Really, Really Smart Cities

Really, Really Smart Cities

At Food+City, we think a lot about the relationship between food and our cities. Now, through the artistry of Josh Cochran, we can look at how food might fit into future urban landscapes and what urban designers now call Smart Cities. We contacted three really, really smart people for their visions of what our food-wise city might look like in the future.


The president of the Appalachian Mountain Club brought his view of how plants, agriculture and the natural environment could mingle in a city. He envisioned new uses for telephone pole infrastructure as aeroponic poles, vertical gardens to be found every few feet. And he sees car-oriented technology reapplied to food, including parking lot–based planters powered by hydrogen fuel cell vehicles that plug in during working hours; and a just-in-time composting “uber” with sensors that indicate when the bin is full and trigger a self-driving composting barge to come pick it up.


As director of the GustoLab Food Studies Program in Rome, Massari sees an end to restaurants as we know them but no lack of socializing over food. People will prepare food and eat on the go in their driverless cars; and solar-powered food trucks will grow their own ingredients in mobile gardens. City squares and green spaces — some on rooftops — will become open-air gyms and community gardens. And neighborhoods will be equipped with digital vending machines that sell fruit, vegetables, milk and other fresh products. In Massari’s future, every flower bed and traffic barrier will become agricultural land. Through an app, all citizens will be able to water plants and take care of these areas. Urban gardens and agricultural areas will be monitored using Information Communication Technologies (ICT) and digital devices. And perhaps most notably, food waste will disappear: All leftover food from supermarkets, kitchens, industries or urban agriculture will be gathered by food collection apps (which will direct food to people who need it) or it will be sold in supermarkets featuring soon-to-expire foods sold at a discount.


An urban planner who works with cities as centers of innovation and food distribution, Zapalac sees kitchens as hubs of information that feed individual food supply chains. The details of our kitchen inventories will be available on our smart devices, so we avoid buying duplicate bottles of mustard — but also so that grocery delivery services can be truly automated. Along the way, recycling and compostable waste collection will be complementary services to grocery delivery: Containers will be reused rather than recycled (think the return of the milkman), and our food scraps will become the compost feeding the produce that will eventually become our next great meal. Thinking more broadly, in neighborhoods once recognized as food deserts, an expanding network of community foodscapes will combine concepts from the edible education movement with innovative forms of job training — building capacity by strengthening the soil and enhancing the beauty of once depleted communities. These places will also function as stages and urban “dining rooms,” providing venues where local culture and local identity can be shared and celebrated.

Food Entrepreneurs Find Continued Success

Food Entrepreneurs Find Continued Success

Whether newly hatched companies or enterprises needing a little help getting to the next level, competitors in the 2016 Food+City Challenge Prize are still going strong. We checked in with three of the Silver Prize winners to hear about their progress.

Carolina MedinaCarolina Medina found herself in a paradoxical place after competing for the 2013 Hult Prize, a million-dollar seed-capital competition. Her team, which came together for the contest, finished in second place — but the winner took the entire purse. Undeterred, Carolina pressed forward with Agruppa, a company that leverages technology to empower mom-and-pop food vendors by providing produce at wholesale prices, eliminating middlemen. After a successful pilot in Kenya for the Hult Prize, Carolina and a partner brought Agruppa back to her home country of Colombia, and it continues to grow.

Carolina Medina


The basic issue was the cost — not the availability — of food in low-income neighborhoods. In other words, it wasn’t that the apples weren’t arriving, it’s that they were arriving at a very high cost after going through the hands of numerous middlemen, each of whom were taking their cut.

We knew we wanted to make a mobile-based solution where small shops could order directly and bypass the middlemen. Our system aggregates demand for fresh fruit and vegetables from small vendors, creating daily collective orders that add up to wholesale quantities. Vendors are economically empowered, and those living in low-income communities benefit from sustainable access to nutritious food at lower prices.

One of the biggest pivots we had here in Colombia came from the realization that Bogotá is a very large city, and distances are too long for mom-and-pop shops to come to our warehouse and pick up what they ordered the night before. We needed to become a heavy logistics company and incorporate daily deliveries to the shops—Monday through Saturday—into our model.

