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Mumbai: In 2005, on the day G. Sunderraman completed 25 years of work at Godrej and Boyce Manufacturing Co. Ltd, he walked into the office of his chairman, Jamshyd Godrej, and declared: “I think I want to do something different now."

Tailor-made: G. Sunderraman and Sanjay Lonial with the ChotuKool, a low-cost refrigerator designed for India’s poorest households. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

The truth was, Sunderraman didn’t really know. In 25 years, he had caromed across the organization, accreting a vast set of skills. He had worked in marketing and sales, in manufacturing, in sourcing and purchase, in supply-chain logistics, and in quality management and strategy. What Sunderraman needed was a role that could synthesize all that came before it. “And then," he says, “things just happened."

Since 2007, Sunderraman has been working—first by himself, and then with further staff numbering precisely one—on the ChotuKool, a low-cost refrigerator designed for India’s poorest households.

In between his other duties as vice-president for corporate development, he worried over equations of cost and power loads and performance coefficients, nudging these elements into a fine balance. Even though the ChotuKool entered the market earlier this year, Sunderraman says its development isn’t over. “We’re still taking in feedback, still working on improvements."

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The ChotuKool is a squat cube, enclosing just under 40 litres of volume and coloured in shades that range from a quiet blue-grey to a striking candy-red. It opens on top to conserve cold air; in fact, the lid hinges out and comes away entirely, in two detachable parts. A power socket sits embedded in the lid, next to two axial fans that dispel heat. When it’s empty, it weighs 7kg. When it’s plugged in, it can cool its contents to 20 degrees below the ambient temperature. The ChotuKool doesn’t attempt to be an icebox; it aspires only to be a serviceable domestic refrigerator.

The ambition to cool the food of rural India is not new. In fact, in a country where a third of all food is lost to spoilage (according to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development) and where refrigerator penetration is less than 18% (according to the Consumer Electronics and Appliances Manufacturers’ Association), that ambition becomes nearly inevitable.

Previous efforts to fill this gap have floundered. In 2002, for instance, an Indo-European Eco-Design team unveiled a Rs5,000 fridge; that fridge hasn’t been seen since. But the dream refuses to die.

Three years ago, a start-up called Promethean Power Systems won $100,000 (Rs46.5 lakh) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to work on inexpensive refrigeration for Indian milk producers. “I look at it as one of the last frontiers to conquer—bringing refrigeration anywhere in the world," Sorin Grama, Promethean’s co-founder, has said.

How to wreck markets

Properly engineered, a low-cost fridge would be a disruptive innovation—a term derived from the theories of Clayton Christensen, a Harvard academic. A disruptive innovation can wreck a market’s contours. It can discover undiscovered consumers, give them a rethought variation on an existing product, and thereby even change the way the existing product is made.

This isn’t just market segmentation, Sunderraman says. “Segmentation would be to take a high-end product and strip it of some features. This is developing a new product altogether."

Godrej’s 113-year history is replete with innovations, many proving “disruptive" in hindsight. Shortly after its founding, by Ardeshir and Pirojsha Godrej, the company produced the first levered lock in India. Since then, a succession of Godrejes have shepherded the firm through further innovations: a soap made of vegetable oil instead of animal tallow, for instance, or the ubiquitous, comforting almirah.

But the ChotuKool marks the first time, Sunderraman observes, that Godrej consciously set out to create a disruptive innovation. It also marks the first time that a team, however small, has been tasked to only innovate. “You need people dedicated to that, because it can otherwise get lost in the day-to-day imperatives," Sunderraman notes. “Sanjay here," he says, gesturing to his ChotuKool foreman, Sanjay Lonial, “lives, breathes and eats innovation." Lonial smiles self-consciously. “It’s true. I do."

In a way, the ChotuKool is of a piece with Godrej’s custom of slipping into the customer’s head and understanding what she requires—a process driving 80% of Godrej’s innovations, Sunderraman estimates.

Bala Balachandran, a member of the Godrej board and a professor at the Kellogg School of Management, recalls a strategy meeting seven years ago, which veered to the conclusion “that we needed to re-emphasize base-of-the-pyramid consumers, and have products and services tailor-made for them".

When the low-cost fridge was mooted, Sunderraman figured a development cycle of a few months—a gross underestimate, as it turned out. A market research firm could dig up only wan insight, so he brushed them aside and, with the same meticulousness he displays in even the most casual conversations, set out to conduct what he calls his version of “ethnographic studies".

Sunderraman and Lonial travelled for many months, staying in villages in every quadrant of India, observing what their customers needed and how they would use a fridge. Then, as Godrej’s engineers came up with iterations, these were promptly dispatched to villages in Maharashtra to be stress-tested in ground conditions and to elicit feedback from their users.

A few results were predictable. The families they visited earned as little as Rs7,000 per year, so costs had to be kept low; the ChotuKool is priced roughly at Rs3,500. Electricity was sporadic and, for these families, expensive. The ChotuKool, thus, runs off 12-volt DC supply, mutated from the mains AC feed by a laptop-style converter that has been amped up by Godrej; during power cuts, the fridge can be kept alive on an inverter or a battery. “The average electricity bill for running the ChotuKool is only Rs60-70 per month," Lonial says.

Some first-hand observations Sunderraman couldn’t have done without. The few families with second-hand fridges rarely used their freezers, so Godrej knew that deep chilling was unnecessary. Servicing was a constant worry, so every one of the ChotuKool’s essential components sits in one of the lid’s two detachable parts, which can be toted even by a child to the nearest service centre. Even the candy-red colour scheme emerged from a straw poll of 600 women in the village of Osmanabad.

Most crucially, Godrej abandoned the regular method of cooling by compressor—found in every domestic fridge and even in the Eco-Design team’s prototype—and opted for a technique known as thermoelectric cooling. Via a phenomenon called the Peltier Effect, after its French discoverer, thermoelectric cooling applies an electric current to the junction of two well-chosen metals; one end of that junction grows hotter, the other end cooler.

As a technique, this is hardly new. Jean-Charles Peltier died in 1845, and in the West, small thermoelectric fridges have for many years done yeoman service in keeping beer cold at barbecues. “But this is the first time thermoelectric cooling has been applied to a low-cost solution," Sunderraman says. “And really…using it for bigger fridges would be like fitting a two-stroke engine onto a Mercedes-Benz."

Its ambition and pedigree have made the ChotuKool a heavily anticipated product—the TataNano of appliances, as it were. “The technology is there, but I’m doubtful about the cost," says S. Srinivasa Murthy, a professor at the regrigeration and air-conditioning lab at the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai. “Every thermoelectric fridge I’ve seen has been priced higher or been subsidized at some point. But thermoelectric modules have been very expensive until recently, when Chinese versions started coming in. Maybe that’s driven the price down."

In the sense that thermoelectric cooling has been around for decades, Sunderraman says, designing the ChotuKool “wasn’t rocket science". But innovation, he implies, needn’t always involve sparkling new technologies.

Often, the most creative aspect of innovation lies in repurposing an existing technology well enough to fit the needs of the people who need it most.

Godrej and Boyce Started operations (in India): 1897

Made in India: The first indigenous lock, safe and typewriter; the first-ever soap made with vegetable oils; the classic Godrej almirah; India’s first CFC-free refrigerators

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Updated: 17 Jun 2010, 08:54 PM IST
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