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Time to Launch “Food Six Sigma” Initiative inIndia?

In late 1970s Japanese economy had just recovered from vast destruction of world war II and was getting on it’s feet. Japanese companies were making progress in strides. Factories were popping up. Overall mood was upbeat.Then the oil embargo happened. Oil prices skyrocketed in short time. It hit Japan hardest. Because Japan did not have a lot of natural resources and almost all raw material was being imported. As oil prices shot up, cost of material import increased drastically.

Some of the brilliant minds in Japan got to work. They took this as a challenge and got their creativity engines raving. One quick and lazy way to deal with the obscene material cost increase was to pass it on to customers. The other way was to increase the supply artificially. By reducing waste.

That’s what Japanese engineers did. They launched war on waste. As they say, rest is History. Roots of many successful waste reduction initiatives like Lean Manufacturing, Six Sigma, TQM, lie in the many small waste reduction initiatives launched in Japan during the oil embargo. Not only Japan survived that crisis, but came out far stronger economy.

Today India seems to be fighting the same problem on a different front. Lot of money is floating around in global financial system as a result of worldwide bailouts. It is taking its toll in India in terms of inflation. Reserve bank of India is aggressively increasing it’s repo rate in hopes to curb inflation by tightening money supply, thereby tightening demand. But it can go only so far before it starts hurting economy. On the flip side, if we reduce food waste by thinking innovatively, those ideas and innovations would remains with us forever, thus pretty much helping us till eternity.

Six sigma is a statistical term, referring to a level of perfection where if you do make a million pieces of same type, 999997 of them will be useful and only three will be waste. If you can do that, you can boast about having “Six sigma” quality level. How about we launch an initiative where if we produce a 1,000,000 kg of food item, 999997 kg will be consumed and only 3 kg will be waste?

The place to begin would be in every house. Almost every household throws away food because it goes bad before eating. My rough guess is about 10% of food is thrown away nationwide. Worst in this aspect are items like milk and meat, which go bad quickly. If we kept close track of life of food we cooked and expiry dates of food we purchased, and if we ate in order of expiry, we would be able to drastically reduce amount of wasted food. As the food minister K.V. Thomas suggested before some days back, we could find ways to significantly reduce food wastage in Indian weddings by introducing RSVP culture.

The most common last link in our food supply chain, the street vendors, do not have adequate equipment to store their unsold food. Thousands of tons of food goes waste this way. This could be a great challenge for innovative Indian entrepreneurs. A simple refrigerator made in Africa from clay pot and salt water was used to store medicines and increase their life considerably. A simple gadget like that can make a huge difference.

Lot of experiments have been done by space research organizations world over to find ways to increase life of food in order to feed humans in space for long time. We could borrow from that knowledge. One tested and proven way is to suck air out of food package. We could use plastic bags to store food and redesign vacuum cleaners to do air-free packing.Additionally, a lot of food goes waste because of rats and rodents. In India alone, millions tons of grain is destroyed by rats every year. In USA, a electric mouse trap, which captures and kills rodents humanely has been known to be very effective. Ideas like that are worth investigating. If we can build a moon craft in India, we should be able to build effective mouse traps.

The first step probably would be to take stock of current situation, to gather accurate data about how much food is being produced, how much is being wasted and what is causing the waste. Once the data is available, we will know which are the problems affecting entire society and are worth solving.

It’s time for all the brilliant minds of India to take this as a challenge and tackle it creatively. Not just to sit on a side and criticize government for failing to curb prices. As the RBI increases repo rate, we must increase our innovation rate.


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