It was a great pivot because I realized we could be a lot more cost-efficient: It allowed us to increase the capacity of our warehouse rather than create multiple little warehouses all over the city where people would come and pick up their orders.

After bootstrapping with our current ordering channels — WhatsApp, SMS or phone calls — we’re ready to build and implement three more sophisticated channels for vendors to order their stock: a personalized app, an integrated voice recognition transactional system and a simple call center for those who are less tech-savvy and for customer service in general. This should also help cut down customer ordering time as well as optimize the logistics behind it all.

And breakeven is on the horizon! Hopefully, with 700 mom-and-pop shops — which we should have by mid- 2017 — we will become self-sustainable!

Ashley ColpaartAshley Colpaart is a food system innovator whose business helps other food innovators. Inspired by other sharing e conomy businesses — e.g., Uber, Air BNB — The Food Corridor brings together commercial kitchens with excess capacity and nascent food businesses in need of kitchen space. It’s a win-win for all players, offering restaurants and school kitchens potential new revenue sources, and giving food producers a foot in the door to develop their products and grow their businesses. In June 2016 Ashley launched The Food Corridor’s platform in Colorado, taking on the first stage of building her market of commercial kitchens.

Ashley Colpaart

The Food Corridor

In 2015 I was reviewing applications for Community Food Project Grants to decide who would get funding. Many of the projects wanted to build infrastructure, like processing and distribution centers. But their business plans weren’t always very strong, and many lacked an asset mapping of what infrastructure already existed in their community. I was thinking, “How do you know you need to build this facility?”

During that trip, I used Air BnB and Uber for the first time, and it dawned on me that the sharing economy that exists in other sectors hasn’t been applied to the food system. Sharing is something we do with food all the time. We break bread together, people have been sharing kitchens for a long time, co-ops started in agriculture — so I thought, why not apply that same model to the food sector? I chose to do it with kitchens because that’s where a meal starts.

Our platform development process has been very customer-centric. We beta-tested our software with 12 shared-use kitchens nationally, watching them use the product and listening to them talk about their business models and what features were essential for them. Then we prioritized those features and built them. Something our Food Challenge Prize mentor said really stuck with me: “When you’re building a new product, you can build something and maybe people will want it. But if you listen closely to the problem your customer has and build a solution for it, that’s when you win.”

What’s cool about my idea is that it can be applied to any commercial kitchen asset — like refrigerated trucks, or backhauling produce, or freezer or refrigerator space. If a farmer has a bumper crop of tomatoes or there’s a hail storm coming that weekend and they want to harvest before they go to market in a few days but they don’t have a refrigerator, they could hop on The Food Corridor and find some commercial refrigerator space where they could store it for a few days. I see The Food Corridor becoming a pipeline of innovation for the food industry.

Neheet TrivediStartup to acquisition is the ideal path for many new businesses. For Real Food Solutions, that milestone came just five months after winning a silver award at the 2016 Food+City Challenge Prize. The Boston-based company, co-founded by Neheet Trivedi, uses existing clinical research to create food-based remedies for everyday ailments, including nausea. In July 2016, they were acquired by Pink Stork Solutions, a company committed to delivering natural products to help alleviate some of the symptoms that come with pregnancy.

Neheet Trivedi

Real Food Solutions

The aha moment was seeing my sister have terrible nausea from morning sickness when she was pregnant. She was reluctant to take medication and wished for a food-based solution that would help with her nausea, be easy to eat and provide nutrition.

I knew I had to partner with somebody who has the skills and background to help build this. Through a mutual friend I met Dr. Rupa Mukherjee, a practicing gastroenterologist, who was very excited by the idea. She had a lot of patients to whom she was recommending food-based solutions, but there wasn’t a specific solution or product that she really liked. Our idea was to make products for aspects of health, starting with nausea. My role is “make it happen” — bring experts together, ask the right questions, find the manufacturer, find the customers. So I rely on people like Dr. Mukherjee to provide the input to create our products.

