Street vendors with hand carts, selling ice cream on hot summer days, are not equipped to keep their products properly frozen for long. This Mumbai man has a solar-based solution to their problem, plus some extra features to help them earn more money.
Mahesh Rathi, a 40-year-old Mumbai-based businessman was visiting Delhi last year. The city was sizzling, wrapped in its infamous summer heat. Mahesh was out for work one scorching day, a day that called for a refreshing ice cream. He headed towards a street vendor, bought an orange bar and realised that it was already melting. When he complained to the vendor the man threw up his hands — it could not be helped, he said, because his simple freezer stopped working properly due to low voltage and increased temperatures on hot summer afternoons.
Mahesh was sympathetic. So he started to think if there was a way of helping these poor street vendors.
“I have been working in the field of solar, wind and biomass energy for over three years now. There are already so many products in the market that utilise solar energy for heating purposes, but I wanted to work on one that would utilise it for cooling instead. However, till that day, the idea had not motivated me enough because I had not seen an actual requirement for it,” he says.
After about a year of hard work, that simple conversation with the road side vendor led him to develop a solar powered ice cream cart – the ‘Smart Kart.’
This cart is equipped with a refrigerator that runs on a 12 volt battery. Most existing ice cream carts use dry ice, which becomes ineffective after some time. Also, the minimum temperature these carts operate on is only minus 5 degrees Celsius. But the battery in the Smart Kart refrigerator helps the cart maintain the temperature between minus 15 and minus 18 degrees Celsius, and it can operate for 24 to 30 hours after one full charge. A solar panel is attached to the top of the cart so that it can charge the battery with the help of solar energy during the day. Additionally, Smart Kart has space to install an RO water filter. With this feature, vendors can sell cold water for just Rs. 2 per glass, helping passers-by quench their thirst during difficult summer months without spending a lot.
“A common man cannot keep purchasing mineral water bottles worth Rs. 15. How will somebody who earns only a few thousands every month spend so much on a bottle of water? That is why I thought there should be a way for people to purchase clean drinking water at an affordable price,” says Mahesh.
A mobile charging unit has also been installed in the cart to help people charge their phones for free.
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Mahesh heads a small organization named Vishwamitra Electricals & Engineers Private Limited, which develops solar, wind and bio mass based solutions for day-to-day requirements. For example, his company sells a solar air cooler that acts like a cooler during the summer and can be used as a solar inverter during the rest of the year.
It took Mahesh about a year and a half to develop Smart Kart, after putting in approximately Rs. 3 lakh from his own pocket. This included conducting experiments and research, getting raw materials from China and USA, and modifying them in accordance with the Indian climate.
As of now, the cart is not available in the market due to lack of adequate funds.
But once he has the money, Mahesh plans to start a rent-a-cart business model, wherein he will rent out the carts to different NGOs, who can further distribute them among vendors or employ people to use the carts. Mahesh says he does not want to get involved in renting out the carts himself because he does not have the resources to conduct background checks on those renting the carts.
“Giving the carts out to NGOs will make it easier for the carts to be maintained and will also make it easier to check the authenticity of those who are renting them so as to avoid theft. I also spoke to some ice cream companies and they are willing to partner and supply ice creams wherever the carts are placed. These will be rented out to individuals only after proper background check and validation. Otherwise, NGOs can also employ young men from underprivileged background who are looking for jobs and can make a living by selling ice creams,” he elaborates.
A few days ago, Mahesh also received enquiries from people who want to use the cart to sell frozen fish instead of ice cream.
Mahesh, who has a diploma in electronics, says he also has a personal reason for wanting this cart to succeed.
“My mother was really excited about the cart when I was developing it. She wanted to be the first person to purchase an ice cream from it. Unfortunately, she passed away before it could be completed…I was very disturbed. And that was when I promised myself that I will make it a success and fulfil her dream,” he says emotionally.
Mahesh is now arranging for funds to make his business model self-sustainable and make more carts. He has started a campaign for the same, with a view to raising Rs. 5 lakh for the development of five carts, which he will then start renting out to NGOs. Once ready, the purchasing cost of one cart will be Rs. 1 lakh.