Irula people - Tamil Nadu

Watch the 3-minute video about the Irula rat catchers

Irula people - Tamil Nadu
Headquarters of the Centre for Development of Disadvantaged People.
Headquarters of the Centre for Development of Disadvantaged People

When we design a new product, we keep in mind the concrete needs, fears, desires, frustrations, and pains of the customer or stakeholder. In this famous case analysis by Siri Tejesen, designers solved a terrible customer pain — respiratory diseases — that Irula tribes members acquire when using the traditional method to catch rats. More Design Thinking Use Cases.

Cover of Frederick & Kuratko (2010), Entrepreneurship Theory Process Practice (Melbourne: Cengage) This Case Analysis appeared in Howard H. Frederick & Donald F. Kuratko, Asia-Pacific edition of Entrepreneurship Theory Process Practice (Melbourne: Cengage, 2009) ISBN: 9780170181570

Excerpted from Dr Siri Terjesen, Professor, Florida Atlantic University College of Business. Download document.

Sethu Sethunarayanan, Director of the non-profit, non-government organisation (NGO) Center for Development of Disadvantaged People (CDDP), smiled as World Bank President James Wolfensohn presented him with the prestigious Global Development Marketplace grant to develop innovative technologies to alleviate poverty. At the podium, Sethu said:

“There are three million poor Irula Indigenous tribal people of untouchable status in India who make their income by catching rats in agricultural fields. They use a clay pot filled with burning straw to smoke these rats out of their burrows. Their mouths and hands touch the pot, and they are severely affected by heart, skin, eye and respiratory problems. We developed a new hand-operated steel rat trap which eliminates the health hazards completely and enables the Irula to double their income.”

As Sethu returned to his seat in the World Bank auditorium, he thought about how this journey began, on a morning walk through impoverished Irula villages in Tamil Nadu, India, to encounter the Irula rat catchers.


On a sticky morning in January 2003, Sethu walked briskly, anxious to check on the progress of a new drinking water pump well installed in a remote Thiruvallar district village. Sethu wanted to make sure that the new pump was installed properly, so that the Irula people who live in the village would no longer have to bring water from several miles away. Sethu was pleased to see that the pump worked perfectly, but exhausted from his two mile hike. He asked a lady villager for some water to drink. Sethu glanced down at a clay pot in front of the hut door and noticed a similar pot in front of most of the huts. Thinking he might be able to drink out of this pot, he picked it up, but noticed that, in addition to the top opening, there was a small hole at the base of the pot. He put the pot down and picked up a neighbor’s pot which also had an extra hole.

Image of original rat catching pot
Irula rat catchers holding the traditional holed rat smoker that caused respiratory problems.

I asked, ‘How will you carry water in the holed pot?’ She replied with a sarcastic smile, ‘This is not for carrying water, but for killing rats. My husband carries this pot when he goes rat catching. He looks for a rat burrow and places the pot at its entrance. He stuffs wet straw into the hole and lights it, creating smoke. On this little hole at the bottom, he places his mouth and blows air through, pushing the smoke out the other side of the pot and into the rat’s burrow. The smoke traps the rat. Then my husband digs into the earth and gets the trapped rat. He brings it home and I cook it for dinner. But sometimes he also comes home with burned lips and hands from handling the pot when the straw is burning. He doesn’t always catch a rat.

Sethu handed the pot back to the woman, but he did not stop thinking about the inefficiency of this pot and the resulting health problems. In 1998, then 38-year-old Sethu had established his own NGO, the Center for Development of Disadvantaged People (CDDP). CDDP is one of only a handful of NGOs recognised by both the UN and the World Bank. Its mission is ‘To develop those who are disadvantaged educationally, economically, socially and culturally through self-help and self-governing collective development activities’. CDDP’s target areas are 80 villages in Andhra Pradesh India. The programs are aimed at helping women and children belonging to socially and economically weak sectors, unorganised agriculture labour, small and marginal farmers, youth, destitutes, orphans, physically challenged and other socially and economically disadvantaged people. CDDP has 23 employees and 56 volunteers.

The Irula

Unknown photographer from the Madras School of Arts
Photo of Irula men from the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu.