We started doing tests with our nutrition bar on cruise ships for people who get nausea from motion sickness. Demand was so high that we focused more of our marketing and sales efforts on that space and a little less on other forms of nausea. We haven’t let pregnant women go by any means, and they’re still a focus of the business. We just found our initial market through motion sickness. You focus on different markets based on the skills and tools you have. Business is constantly evolving.

Building a company from scratch is tough. You’re competing against incumbents and new companies, you’re competing for mind space, for Internet space. You must be thoughtful about how you’re differentiating, especially with a consumer product. We have an advantage in that people are looking for our products: They’re looking for morning sickness relief, motion sickness relief, nausea relief, so they often find us. But you must do everything you can to make it easy for them to find you — because we have a solution that we know will help them.

The goal with Real Food Solutions was to build a successful business, and there are many ways to do that. You can raise outside funds or remain private and grow a lifestyle-type business. We felt that the timing was right for us to partner with another company that had a great brand and a way to reach more customers than we could alone, and we’re excited to join the Pink Stork Solutions team.

On Our Loading Dock

On Our Loading Dock

Our nightstands are loaded with books to read and our laptops are packed with websites to explore and unpack some wisdom about the global food supply chain.


Fresh, A Perishable History

Suzanne Friedberg reveals the historical and cultural development of what “fresh” means. As early as the 1930s, consumers worried about eating too much processed food. For a fascinating look at how consumers’ thinking about fresh, frozen, canned and “shelf life” has evolved, this book lays it all out. How we feed cities will build on these histories.

Door to Door, The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation

Edward Humes reveals surprising details about how stuff moves around the world. One highlight: You’ll get an inside look at the logistics of Domino’s Pizza, which has been in the food delivery business for decades. Blue Apron and Instacart, take note.

Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable

Baylen J. Linnekin examines the unintended consequences of well-intentioned food regulations. For example, how grading standards and labeling requirements contribute to the food waste we’re trying to reduce. When was the last time you met a lawyer who argued for fewer regulations, and simpler ones at that?

Feeding Gotham, The Political Economy and Geography of Food in New York, 1790 to 1860

Gergely Baics uses sophisticated maps to tell the history of New York’s food system over time, showing how market spaces took shape and how food producers such as bakers dispersed themselves over the landscape. It’s dense, but if you want to know why your grocery store is where it is today, study the maps and footnotes.


Heritage Radio Network

This Brooklyn radio station makes podcasts that explain, celebrate and challenge our views of the food system. “How Great Cities Are Fed,” moderated by Karen Karp, includes a conversation with Food+City Director Robyn Metcalfe about food logistics and the supply chain. “What Doesn’t Kill You” offers views of food system experts, including Baylen Linnekin, who explores all the complications that occur when trying to feed the world.


Host Tina Antolini explores southern immigrant food culture, including both new and old food traditions. The podcast digs into lesser-known corners of the region, challenges stereotypes, documents new dynamics and gives voice to the unsung folk who grow, cook and serve our daily meals.

Eat This Podcast

This podcast transcends the obvious to explore how the food we eat influences and is influenced by history, archaeology, trade, chemistry, economics, geography, evolution, religion and more.

Films and Television

Tsukiji Wonderland

Soon after it was announced in 2014 that the cramped Tsukiji market would be moving to a larger site in Tokyo’s Toyosu neighborhood, filmmaker Naotaro Endo began shooting to commemorate this institution. Interviews with vendors plus commentary from food celebrities make this film a feast for sushi lovers everywhere.

Flowing Data: A Century of Ocean Shipping Animated

Ben Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, created this seasonal, animated map of shipping paths to show how goods moved from 1750 to 1850 — long before the Panama or Suez canals opened. Imagine how those two shortcuts changed the way food moved around the world.

Food Forward (PBS)

This series appeals to our enthusiasm for visionaries and innovation within the food system. One episode suggests we might consider foraging in the woods for our food. Another visits Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab to hear from a food psychologist about how we make food choices.


