Solar based coolers charge phones in off grid villages and increase sales by 500%. Commerce shows the way – with Coke giving away solar coolers free to off-grid villages

As the first rays of the winter sun hit the small solar panels perched on the roof of Roop Devi’s kirana store in a remote village in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, a direct current compressor motor whirrs into life. It refrigerates a small, opaque, box styled cooler inside her shop. A few hours later Devi opens the box and makes her first sale — an ice-cold bottle of Coke.

It’s just another Coke sold, except that the sale has been made in a village that doesn’t have any electricity. As the thirsty villager gulps down the fizzy chill gushing out of the bottle, Coca-Cola India moves another step closer to prying open the market in 80,000 Indian villages that do not have any electricity. Of these, 25,000 have little chance of being connected to the power grid in the conventional way.

Coca-Cola India first toyed with the idea of a low-cost solar powered cooler when its president and CEO Atul Singh visited a rural market in Uttar Pradesh in the summer of 2009. Shops there served him warm Coke. When Singh returned, he charged two young Coke engineers, Chandan Samanta and Sunil Gulati, now aged 35 and 40, respectively, with the task of figuring out a low-cost solution.

Three-and-a-half years later, 400 such boxes deployed across many villages are delivering a five-fold increase in sales. Coke is convinced that the new business generated more than pays for the cost of the solar cooler. It plans to distribute 1,000 boxes free to women entrepreneurs in Madhya Pradesh, UP, Himachal Pradesh and some parts of West Bengal by 2013.

The number will go up to 4,000-5,000 in the next 3-4 years. Moreover, at least 22 countries in the Coke universe have lifted 400 such boxes from Coca-Cola India and are adapting it to their markets. And Samanta and Gulati have become celebrities – their project was showcased at the global all business unit president’s meet this April and again at Coca-Cola’s shareholder’s meet in May, both at Atlanta.

“It helps when we can decode the consumer’s voice, not just for launching new products, but also newer packages, price points’ etc,” says India CEO Singh. “Solar cooler is one such example of an innovation based on local insights and ground realities.”

Adds Asim Parekh, Vice President – Technical, India & South West Asia, Coca-Cola India: “These (cooler) boxes are bringing first time customers who never tasted our beverages before. The model is helping create a market in areas where Coke was not present at all.”As dusk descends, Devi plugs in her solar lantern in the ‘cooler box’ to generate power for one of the few lights in the village.

Mobile Charging Ports

The light keeps her business going till late in the night. Customers often walk in to plug their mobile phones into the cooler to charge-up the battery.

“I no longer need to shut shop just because it is sunset,” says Devi. The light facilitates longer hours, helping her earn more income. “When people line up to use the mobile charger, they stay longer and buy more food and beverages while they wait,” she adds.

“The mobile charging ports are often used by shopkeepers to attract customers,” adds Coke’s Parekh. “Some allow them to charge their cellphones if they buy something from the shop, others are allowing it free.” Coke is happy giving away the box – named eKOCool solar cooler – free to vendors in villages without power supply.

“On the overall scheme of things, the model has turned out to be sustainable as it is increasing Coke’s presence considerably in rural areas,” he adds.

“Most of India’s population still lacks access to electric grid. Renewables has to be a central part of India’s energy solution,” says Vijay Govindarajan, Professor at Tuck at Dartmouth and author of the NYT and WSJ Best Seller Reverse Innovation. “It is little surprise that Coca-Cola has innovated a solar-powered cooling system for rural markets. Eventually the rich world will adopt this and other renewable energy innovations – when it is time to replace existing assets. This is classic reverse innovation.” The company is already working on version 2 of the eKOCool that can cool 100 bottles. The current version can store only 50 bottles. “When we launched, we thought we will sell only 6-12 bottles. Now, women shopkeepers are saying a capacity of 50 is not enough,” company officials say.

Coca Cola India collaborated with Mumbai-based Western Refrigeration to create the eKOCool solar cooler. The boxes are now also exported to Africa, New Papua Guinea as well as South Africa. In Turkey these boxes are being mounted on trolleys to ferry these bottles on sea beaches.

Source: Economic Times

About Ritesh Pothan

Ritesh Pothan, is an accomplished speaker and visionary in the Solar Energy space in India. Ritesh is from an Engineering Background with a Master’s Degree in Technology and had spent more than a decade as the Infrastructure Head for a public limited company with the last 9 years dedicated to Solar and Renewable Energy. He also runs the 2 largest India focused renewable energy groups on LinkedIn - Solar - India and Renewables - India
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