An estimated three million Irula people live in India. Until recently, the Irula lived in forests and eked out an income by bartering or selling honey, wax and firewood to local villages in exchange for village products. They obtained food by hunting for vegetation and wild animals in the forests. The 1976 Forest Protection Bill made the Irula lifestyle illegal, forcing moves into villages of mud huts with straw roofs and dirt floors. Sethu described the situation:

Irula are tribals and considered to be untouchables and unequal in society. For example, they are not allowed to use the wells of upper castes. They live in interior locations from which it is hard to reach towns and cities, and they do not interact with the community outside.

The Irula have a life expectancy of approximately 45 years. Only 5 per cent of Irula children attend school and adults are 99 per cent illiterate. Today, Irulas earn their income by performing physical labour for land owners. For example, men, widows and destitute women catch rats in agricultural fields. The farmers pay per rat and the rat catcher’s average income varies from $15 to $30 per month. The rat may be the Irula’s only source of meat and grains, usually consumed as one meal per day. In the past, some Irula people have starved.

Building a better solution for the Irula rat catchers

60 Minutes Australia Irula Rat Catchers
60 Minutes Australia Irula Rat Catchers

Back in the office, Sethu decided that there might be an opportunity to develop a better rat trap. He and a local engineer fashioned a steel cylinder and hand-crank to generate air for pushing smoke into the burrow and a door on the cylinder for straw and a wooden handle to eliminate direct contact with the hot areas of the trap. Sethu provided sample traps to 15 Irula rat catchers whom he met with regularly to get feedback. The rat catchers brought Sethu to the fields. He remembers:

I asked the catcher, ‘How do you find the rat’? He said: ‘The rat keeps his house like my wife does – very tidy, including the area outside the door. So I know when I come across a burrow hole with a clean entrance, there is a rat inside.

Rats caught by the Irula people and used for sale and sustenance.
Rats caught by the Irula people .

Sethu watched as the rat catchers filled the steel trap with straw. The men located a hole on the bank between two fields, and two other holes about five feet away which they covered with dirt to prevent the rat’s escape and to cause its suffocation. The lead rat catcher dug a larger entrance to the first hole, and put the trap’s pipe inside. The other two men guarded the covered holes and watched as the lead rat catcher opened the trap’s door, lit the straw and cranked the handle. The trap sputtered as smoke filtered down the hole, emerging from another hole in the earth which was then quickly covered. It became clear that if there was a rat inside the hole, it had been deprived of oxygen. The lead rat catcher then removed the trap and began to dig on the side of the hole, following the winding burrow. He reached down the hole and pulled out a dazed rat, stunned by smoke. The rat was then killed with a blow to its head. Sethu and the rat catchers were excited – the trap was a success! Sethu realised that he had identified a suitable technology for this opportunity and decided to seek funding for its commercialisation. Sethu applied for a grant from the annual World Bank Global Development Marketplace in December 2003 and received a grant for $98&&500, enabling him to implement the project.


Sethu and CDDP volunteers began by visiting 170 Irula villages in order to identify the most needy individuals. The visits were conducted simultaneously in order to reach the target deadline, but the visits were not without their problems. As Sethu explained:

We needed to take extra time to explain the project to the villagers. The Irula are especially sensitive to political matters, and at first they thought the CDDP volunteers were politicians … We encountered this problem in every new village.

The selection criteria were health and socioeconomic need, with priority given to those suffering health problems from the old pot fumigation method and whose entire income is based on rat catching. Destitute, deserted and widowed women were also a priority and comprised 15 per cent of beneficiaries.

A basic health check was completed for 1500 beneficiaries. In some cases, special tests for tuberculosis and diabetes, as well as ECG, X-ray and optometry exams were conducted. Treatment was begun for all affected villagers.

Sethu knew that he would need to work closely with the Irula rat catchers to elicit interest in the new technology. Sethu explained:

In the past, the Irulas have been given things by other NGOs and the government, but these things have basically been useless. So they do not like to get things for free. We tried to find out if the pot fumigation method was causing problems and to get them to see the link between the old method and their health troubles.

Production of the rat trap

Image of rat catching machines
Center for the Development of Disadvantaged People (CDDP) in Chennai, India.

A factory was established in a 60 square foot building. Based on 50 workers, eight hours a day, the factory has a monthly capacity of 400 traps, but can easily be expanded. Sethu calculated that each trap would cost $30 to produce, including $25 for raw materials and $5 for labour. In the event of a drop in demand for traps, the factory is equipped to make other steel items to be sold to farmers, including knives, sickles, ploughs, grill gates, chairs and benches.

