Chotukool: Keeping things cool with frugal innovation
Chotukool is an innovative approach to tackling the problem of food storage in India, a country in which around one-third of all food spoils and an estimated 80 percent of households do not have access to or use a refrigerator. Chotukool is the brainchild of Gopalan Sunderraman, Executive Vice President of Godrej & Boyce Manufacturing, a 100 year-old company based in Mumbai, India. Mr. Sunderraman is also the driving force behind the company’s Breakthrough Management and Disruptive Innovation initiative. Not satisfied with a business as usual approach and inspired by Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen’s work on disruptive innovation, Mr. Sunderraman is seeking to develop a new business model to serve a pressing unmet social need.
Transforming adversity into opportunity
“Instead of continuously trying to improve performance to be more and more competitive, the idea is to create a platform that just meets the needs of consumers,” Mr. Sunderraman explains. “This way you can create a completely different market. Every disadvantage in society today that is not served is a potential new business.”
To create an affordable and attractive food storage solution for people who had never used a refrigerator, Mr. Sunderraman and his team turned the traditional product development process on its head. Translating their vision into reality was no mean task. “To convert an idea into a real business is a very painful iterative effort that involves a lot of sweat. It’s not just a eureka moment,” he explained.
An example of the power of frugal innovation, Chotukool is a groundbreaking product on many levels – in terms of the technology used, its design and the business model employed to develop and deploy it.
Chotukool is a 45-liter plastic container that can cool food to around 8 to 10 degrees on a 12-volt battery. Abandoning the compressor technology used in domestic fridges, it uses a thermoelectric or solid state cooling system. It does not have a front opening door but opens from the top to ensure that the maximum amount of cool air remains in the container when opened.
Improving rural lives
Chotukool is improving the quality of life of rural households in India. A low-cost solution to preserving perishable foods for longer periods, it is also creating new income-generating opportunities. “Chotukools are being used by small shops and kiosks which are now able to serve cold drinks and chocolates. This enhances their ability to earn money,” Mr. Sunderraman said. Beyond its usefulness as a cooling mechanism, the Chotukool is also a source of pride. People are also looking for some prestige, they also want to make choices, so we are now looking at ways to personalize Chotukool and still keep it at an affordable price,” he said.
Enter the “just right” philosophy
Co-created with the community, Chotukool has been designed to meet the specific needs of users. “We wanted to give the people something they can use to meet their daily needs. This is what we call the just right philosophy. This approach is not only relevant for India, it is relevant for the entire world which is the potential market for this product,” Mr. Sunderraman explained.
Working with communities on this project fuelled Mr. Sunderraman’s conviction that it is “possible to make a difference to their lives.” While observation “to try to understand the unmet needs of the people who do not use a refrigerator,” is crucial, Mr. Sunderraman is convinced of the advantages of full community immersion. “Only when you jump into the fishbowl can you learn how the fish live. If you’re outside the fishbowl observing you cannot understand what the fish go through. Only when you jump in can you understand how cold the water is, or that some fish bite but most of them are friendly.”
Novel marketing and distribution strategies
Rejecting standard models of distribution, Godrej & Boyce worked with India Post to deploy the Chotukool to target communities. “The India Post network is very well spread in India and is about three or four times larger than the best logistic suppliers,” he observed. For its marketing campaign, the company relied on word-of-mouth recommendations. “We used the logic of people communicating with each other, a kind of word-of-mouth diffusion which is very slow but the best way to reach out because each region and each community in India is different and you need to tailor communications to people’s needs.” The company is also working with various non-governmental organizations and community self-help groups to spread the word about Chotukool.
Chotukook Mark II
As the technology continues to improve - Mr. Sunderraman predicts that the next version of Chotukool will bring cooling temperatures down to between 2 to 8 degrees – it will be possible to store vaccines and other medicines. “Imagine if you were able to store small quantities of medicines and vaccines in so many more places, this would significantly improve access to health care. All this could be done with 12 volts,” he mused.
Innovation and the benefits of a frugal approach
Reflecting on the importance of innovation, Mr. Sunderraman said, “if you want society to develop and if you want to improve the lives of people, the only way to do so is through innovation. Efficiencies can make it cheaper but innovations can actually reach out to a much larger untapped market. That is why innovation is important.”
Mr. Sunderraman noted that frugal innovation was particularly relevant to developing countries because it helps create affordable products that people would not otherwise be able to access. Frugal innovation, however, is not just about affordability it also represents a low-cost, low-risk way of innovating. “The ability to create at a lower price means lower levels of investment are required up front. This reduces the risk and allows you to do more iterations without which these innovations cannot succeed,” he explained. “If you have a product that is frugal and an investment process that is frugal, I think innovations will multiply exponentially in the world.”
Intellectual property as an enabler
Intellectual property, Mr. Sunderraman noted was “a very interesting enabler.” Having invested so much time and effort in developing Chotukool, it was important for his company to be able to protect and get a return on the investment it has made. “It took several iterations before we actually got it right. If you’re putting in so much effort you don’t want to have a second mover who hasn’t put anything into the process to have an advantage,” he explained. However, he cautioned that IP should not be used as a barrier to access but rather should support the broad diffusion of innovations. Noting the need to bridge the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” in this world, he urged policy-makers to “look at both sides of the world and to see how intellectual property can enable those who don’t have to get closer to those who have. Bridging the gap between developed and developing is all progress and I think intellectual property should be able to help society progress.”
The development of Chotukool is not simply the story a product with a new design, it is the beginning of what promises to be an epic journey towards a “cooler” tomorrow for many households in rural India and beyond. By adopting a broader vision that puts the needs of consumers front and center, Mr. Sunderraman and his team have found a way to penetrate an untapped market. “My experience in developing Chotukool has taught me that it is not just the technology or the product, and it’s not just about the design, it’s about blending with the business model and reaching out to customers, that is what is really important,” he said. “By combining these elements we are actually multiplying the potential of the market in a very big way,” he added.
The Chotukool is game-changing because:
- it offers a portable, low-cost, low-energy (it runs on a 12-volt battery) cooling solution using solid-state technology rather than a conventional, compressor-driven system making it ideal for use in remote low-income communities with low levels of electricity provision;
- created according to the “just right” philosophy, it meets the specific needs of the community;
- it demonstrates the power of frugal innovation and the feasibility of low-cost, low-risk innovation;
- it blends innovative technology and design with an innovative business model and is improving the quality of life of thousands of households across India.