Pre-chilled boxes to battle food waste and malnutrition

gomango wants to trigger widespread use of refrigerated transport in India

India is among the world's top producers of fruit, vegetables and dairy – yet it suffers from malnutrition at the same time. The World Health Organisation estimates that 43% of Indian children under the age of 5 are underweight. "The cause is not so much a lack of food, but rather a lack of access to food," says Naren Tallapragada. Together with a fellow student he proposed the prize-winning idea to battle food waste in India by arranging a network of refrigerated boxes.

Due to poor storage facilities, inefficient logistics and outdated trucks, food waste has been a long-term problem in India. In the hot and humid Indian climate, vast amounts of food spoil along the way from grower to consumer. "By some estimates there are as many refrigerated trucks in the state of Massachusetts as there are in all of India," says Naren Tallapragada, an American PhD candidate in Systems Biology at Harvard University. As a son of Indian immigrants he's regularly visited his parents' homeland, and has witnessed food waste with his own eyes. "In India the rich and the poor live right next to each other, so everyone has seen piles of food waste."

Innovative and realistic

Naren Tallapragada started addressing inefficiencies in the food supply chain while he was taking a class on design thinking at Harvard Business School, where he met and teamed up with Francesco Wiedemann, a German student and visiting researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Together Naren and Francesco formed gomango to improve food distribution in India despite the country’s many complexities and constraints. "We had to come up with an idea that was both innovative and realistic," says Naren Tallapragada. "It's easy to say that Indian companies should just buy many refrigerated trucks. But there simply isn't enough money for that. Local experts had warned us about such limitations in India."

Pre-chilled boxes

The two students presented the idea of a network of modular, refrigerated boxes to transport fresh produce using regular trucks. In a way this 'gomango concept' is similar to pallet shipping: growers, distributors and retailers can all use the same pre-chilled boxes to transport their goods. After they have reached their destination, the boxes will be stored in a partnering cold-storage warehouse –ready for the next shipment. Naren Tallapragada: "Our idea gives growers and distributors the opportunity to cheaply rent high-quality cold boxes. A network of these boxes will make refrigerated transport available for companies with limited financial resources."

Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize

gomango won the first-ever Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize in April 2016. As Rabobank strives to encourage innovation in the food and agri sector, Rajiv Singh, CEO of Rabobank North America Wholesale, attended the ceremony and praised gomango's innovativeness: "We applaud gomango's efforts to advance food-systems innovation in order to create a large social impact in India by getting more food to the market in an affordable and sustainable way." PG Ganesh, Head of Rabobank Food & Agribusiness Research and Advisory in India is enthusiastic about gomango as well: "A fragmented production system like that of India requires such bottom-up solutions that are cost effective."

Enthusiasm

gomango will take the project further by testing the refrigerated boxes as well as the efficiency of the proposed network. Naren Tallapragada: "We will test the network on a small scale first. It will be interesting to see what happens if fishermen use our boxes to transport their catch to a city further inland – eventually handing over the boxes to mango growers, who'll send their fruit and the boxes back in the direction of the fishermen. There are still many tests to be done before we can deploy our idea. Luckily there's already enthusiasm in the market. Investors and partners are interested in contributing to a pilot test."

Face to face

For now, the gomango team will focus on cementing their relationship with potential investors and customers in India. "Our interactions with potential investors and partners have been primarily virtual so far," says Naren Tallapragada. "Nothing beats the power of a face-to-face meeting. We'll need the support of people who believe in us to turn our plan into action."

Picture: Francesco Wiedemann (left) & Naren Tallapragada (right)
Credits: Evgenia Eliseeva/Harvard Innovation Lab