BLDGBLOG (“Building blog”)

Geoff Manaugh is a writer and futurist who connects technology and humans in a way that will get you thinking about the world around you, including food logistics. Grasping the urban built environment is essential to understanding how we feed cities.

Food for Thought: Labelology

Food for Thought: Labelology

Your fruit and vegetables come with a surprising amount of information about their history and origins. Each sticker has a code printed on it along with the grower’s name and logo.

These codes are called PLUs, or Price Lookup Numbers (why isn’t the acronym PLN, then?) so the store can find out the unit cost for each item. If a number consists of four digits, the item is conventionally grown; if the number consists of five digits and begins with an 8, the item is genetically modified. And if the five digits begin with a 9, you’re buying organic produce.

Some producers are going the extra step and adding QR codes that take you to a producer’s website where you can find all kinds of information, including the names of the producer’s pet sheep. In the future, be prepared for even more transparency — labels may disappear as scanners and digital “ink” become cost effective. Perhaps the store shelf will notice which fruit you put in your basket and send accompanying data to your cell phone. These paper stickers will be the old papyrus scroll for food storytelling.

(Did you know you can eat the labels? All the materials in the paper, ink and glue are food grade. C’mon, we dare you….)

Recipe Tracker: Tart in Ymbre Days

Recipe Tracker: Tart in Ymbre Days

Cookbooks are more than collections of recipes. They may have a theme (Appetizers! Cookies! Tacos!) or showcase a particular cuisine (Thai, Italian, Parsi). Some cookbooks tell stories to contextualize their dishes or ingredients, offering the history of a meal or its place in a holiday tradition. Others provide detailed instructions about technique, inviting the reader to start with this recipe, then try other ingredients using the same method.

But cookbooks are also products of their time. Just compare the aspics, crown roasts and cheese balls found in Helen Corbitt’s 1957 classic with the sous vide chicken breasts and kale salads in a contemporary volume. Cookbooks reflect not only trends in food preparation and flavors but also the availability of ingredients in a certain era and region.

Take, for instance, “The Forme of Cury,” a collection of recipes recorded by a master cook working in the court of King Richard II. It’s one of the earliest known cookbooks and was probably made as a record of food served, rather than as a working cookbook. There are a handful of copies, all handwritten before the advent of printing centuries later.

“There’s no way really to tell if anyone ever used them, unless you look at the stains on them,” says Ken Albala, a Renaissance historian and food scholar at the University of the Pacific. “Chances are these were not brought into the kitchen, because usually cooks were not literate. But whoever wrote these down obviously was.”

Some of the ingredients used in 1390 will seem quite familiar: game (consumed more by nobles with estates), pork, chicken, butter, cheese, eggs, vegetables, spices. But the preparations differ from dishes we eat today. “The way they think of food, the colors they like, the flavors, the textures, the ingredients — it’s a completely different cuisine” than contemporary European fare, Albala says.

The origins of much medieval cuisine are in the Muslim Middle East, Albala explains. Those ingredients and techniques moved to India with Mughals and then to Spain and the rest of Europe. From there they traveled to Mexico with the conquistadors in the 1500s. “The moles of Mexico are the long-lost cousins of the curries in India,” Albala says.

Tart in Ymbre Days, as prepared by the author. It’s basically an onion frittata, dotted with raisins and delicious with a salad.

The generous use of spices in royal repasts was a display of wealth and status. Pepper and cinnamon traveled from India, while cloves and nutmeg originated in Indonesia and ginger came from China. Passing through the hands of Arab and Venetian merchants during their years-long journey, the exotic spices in use in the 14th century were exorbitantly expensive, accessible only to the wealthy.

While spices were sold in apothecaries, staples, such as milk, cheese, butter, grains and bread, were available in food markets, set-ups that resemble our modern farmer’s markets. “Food markets go back to ancient times,” Albala says. “In England, there are markets that started in the middle ages that are still there.” As with any type of market, the laws of supply and demand came into play. In the years following the plague — the period in which the Forme of Cury was written — the population was down, so wages were higher; thus, meat consumption also increased. As the population rebounded, wages fell, and the poor ate less meat.

