Meet brothers Refaz and Ishfaq Wani from Kashmir, who have more than 30 innovations to their name and mutliple national and international awards for their creative work, as well as a stamp of approval from Dr APJ Abdul Kalam
Unlike other children in their town Wandevalgam Soyan in Kashmir, twin brothers Refaz and Ishfaq Wani recall most of their childhood being a struggle for survival.
“When we were in class 6, we went with our father to offer namaz on Eid. We spotted so many children near a toy shop while on our way, and asked our father if we could buy some. He answered with a gentle no, and assured us that there were unique toys waiting for us when we got home,” Refaz recalls.
Their father Ahmad worked as a labourer, and the resultant income made it difficult for their family to make ends meet. “It was with great difficulty that he was able to afford our education,” Refaz tells The Better India.
That day, when the trio returned home, Ahmad asked his children to collect mud from the verandah and pour water into it to make clay. “He then made some shapes of animals and other items for us to play with. We were amazed by the gesture and his creativity. The delicate toys made from mud broke after a few days,” he says.
Inspired by their father’s talent, Refaz and Ishfaq tried their hands at making some toys themselves. Their creativity gave great results, and they began selling the toys and pots in their town. “It made us popular,” Refaz, now 29, says.
The toys were their first tryst with engaging with their creative mindspace — and with time, this creativity has only resulted in more innovations.
‘Creative twins of India’
Speaking about their first innovation, Refaz says that the brothers were about 14 years old when they saw an earthmover in their village. “Locals were fascinated by this new, massive machine and its multifunctional ability to move earth and even dig pits in a short span,” he says.
They then created a makeshift version of the earthmover that did not require any engine and operated manually instead. “It did the job of two labourers, saving time and effort,” he says.
In 2010, they came in contact with G M Bhat, a professor at Kashmir University. “He guided us to channelise our talent and encouraged us to participate in the Central government’s Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research (INSPIRE), an innovative programme sponsored and managed by the Department of Science & Technology. He also supported us with financial aid,” he says.
In the following year, the twins participated on the national level at the All India Ignite Competition, held at the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), Ahmedabad.
They submitted 15 innovations, of which their product, a foldable water bottle, won the award among 26 competitors. “Our innovative bottle can fit in a pocket and carry milk, water and other liquids simultaneously. The bottle contains separate compartments that expand as needed to carry different items. It is a simple concept, but probably not thought about,” he adds.
Refaz says that they received the award from then president Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. “He addressed us by a unique name — ‘Creative Twins of India’ — and advised us to pursue education in science. “He said, ‘You will benefit from it’,” Refaz adds.
He says that the interaction with Dr Kalam became a turning point in their lives. Refaz and Ishfaq received the National Award for their innovations in 2012, 2013 and 2014. In 2012, they even bagged an award in Canada.
To date, they say they have produced 36 innovations, which include devices such as an apple catcher, a multi-fruit collecting ladder, an automatic food serving vessel, and a washing-cum-drying machine.
The brothers have also innovated a ‘spade and hoe’, a heat conserving utensil, an injection breaker, engine parts for vehicles, a cow urine collection device, a walnut collation instrument and an apple grading device, to name a few.
The duo says they have about 500 innovation ideas written down as of now. In 2021, they received a gold medal in the 6th Istanbul International Invention for ISIF 21 in Turkey.
“We have set up two startups, Agro Tech Plant and Wani Agro Tech, incubated by the Punjab Technical University, where we studied. The ‘spade and hoe’ and the apple cutter are being commercialised and will soon be out for marketing,” Ishfaq says.
The apple cutter uses electric power to operate a blade that chops the fruit from trees without the need to pluck them by climbing and risking lives. The ‘spade and hoe’ serves the purpose of the traditional spade and hoe to prepare the soil for farming. However, their innovative models make the tools easy to carry and save money.
“The conventional spade and hoe require the farmers to discard the entire tool in case of damage. However, our innovative model enables us to replace the damaged portion of the tool, which saves 50 per cent of the total cost. Saving half the cost by repairs is a significant benefit for small farmers,” Ishfaq notes.
‘We need financial support’
Ishfaq notes that the reason behind a low conversion rate of ideas into actual products is due to a lack of funds. “Out of the 36 innovations, nine have received patents. It takes about five years for patents to be approved. Moreover, we are not working to generate earnings and solely depend on the award money or external funds to make prototypes and actual products,” he adds.
Ishfaq says, “We do not want to seek jobs and get occupied in the 9 to 5 work cycle, where we would find it difficult to focus on innovations. Instead, we will be satisfied if these innovations are commercialised through our startups and become a source of employment generation.”
While their creative talent has received much appreciation at national and international levels, Ishfaq says they lack support from potential investors and the government.
“For us, thinking of innovation is not a problem as it is mainly identifying an existing problem and finding a simpler solution for it. Patience is often a key as we have no funds to execute the idea. The startup environment has grown in other parts of the country, but the industrial sector is undeveloped in Jammu and Kashmir,” he says.
Ishfaq says lack of industrial development results in the shortage of expertise, as well as access to R&D infrastructure and marketing. “We have approached the district and the state government officials to raise our concerns. Senior officers often appreciate our efforts and congratulate us on our achievements and awards. However, no one extends a hand when it comes to offering financial support,” he says.
Ahmad has been carrying the financial burden of supporting his sons’ innovations. “Our father provides monetary help to the best of his capacity. External financial support from investors would help reduce the burden on him,” he says.
The brothers hope that their recently incubated startups become a stepping stone for their success and improve the startup environment in the state.
Refaz says they want to focus mainly on agricultural innovations. “Farmers contribute a majority to the country’s economy, and nothing can bring us more satisfaction than to improve the lives of farmers,” he says.
He adds, “We would like to see a day when the majority of our innovations turn into commercial products that help us become job creators and benefit the users at large.”
Edited by Divya Sethu