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How Coca-Cola’s low-cost solar cooler is helping Coke spread its wing in villages in India

According to reports,  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, boxstyled 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 gridBSE 0.68 % 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 AtlantaBSE -2.23 %.

“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.

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.

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