Diets of the 14th century were influenced by more factors than just the availability of ingredients. Religious traditions and dietary rules informed daily menu planning. “Religion determined what you could eat seasonally and during fast days,” Albala says. “Lent, vigils of saints’ days — probably a third of the whole calendar is fasting.” The Tart in Ymbre Days recipe on this page is a kind of crustless quiche that contains onions, eggs, greens, raisins and “powder douce,” a common mixture of ginger, cinnamon and sugar (the original pumpkin spice!). Ymbre Days are quarterly sets of fasting days that mark the seasons of the Christian calendar. Because they fall outside of Lent, they were considered moderate fast days: meat was prohibited, but eggs were not.

Ken Albala, Renaissance historian and food scholar at the University of the Pacific. Check out his Food Rant.


Check out Ken Albala’s explorations of world cuisines, his cookbooks and his Great Courses on food and history.

Knowledge about fast days and how to put meals together would have been passed down orally, by peasant families and royal kitchen staffs, without the use of cookbooks. For one thing, most cooks weren’t literate. “We learn by looking and hearing and smelling, and not approximating through words,” Albala says. In fact, the whole notion of learning through cookbooks is a practice that may not last much longer, Albala believes.

“I think in the future we’ll have interactive videos, or some kind of instructional media where you can stop and ask questions, look closely and zoom in,” Albala says. “Perhaps something that will know what ingredients you have in the kitchen, know what kind of equipment you have, will adjust for your altitude or your allergies and could make working recipes for you. I think probably in our lifetime we’ll see cookbooks go extinct, or they’ll just be a rare, interesting artifact for people who like to collect them.”

Are you moving away from cookbooks to other kinds of instructional media? Which cookbook taught you the most? Tweet us @foodcityorg.

How a Little Startup Fixes a Big Food Chain Gap

How a Little Startup Fixes a Big Food Chain Gap

In rural India, dairies may have only one or two cows and the power grid is spotty at best. The chance to improve the supply chain link from producers to distributors in these conditions offered some surprising lessons to an American startup anxious to solve the “milk challenge.”

The verdict was devastating:

“This will never work for us,” our customer said. It had taken three years to develop a solar refrigerator to solve rural India’s milk spoilage problem. But our prototype, which we unveiled in early 2011, was “too big, too expensive and difficult to install.” We were back to square one. I’m not from India, and no one on our early team had a connection to the country. Despite this — or perhaps because of it — we were captivated by the milk challenge in the world’s largest democracy. And the engineer in me thought I could fix it with the right technology. Turns out, I had a lot to learn.

We first heard about the milk problem in 2007. That summer my business partner Sam White and I were in India conducting a market survey for a solar turbine we developed that was designed to generate hot water and electricity for off-grid schools and clinics in rural India. We found ourselves in Bangalore on a Saturday morning with nothing to do. My partner picked up the phone and cold-called the managing director of Bangalore Dairy, one of India’s largest milk producers. A few hours later we had a meeting scheduled. We walked into his office to find him and his team of 14 engineers seated around a large conference table. They politely listened to our solar pitch, but their reaction was similar to what we had seen before: “It sounds interesting, but how does this solve our problem?”

In the case of Bangalore Dairy, their problem was milk spoilage, and our solar technology had nothing to do with milk. The meeting quickly turned into a reverse pitch where the dairy engineers were asking us for help. This is how I learned about India’s dairy supply chain and the milk challenge.

Sorin Grama found an unexpected solution for a simple problem in India: how to keep milk from small dairies from spoiling before it gets to distributors. But the journey was far from simple.


India is a hot, largely vegetarian country that depends on milk for its calories and protein. Milk is used in curries and chai tea and is the product of the (literally) sacred cow. India is the largest producer and consumer of milk in the world. But production in this nation of 1.3 billion people is nothing like the factory farms of the United States.

