The Refrigerator: A Lean Flow Tool?


GE Monitor Refrigerator

GE Monitor Refrigerator

The refrigerator is the humble and seldom-recognized stalwart of the modern home. While there are many ways to cook food — electrical, gas, and, in a pinch, fondue kits and open fire pits. But lose the fridge and many foods become impossible to keep on hand for more than a day or two before becoming a mess or a health hazard.

In North America refrigerators, of a type that we might recognize, started to appear in homes around the 1920’s. Today, the affluent have refrigerators in their kitchens, gyms, and even in the glove boxes of their SUVs.

But the fridge is not just a convenience, in many parts of the world it marks an important dividing line between subsistence living and the building of assets that can greatly improve the living standards of its users. For example SELFINA, a microlender, leases them to women in Tanzania who use them to store bulk milk and yogurt from local farms and then sell in smaller sizes to an area around their homes, thus widening distribution and generating income.

In one sense the idea of refrigerating or freezing bulk purchases of food is un-lean in that it creates inventory through large batch purchases. But in another way it is an enabler of lean flow in that it a kind of kanban supermarket that buffers the food needs for any one meal, and the practical and more affordable practice of buying larger portions of food in fewer trips to the supplier (a farm or a store). This principle is seen in this article in the Economist on the under-loved fridge:

Before pooling savings from her extended family to buy a refrigerator, Sheela Naik, who earns $80 a month as a housemaid on the outskirts of Goa, had to shop daily at market stalls and try to cook just the right amount for her household of ten each night. After serving meat or fish at family get-togethers, she would ask neighbours with fridges to store the leftovers. “They would help but still make a face,” she says. Now she shops weekly at a bigger market and cooks several meals at a time. Her fridge holds leftover carrots, beans and tomatoes, as well as her invalid mother-in-law’s medicine. The freezer has half a kilo of mackerel bought at a discount.

Fridges are transforming women’s lives in India and other emerging markets, just as they did in developed countries decades ago. They are next on families’ wishlists after mobile phones and televisions, usually becoming affordable when household incomes pass around $3,000 a year. Take-up is swifter in places that are urbanising fast. According to Euromonitor, a research firm, ownership in China has leapt from 24% in 1994 to 88% today, whereas in Peru, which has similar GDP per head but is more rural, it is still only 45%. In India 27% of households own a fridge, a share that Tassos Stassopoulos of AllianceBernstein, a fund manager, thinks could double in less than a decade.

They improve health by cutting food contamination and allowing families to add high-protein foods to a diet of grains and vegetables. In places where fortified cereals are unavailable, the World Health Organisation recommends that toddlers eat food from animal sources daily. Many poor mothers could afford to buy meat relatively often, but cannot find cuts small enough; with fridges they can store larger portions and use only a bit at a time.

White-goods manufacturers are working out how to sell fridges where electricity supply is unreliable. “Power Cut EverCool” models from LG, a Korean firm, have a built-in battery and can stay cool for seven hours without power. Food retailers are gearing up to profit from refrigeration, too.

The poorest owners use fridges to store essentials such as fruit, vegetables and cooking sauces, says Mr Stassopoulos, who has poked around kitchens in a dozen countries.