Irula women manufacturing the advanced rat catcher.
Irula women manufacturing the advanced rat catcher.

Sethu opted to create new opportunities for young, unmarried women who were unemployed. Fifty young women were invited to work in the factory. The women organised themselves into the Tribal Women Technotrapper Producers Society and registered as a small industries cooperative. CDDP transferred whole ownership of the factory to the workers so that the women could control the profits. CDDP hired two technical people to provide three months of training in manufacturing, marketing and finance. The young Irula women, who did not have any business or manufacturing training, took great delight in their new roles. They were paid $35 to $70 a month – very high for village standards – and were able to provide for their siblings and parents.

To make the trap, the girls first trace rectangular shapes on the sheet metal. A compass and chalk are then used to mark a 15-inch diameter circle. Next, a team of girls pulls a heavy handle to cut the metal and drills holes for smoke ventilation. The rectangle piece of steel is rolled through a machine to make it cylindrical. From here, two girls work together to weld the cylindrical rectangle to the circle. Finally, the door and hand crank are added.

Women’s micro-credit collectives

CDDP launched a number of women micro-credit funds, each comprised of 12 to 15 women. The fund enabled the women to obtain small loans for urgent household needs or to begin self-employment activities, reducing dependence on exploiting moneylenders. Each micro-credit group had a revolving fund collected from their monthly saving and also from the interest accrued from the loan. Each woman’s initial contribution was $1 to $2. Fund availability ranged from $200 to $500 depending on each group’s prerogative. The micro-credit groups were often used to purchase the new trap. Once a woman raised 50 per cent of the payment for the trap, she received the trap and paid the remaining half in loan instalments according to a timeline agreed by the group.

Project evaluation

An evaluation committee, composed of local World Bank employees, government officials and development experts, met with the Irula rat catchers beneficiaries, staff and concerned communities to ascertain the impact of the project. The committee learned that many families are now able to send their children to school. Based on the evaluations, the World Bank considers CDDP’s rat trap venture to be a success. Sethu explains:

We estimated that the income of the tribal rat catchers would be doubled. To our surprise, income is more than tripled. There is great enthusiasm among the families. Another important unexpected positive development is that the rat catchers could use the trap for catching rabbits, foxes and other small animals which live in burrows. This fetches very high income for them.


Sethu identified the following major challenges: factory expansion, NGO alliances, micro-credit developments, providing support for special projects, continuing to develop technology-based solutions, and fundraising. With over 100 million small farmers seeking the Irula rat catchers’ help, the trap is in great demand. CDDP has taken orders for over 2000 devices. Sethu considered the factory expansion options,

We could expand the factory to more than 50 employees, but then it would need to be registered under the Big Industries Act and we would incur enormous taxes and other bureaucratic problems. Instead, we could create a number of small factories across the villages. We would also reduce transportation costs and the local people would be employed. If the demand for traps ever falls, these small factories can produce steel products for farmers instead. We also need to figure out a way to lower our overall costs to make the traps so we can have more profit.

Another challenge is to determine the best loan structure that will enable the Irula to buy new traps and repay their loans. Relatedly, Sethu is eager to explore other possibilities with the micro-credit.

Finally CDDP would like to continue to devote resources towards special projects such as the release of children who are bonded labourers in other villages.

Sethu and his team continue to use technology to create innovative solutions for the poor, including a smokeless oven and a natural water purification system that uses materials, such as indigenous plants, which are easily found in impoverished areas. CDDP has received other international funding.

Project expenses 2004 (in US$)

Materials and equipment: machinery and raw materials to make 1500 traps $67&&197
Training: making traps and other steel items to be sold to farmers $9435
Health and self-help groups: identification and treatment of health problems, formation of micro-credit groups, societies and workshops $7529
Personnel $7053
General administration $2930
Travel $2300
Information dissemination $2056
Total expenses $98,500

Discussion questions

  • What makes Sethu’s new trap an appropriate technology for the Irula rat catchers?
  • How do you imagine the product designers used empathy and compassion to identify the pains of the Irula rat cathers?
  • What characteristics of Sethu, CDDP and the Irula villagers enabled their success?
  • Why was micro-credit effective for the Irula village women?

Source: Terjesen, S. (2007a). Building a Better Rat Trap: Technological Innovation, Human Capital, and the Irula. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 31(6), 953–963. ;Terjesen, S. (2007b). Note to Instructors: Building a Better Rat Trap. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 31(6), 965–969.

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