In India milk is collected from small, individual scattered across the countryside. Each one produces 5 to 10 liters per day — compared to an average output of 6,000 liters in a typical U.S. dairy farm operation. The small amounts of milk produced by individual farmers in remote villages create a massive supply chain challenge for dairy processors who collect the milk, pasteurize it and turn it into finished dairy products sold in major urban areas like Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai. In a country like India, where nearly 50 percent of the employment is in agriculture, urban prosperity depends heavily on the health and vigor of the rural economy.


In India, cows are held in high esteem in Hinduism, the dominant religion in India. They represent food, fertilizer and economic value. Wandering through traffic, into homes — practically anywhere — cows are privileged members of society. No wonder Grama’s company got the attention of Indian dairy businesses. Keeping cow milk fresh could be sacred business.

Dairy cows must be milked twice per day, but the milk often spoils before it reaches distributors because Indian roads can be hard to navigate. Grama sought to prolong the milk’s viability to improve the production process. Image by: Lance Casey

Indian dairies often have only one or two milk cows — tiny operations compared with U.S. dairies that have thousands of animals. Image by: Lance Casey

Milk is like a river that never stops. Raw milk must be aggregated, transported and processed quickly before it spoils. And it must be done twice a day — morning and evening to coincide with the milking schedule — 365 days per year. For farmers, milk is like liquid gold. Rural households depend on sales of milk for disposable income. Unlike other agricultural crops, milk is a daily harvest, and Indian farmers get paid a good amount for their milk. Up to 60 percent of the price of pasteurized milk sold in urban markets goes to these small dairy farmers.

Chilling milk to 4 degrees Celsius immediately after milking preserves its freshness, prevents spoilage and enables it to be transported once a day instead of twice. Refrigeration at the source could elegantly solve all the problems associated with this distributed production system in a single step. But neither industrial milk refrigeration equipment — widely used in most of the world — nor reliable electricity is generally available in rural India.

Thus, the never-ending schedule and lack of refrigeration means transportation costs are enormous, spoilage rates are high and milk quality is very low. What’s more, only those farmers who can be reached within a five- or six-hour ride can deliver milk to central processing facilities.

Bicycles are often the best mode of transportation in rural India, which can make scaling distribution options difficult.

Children carry milk from the dairy to the village’s collection point.


Enter our solar-powered solution. To address the underlying problem of energy access in villages, I designed a milk chiller powered by solar photovoltaic panels. In the mid-2000s solar technology was sexy — it was coming down in cost and gaining more acceptance. I was passionate about using a renewable, clean form of energy and was determined to make it work. When we mentioned solar to customers and investors, everyone got excited. After all, India is a very sunny place.

After some trial and error, we unveiled our prototype, ready to test it. Unfortunately, on that sunny day in South India in February 2011, my dream of using solar power crashed and burned. The prototype failed to impress our first customer, who had been so interested in our solar solution. He told us that our system was impractical and too expensive for Indian conditions. With that rejection ringing in our ears, we laid off our staff and paused to think about the next steps, if any. After more than three years of work, we were back to square one.

Grama and his business partner met regularly with dairy owners and milk distributors to better understand their needs. They often found that solutions that might work in the developed world didn’t fit in India.

Grama’s solution was a thermal-battery-powered refrigerator that chilled raw milk, preserving it, at the collection point in villages where milk is sourced. The refrigerator’s thermal battery stored energy from the unreliable electric grid in the form of ice, which kept the milk cool until the dairy processors could come to collect it.

But the problem was too big to ignore. What’s more, the customer who rejected the solar system encouraged us continue the effort. Like us, he finally understood that solar was a pipe dream and was willing to continue working with us to find a better solution. The simultaneous rejection and encouragement was effective. With some retrospection, I realized that my passion and bias for solar technology took my focus away from the real problem that needed to be solved.

Most villages in India are already connected to the grid, but the grid is not available around the clock and not always when it’s most needed. This insight led me to a better solution: a battery. If I could store energy from the grid, I could use it during the times when the grid is off.

