Cool Food for the Poor

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

A whole wave of high-tech, innovative products are now being developed and marketed for the world’s poor. These products are designed to raise the quality of life of poor people and treat them as a market with real needs, rather than a mass of people to be ignored.

One of the major challenges of the 21st century is finding ways to make these products affordable for the poor – bringing significant development gains in health and quality of life – without increasing the burden on the world’s environment. In India, this vast new market is rapidly coming alive, with new marketing channels reaching deep into the country’s slums and aided by a lively media scene turning people on to new products.

India is turning its large number of well-trained engineers and product designers to the task of making relevant products for the country’s millions of rural poor.

An Indian refrigerator – the ChotuKool fridge (http://www.new.godrej.com/godrej/godrej/index.aspx?id=1) – is designed to stay cool for hours without electricity and to use half the power of conventional refrigerators. Priced at US $69, it is targeted at India’s poor – a population of over 456 million, almost half the total Indian population (World Bank).

Manufactured by Godrej and Boyce and weighing just 7.8 kilograms, it is designed around the stated needs of the poor, who wanted a fridge capable of cooling 5 to 6 bottles of water and 3 to 4 kilograms of vegetables. Portability was crucial as well, since it needed to be moved when large family gatherings take place in small rooms.

As a video shows (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtCRlynp0bM), the fridge looks more like a drinks cooler than the typical large refrigerator. It works by replacing the standard compressor motor found in most fridges with a battery-powered heat exchanger.

A group of village women was involved in the design process from the beginning. The fridges are being distributed by a microfinance group.

While people in developed countries take it for granted they will have both a refrigerator and a steady supply of electricity, the world’s poor have few options for keeping food cool.

There is a strong economic advantage to refrigeration: many farmers have to throw away vegetables or sell at high discounts because they are quickly spoiling in the heat. By refrigerating, they can keep them fresh and get the higher price. For somebody living on less than US $2 a day, this is a big economic boost.

Keeping food cool also comes with health advantages: it slows bacterial (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacteria) growth, which happens at temperatures between 4.4 degrees Celsius and 60 degrees Celsius. This is called ‘the danger zone’, when some bacteria double in just 20 minutes. But when a refrigerator is set below 4 degrees Celsius, most foods will be protected from bacteria growth (USDA).

Through refrigeration, the poor not only can avoid food poisoning, but also benefit from better quality foods, more dietary variety, and better take advantage of buying and storing food when prices are lower. For example, eggs in a refrigerator can last for up to five weeks. Fresh fish can be stored unfrozen for up to two days.

The quality of life improvements from refrigeration are obvious. But with conventional refrigerators costly and dependent on a steady supply of electricity, the poor will not buy them.

An Indian government survey in 2007/08 found daily pay in rural areas ranged from 45 rupees a day (US $1) to 110 rupees a day (US $2.40). This means the ChotuKool fridge costs between one and two month’s wages for a rural worker.

Some argue even the cost of the ChotuKool is still too prohibitive to many poor people. And there are other initiatives out there to offer low-tech solutions to cooling food.

In Nigeria, grassroots inventor Mohammed Bah Abba has designed a cooler called the Zeer (http://practicalaction.org/?id=zeerpots). It works like this: two ceramic earthenware pots of different sizes are arranged one inside the other. The space between the pots is filled with wet sand and kept moist. The user then places their drinks or vegetables inside and covers with a damp cloth. As the water from the moist sand evaporates (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evaporation), the air inside the centre pot is cooled several degrees, enough to preserve some foods and drinks.

Another Indian innovation is also targeting the rural poor consumer: a water filter. Called the Swach water purifier (http://www.tata.com/article.aspx?artid=TtOdcdNuSRk=), it is aimed at households and stands just less than 1 metre (just over 3 feet) in height. The filter is designed to do bulk water purification and is the result of 10 years’ research. It is aimed at the one billion people in the world who do not have access to clean water. It will sell for 1,000 rupees (US $21.50).

It is very slick and modern in design, with a mix of white and clear plastic, resembling the commonly used Brita (http://www.brita.net/) water filters found in many homes. It works by using ash from rice milling to filter out bacteria. The ash is impregnated with silver particles to kill germs that cause diarrhoea, cholera and typhoid. It is able to purify 3,000 litres of water before the cartridge needs to be replaced.

It is manufactured by the Indian industrial giant Tata.

“It was the pressing need of people trapped by the effects of natural disasters such as the (2004 Indian Ocean) tsunami that saw the deployment of one of the earliest versions of this product,” said Tata vice chairman S. Ramadorai. “A key part was the insight that a natural material like rice husk can be processed to significantly reduce water-borne germs and odours when impure water is passed through it.”

Resources:

1) Indian Firms Shift Focus to the Poor: An article in the Wall Street Journal on this new trend. Website: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125598988906795035.html?mod=relevancy

2) Zero Mass Foundation: No-frills banking specially aimed at India’s rural village poor. Website: http://www.zero-mass.org/

3) iNext Billion: Development Through Enterprise catalyzes sustainable economic growth by identifying market opportunities and business models that meet the needs of underserved communities in emerging economies. Website: http://www.wri.org/project/nextbillion