Clean Energy start-up Devidayal Solar’s refrigerators are powering women’s economic empowerment

The startup’s off-grid cooling solutions are aimed at women entrepreneurs running dairies, fruit-pulp processing units, and small retail outlets
By Pratik Ghosh

Members of Maitree Mahila Dairy and Agriculture Produce Company are happy at the way DD Solar refrigerators helped them cut down on electricity bills and milk spoilage

“You must visit our dairy to witness the work we are doing,” says Meera Jat, her voice brimming with confidence. A director at Maitree Mahila Dairy and Agriculture Produce Company (MMDAPC), Meera’s cooperative firm is an inspiring story of women empowerment in Rajasthan’s remote Dooni Tonk area. There are 1300 women shareholders and another 8,000 women involved in collecting and delivering milk to the company from nearby villages. It’s also a shining example of how a decentralized renewable energy solution like the solar refrigerator played a catalytic role in augmenting their fortune.

Let’s rewind to 2019 when MMDAPC was struggling to stay profitable in the face of erratic power supply and mounting electricity bills. “Frequent power-cuts aside, there were occasions when one had to go without electricity for two-three days. Since milk requires refrigeration to increase its shelf life, such conditions led to spoilage. Every month, we would lose about 1500 litres,” rues Meera. Moreover, as there were virtually no means of storage, the dairy would give away unsold milk at 40% discount. On top of that, they had to buy power at much higher rates since MMDAPC is a commercial establishment.

All these problems disappeared when the company bought six DC solar refrigerators from the Mumbai-based startup Devidayal Solar Solutions (DDSolar) last year. The electricity bills came down from Rs 13,000 to Rs 1500 per month; since there was ample space for storage and no fear of wastage, the women collected milk in greater quantities. They pasteurised and flavoured goat milk and began selling them in 200ml bottles to retail outlets in towns and cities.

“As profits increased, the members of the cooperative prospered and more women expressed eagerness to be part of our establishment,” says Meera.

In search of a market for its solar refrigerator, DD Solar– founded by Tushar Devidayal who is also its CEO — unwittingly triggered a wave of sustainable development and prosperity at the grassroots with women at the vanguard.

But MMDAPC is not its only success story in the tribal-dominated regions of Rajasthan where poverty is in abundance and development in short supply. The startup’s first fruitful engagement was with Gramsree Development Services in Udaipur district, where it installed four refrigerators on the company’s vans in 2020 to transport custard apple pulps from the processing units to a cold storage. Soon, Ghummar Mahila Producer Company, another fruit-pulp unit in Pali district, ordered six refrigerators. “The benefits of solar refrigerators for these pulp extraction units were obvious. With temperature-controlled storage at their disposal, Ghummar women began to collect more fruits from the forest. They not only spent a lot less on electricity bills but also saved on rent for cold storage, which came to Rs 4 per kg, per month,” says Rishabh Soni, sales director at DD Solar. While Ghummar ended up ordering 11 more refrigerators, Jowaki Agro Foods became the fourth company to jump on the bandwagon.

DD Solar’s refrigerators have found a wide range of use cases, including vaccine storage, fisheries, kirana stores, small restaurants, and roadside milk centres. Since the launch of the solar refrigerator in 2017, it has sold 359 units, with maximum sales happening in 2020. The startup had received a grant under IKEA Foundation’s Efficiency for Access programme last year to install 85 refrigerators in various sectors, targeting women entrepreneurs.

DD Solar’s off-grid cooling solutions have also travelled to Kalahandi in Orissa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra. In Madurai, Tamil Nadu, women fish sellers could save Rs 200 daily that was earlier spent on ice for preserving the fish.

“Initially, our focus was to simply sell products in rural areas where access to reliable electricity is limited. But extensive interactions with NGOs helped us attain a gender perspective,” says Rishabh. Nearly 50 per cent of DD Solar’s customers are women who are running kirana stores, small milk outlets or shops selling fish. His repertoire abounds with stories of triumph over adversity as he narrates how solar refrigerators and solar lamps mounted on the mobile food vans, run by the women self-help groups in Maharashtra’s Virar and Palghar districts, led to a sharp uptick in sales. “They could store food and beverages and conduct business till 8 pm when earlier they had to shut shop at dusk due to unavailability of light,” he says.

Available in 100-litre and 268-litre models, these refrigerators are priced at Rs 70,000 and Rs 1,10,000, respectively. DD Solar usually sell their products through NGOs and channel partners like Selco Foundation, which has a strong presence in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. “The end users get them at a much-discounted price,” says Rishabh. The company has devised an after-sales service model, which enables a team of Mumbai-based technicians to solve technical problems through teleconsultations.

The six-year-old startup has unleashed a silent revolution that could accelerate the process towards economic gender equality. As Nobel laureate Esther Duflo has repeatedly emphasised, “In developing countries, gender equality and development are intertwined: more gender equality creates the conditions to boost economic development and contributes to economic growth, while more development leads to more gender equality.”

Social Alpha’s role

“Many women microentrepreneurs are relying on clean energy-based products and services to run their businesses. Several enterprises have come forward to deploy their clean energy solutions on the ground, keeping in mind the needs of these enterprising women. DD Solar is one such company that has teamed up with NGOs and FPOs to expand its reach in the tribal regions of the country,” says Aditi Arya, Senior Portfolio Analyst at SA.

“Our deep association with DD Solar stems from the work we do: Integrating the larger innovation, incubation, and investment ecosystems to support entrepreneurs who are on a mission to solve some the most complex problems of poverty and development and improve quality of life for the underserved. In the process of enabling innovation, we place a strong focus on, and encourage our founders to work through the gender and inclusivity lens,” she says.