As it turns out, I had designed a battery for our solar system. I didn’t think much of it because it was just a necessary component to make solar technology work. But it was not just any electrical battery; it was a thermal battery designed specifically for refrigeration. It stores energy in the form of ice and is less expensive and lasts longer than an equivalent electrical battery. With just a few hours of grid power we could run a refrigeration compressor — like the one in your home refrigerator — and make ice. When the grid power is off, the ice chills the milk.

I quickly built a new prototype and tested it — it worked! The simple and inexpensive solution won the day. To solve a big problem in an emerging economy like India’s you often don’t need fancy technologies. You need simple, practical technologies because they’re more affordable and easier to maintain.

The chiller was a simple solution that everyone — including poor and uneducated dairy farmers — could use.


Alas, solving the technology didn’t fix everything. Scaling the technology was a whole new challenge. I moved to Mumbai in 2012 to oversee the commercialization of our milk chiller. Progress was slow. A partnership with a manufacturer in Mumbai fell apart when we realized they were investing in another company that was working on products that would compete with ours. Good suppliers were difficult to find and product quality was inconsistent. We had to be vigilant about every single component that went into our system.

In addition to production challenges, we had trouble creating a market. Dairy processors in India, the potential buyers of our technology, are conservative and slow to change. Fortunately, our outsider status as an American company opened many doors. American-made or -designed products are generally viewed positively in India because they are considered to be higher quality. We got meetings with general managers of all the top dairies in India. Innovation in the dairy sector is not very common, and these executives were intrigued by our technology.

But converting initial sales meetings into actual orders was far more difficult than we expected. Adopting a new refrigeration product and changing a decades-old milk collection process was too daunting for most dairies. Only a few visionary leaders who understood the value of higher quality raw milk would adopt the technology. With much effort in the lab and long hours in the field, we delivered and installed 50 systems by the beginning of 2014.

Suddenly, everything came to a grinding halt. While our first customers were absorbing and evaluating the new system, other potential customers were waiting to see the outcome of these trials. Months went by without new orders. We started to wonder if we had missed the market.

Prabudhev Konana

Design for the Developing World

When doing business in India, Western business models do not always apply, says Prabhudev Konana, professor of supply chain management at The University of Texas at Austin.

“Most Western business models are based on massive economies of scale, but that doesn’t work in India,” Konana explains. “Production is fragmented. Distribution is extremely complicated.”

With thousands of tiny producers — e.g., dairy operations with one or two cows — and a rural road system that’s sometimes passable only by bicycle, India offers a business environment where simplicity and consistency reign supreme. Technology must work seamlessly, every single time; if it doesn’t, people won’t be willing to risk their tiny margins on it.

“How you design things for less educated, economically poor people is an art in itself,” Konana says.


I spent many days in the field observing our systems, talking to our customers and trying to understand what was wrong. Sometimes customers would tell me directly what they didn’t like about our system. But most of the time, I had to observe and listen carefully to the things they didn’t say in order to understand the hidden needs and frustrations. The effort paid off. The design needed a few more tweaks to make the system easier to clean and operate and more energy efficient. After we made these changes, new orders started to come in within weeks.

Grama, at right, spent time learning from iterations that failed before finding the right solution. He sought feedback from his customers at every step in the journey.

Most notably, our very first customer — a charismatic and visionary industry leader who rejected our solar system and challenged me to find a better solution — began to place repeat orders. He became an valuable champion and the largest user of our technology. To date, he has installed more than 250 systems in South India. I owe him a lot of credit for our success: He was tough and friendly at the same time. Tough because he constantly pushed me to reduce costs and friendly because he was always available to lend a hand when I got stuck. I would spend hours with him drawing concepts and calculating economics of different configurations on a whiteboard in his office. I think he saw a genuine effort on my part, and with that I gained his respect, attention and eventually his business.

It has been a long and arduous journey, but I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned the value of being immersed in the market and the environment where our customers operate. I’ve learned that assumptions need to be frequently checked and adjusted to reality. And I’ve learned that while you might start with a technology looking for a problem to solve, success comes when you actually solve a customer’s problem.

Grama and White talk about their journey with Promethean Power Systems.

Grama’s thermal battery also works to cool a cold storage system for preserving fruits and vegetables.