separate consultation visits; there were self-funding collaborations of considerable mutuality with global research faculties; high-value employment for the handicapped had been created too. 
 
Closing the day with feast, dance, and drums
This would have been enough for a day, but the Journeys for Change team continued the stream of wonder. Hipster shopping-lovers from Offroad India led us on a speed-shopping tour of both stylish showrooms and everyday street markets, then, on a dim streetcorner, we were bundled into some rough open jeeps. We rumbled our way out of Jaipur then up and up through some unlit ruins to the imposing sandstone portal of Amber Fort. Though it’s closed at night, we were ushered through the ethereal courtyard and up to a quadrant in the ramparts, which was tented overhead and exquisitely lit with candles just for us. Cocktails in hand, we moved into a latticed marble hall which was built in the 1590’s by Rajput commanders, and ate an exceptionally delicious feast fit for a Rajput. 
 
Even this wasn’t the end. After dinner we trundled down from the fort and along a dusty track to a large white house. In a hidden vaulted room out the back, a troupe of musicians were waiting. They mixed the stirring wails of Sufi song with driving percussion and sinuous saxophone. Was it the trancey rhythm, the spiritual lineage of the singer, or the smell of rose petals scattered on the floor? Something got our entire group up and dancing ecstatically before our day was done.