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Coca-Cola uses solar cooler to push rural sales in India

Panchabuta has often talked about the  potential of offgrid solar- especially in the telecom space-particularly in the rural telecom and telecom tower space. We have also discussed of the immense potential in the defence and the railways for solar pv based solutions. Opportunities exist for cost effective and innovative solutions in the low and medium temperature thermal collectors space.

A couple of weeks back we had talked about Promethean Power  a runner-up winner in MIT’s $100K Entrepreneurship Competition in 2007,  located in Cambridge, Massachusetts that has developed a solar-powered refrigeration system for commercial cold-storage applications in off-grid and partially electrified areas of developing countries.

According to reports, Coca-Cola India plans to offer an entire range of its chilled soft drink products to markets deep in the hinterland, even where there is no electricity.

‘eKOCool’, a chest cooler, developed internally by the Indian arm of the Atlanta-based multinational, operates exclusively through solar energy, with no other electricity source required to operate it. It has a capacity to store two crates, which contains 48 glass bottles of 300ml each. That’s not all. It can even charge your mobile phone and light up your home.

The innovation gives Coca-Cola a competitive edge to tap new rural markets and ramp up sales of a product which is always best served chilled. Introduced in select rural markets earlier this summer, it has already improved sales dramatically and company officials expect orders of the product from other countries in the system as well.

Says Asim Parekh, VP technical, Coca Cola India: “The eKOCool is an outcome of our technical team’s persistence to use renewable energy for operating cooling equipment. The rural markets pose challenges in expansion as a huge swathe of the rural belt is not yet covered by the power grid hence remains without electricity or has low power. This challenge has been overcome by Coca-Cola’s innovation, which will give us a competitive edge as well as a first mover advantage.”

The product loaded into the cooler early morning or previous night is ready to be served chilled in the morning. The cooling equipment brings benefits to the retailer too in terms of saving on the electricity bill and cost of ice.

A pilot project under which 20 such coolers were placed in rural areas near Agra (UP) has been successfully completed this summer. Sales from these outlets have jumped nearly five times, a company official said.

The journey to develop the solar cooler started in May 2009, when Coca Cola India CEO Atul Singh was visiting a rural market in UP and found that many outlets stocking the company’s products did not have any chilling equipment. The outlets were operating out of ice boxes with little ice, since either coolers or electricity were not available.

Says Sunil Gulati, GM Technical, who developed the design; “After evaluating various options, we chose solar energy to eliminate the need to depend on grid-based electricity completely, and to be environment friendly.” The team roped in Mumbai-based company Western Refrigeration to build the prototype. The trials were conducted over March and July 2010.

This year, the project has just proved to be viable with the company now ready to scale it up by providing 100 coolers in rural areas over the next few months. Though there is an additional cost due to the solar panels, the company says that those will be offset by the higher sales from these areas.

In fact, new markets which were earlier only contributing for a couple of months, may also open up during the long summer.

“Lot of people in different Coca-Cola markets worldwide have tried (to develop) such equipment but ours is the first commercially viable model. And seeing its success, some African countries have placed orders for the solar cooler”, adds Parekh.

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