PLYWOOD BOATS IN
One after another in the fishing villages along the lower south-west coast of India, a vast array
of traditional craft are being rapidly replaced by colourful plywood boats which can be fitted
with out-board motors. John Kurien describes this transition, which began as a ripple in
1982, and became a tide in 1995, with about 5000 new boats in operation.
Innovations do not spread in one smooth step: there are identifiable stages in the process.
Initial inventive activity may lead to several
innovations. Many factors may then
encourage the adoption of some of these
innovations among an initial group of
potential users. A few of the adopted
innovations may turn out to be commercially
viable, and finally one or two may diffuse
This article uses the plywood boat example
to describe the dynamics of the process,
from inventive activity to the rapid diffusion
of the plywood boats (PWBs).
Invention to innovation
Major innovations are very often preceded by
slow and continuous experimentation. This
was the case with the launching of the first
prototype plywood boat in 1982, which
followed a decade of experimentation,
initiated in 1973 through the Indo-Belgium
Fisheries Project (IBFP). One of the first
activities of the IBFP involved the training of
youth from the region in boat-building skills.
A boat-building yard was set up at Muttom, a
fishing village at the tip of the Indian
Figure 1: Ply vallum boat (stitch and glue),
South India Credit: Practical Action/Paul
peninsula. But the good quality fibreglass (FRP) boats built as a part of the training did not
interest the majority of the fishermen of the region, who used kattumarams and canoes for
fishing. The boat-builders then began to make flat bottom plywood boats, but these did not
arouse the curiosity of the fishermen either, since the boats needed mechanical propulsion
and the initial costs were still relatively high. The boat- builders soon learned that although
they could make quality boats, they could not sell them. Pursuing the 'prototype' approach to
innovation diffusion without a keen understanding of the needs of the market contributes
more to boat design history than to solving technological problems.
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