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on a positive impact

A Day in the Life of a Dharma Chef

The Trust Talks with: Gaurav Mehta, Founder and CEO, Dharma Life

Making a profit and creating healthier communities don’t always go hand-in-hand. But if you ask Gaurav Mehta, they are a match made in heaven. Born and raised in Germany with roots to India, Gaurav founded Dharma Life in 2009 to enable youth in rural India to become health entrepreneurs, selling everything from clean cook stoves to sanitary pads. Tackling issues from education, to clean energy, and nutrition, Dharma Life has impacted more than 8.7 million lives through a network of twelve thousand entrepreneurs to date.

These stunning figures are a result of Gaurav’ relentless quest to continuously evolve his business model to help even more people. In 2015, Gaurav attended Innovating Health for Tomorrow (IHT) in an effort to bring new thinking to Dharma Life. At IHT, a collaboration between the Johnson & Johnson Corporate Citizenship Trust (Trust) and flagship partner INSEAD, he learned to rethink his approach to holistic problem-solving to address today’s biggest health challenges. Recognizing the unique value of such a course and its impact on Dharma Life, several more Dharma Life staff have followed in Gaurav’s footsteps to attended IHT. Their combined experiences have shifted Dharma Life’s programs to be even more creative and intuitive when it comes to convincing their customers to adopt healthier behaviors.

To celebrate this month’s kickoff of IHT 2018, we check back with Gaurav who shares how he applied a behavior change approach from IHT to revamp one Dharma Life’s many successful programs, Dharma Chef.

GM: In India, an estimated 58% of people burn solid fuels, like charcoal or fuelwood, for cooking and heating. This traps toxic fumes indoors, resulting in respiratory, pulmonary, and vision problems for those exposed. As the primary cooks for most families, women suffer the most health complications from daily exposure to thick black smoke.

GM: Cleaner, more efficient cook stoves can reduce smoke by up to 80 percent. When Dharma Life decided to first tackle this issue in 2010, we thought that it would be easy to convince families to switch to clean-cooking solutions. Our community-based entrepreneurs taught their customers how clean cook stoves reduced indoor air pollution and could improve air quality in their homes, boosting their health too. But when we came back to the families a couple of months later, we found the stoves lying in a corner, untouched. No one thought their food could taste as good with this new appliance.

GM: At IHT, I learned to look at health problems in a holistic way and incorporate behavior change theories into our approach. We broke down the building blocks of the Innovator’s DNA — unlocking the potential of teammates, delivering results, discovering new directions, and using “design thinking” — and discussed ways to incorporate it into our projects and organizations.

Coming back, I applied the concept of design thinking to better understand our dilemma. Our team realized that distributing the product alone would not solve the problem of indoor air pollution. We needed to convince the consumer (primarily women) by showing them (rather than telling them) that the stoves were easy to use, improved air quality, produced tasty food, and easily fit into their kitchen routines.

That’s how we came up with the idea of a cooking competition. Later that year, we introduced the first Dharma Chef competition in Gujarat. Women competed to cook the best dish; the only requirement was that they had to use induction stoves. Not only was it a lot of fun, but participants discovered that they could learn to cook tasty meals with almost no grime! Through our community outreach, we also discovered that it was just as important to engage men and community leaders who drive and influence purchase decisions in rural households.

GM: As a result of the Dharma Chef competition, many of the participants and onlookers changed their mindset about clean cooking solutions, including the induction cooktops. In December of 2017 alone, we held more than 40 events, and in the first half of 2018, we’re planning to hold another 100. Dharma Life is working as hard and fast as we can to scale Dharma Chef not just in Gujarat, but also in Uttar Pradesh and eventually, all over India.

GM: To date, our entrepreneurs have sold more than 32,000 clean cooking solutions — a number that is expected to grow significantly in 2018. We’re so happy we found a win-win solution that enables our entrepreneurs to sell safer, affordable, and more efficient cooking options, and helps their customers breathe easier in their homes. Rethinking how our customers adopt new behaviors revolutionized our approach to Dharma Chef.

Learn more about the behavior change and design thinking concepts that Gaurav applied to Dharma Chef and apply for the 2019 IHT sessions.