A "Desert Refrigerator" Improves Lives in Nigeria

A "Desert Refrigerator" Improves Lives in Nigeria

Rolex Award winner Mohammad Bah Abba's Pot-in-Pot cooling system is helping subsistence farmers in northern Nigeria by reducing food spoilage and thus increasing their income
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Simple ideas like the pot-in-pot cooling system have the potential to make a massive impact. Photo Credit: Cassandra Nelson, Mercy Corps
Born into a family of earthen pot makers and raised in rural northern Nigeria, Mohammed Bah Abba is familiar with the practical and symbolic uses of traditional clay pots. As a child he learned the rudiments of pottery making and was struck by how the clay figures he molded were water resistant and remained intact even when dry, unlike items made from other soils. Later while studying biology, chemistry and geology at school, Abba unraveled the technical puzzle that led him years later to create the \"Pot-in-Pot Preservation/Cooling System\".

The Pot-in-Pot Cooling System is a kind of \"desert refrigerator\" that requires no external energy supply to preserve fruit, vegetables and other perishables in hot, arid climates. The innovation helps subsistence farmers in northern Nigeria by reducing food spoilage and waste and thus increasing their income and limiting the health hazards of decaying foods. \"I invented the Pot-in-Pot system to help the development of the rural poor in a cost effective, participatory and sustainable way,\" says Abba.

Semi-desert Scrubland, Subsistence Farmers and Lack of Electricity

To understand the significance of Abba\'s project, it is necessary to look at the geography of northern Nigeria and the restricted lives led by the people. This region is primarily a semi-desert scrubland inhabited by a large, mostly agriculture-based population, the majority of whom live in abject poverty.
Fundamental to the Pot-in-Pot project is the lack of electricity in most of the northern rural communities, for without electricity there can be no refrigeration.


Polygamy is a dominant feature of the family structure, and women are confined to their homes and seriously disadvantaged in terms of health care, education and employment opportunities. Young girls are particularly enslaved because they are forced to go out each day and quickly sell food that would otherwise perish, in order to add to the meager family income.

Fundamental to the Pot-in-Pot project is the lack of electricity in most of the northern rural communities, for without electricity there can be no refrigeration. Even in towns and cities the power supply is erratic, with some areas experiencing total blackouts for several weeks. Most of the urban poor cannot even afford refrigerators.

Having witnessed the extreme hardships suffered by Nigerian subsistence farmers and their families, Abba became motivated to revitalize earthen pot usage to extend the life of perishable foods.

Vegetables, Fruit and Drinks Cooled by a Simple Evaporation Process

The innovative cooling system that Abba developed in 1995 consists of two earthenware pots of different diameters, one placed inside the other. The space between the two pots is filled with wet sand that is kept constantly moist, thereby keeping both pots damp. Fruit, vegetables and other items such as soft drinks are put in the smaller inner pot, which is covered with a damp cloth and left in a very dry, ventilated place. The phenomenon that occurs is based on a simple principle of physics: The water contained in the sand between the two pots evaporates towards the outer surface of the larger pot where the drier outside air is circulating. By virtue of the laws of thermodynamics, the evaporation process automatically causes a drop in temperature of several degrees, cooling the inner container, destroying harmful microorganisms and preserving the perishable foods inside.

Abba\'s first trials proved successful. Eggplants, for example, stayed fresh for 27 days instead of three, and tomatoes and peppers lasted for three weeks or more. African spinach, which usually spoils after a day, remained edible after 12 days in the Pot-in-Pot storage.

Abba persistently refined his invention for two years between 1995 and 1997. He then tapped into the large unemployed local workforce and hired skilled pot makers to produce the first batch of 5,000 Pot-in-Pots. Manufacturing these devices at his own expense for 30 U.S. cents each, he began distributing them for free to five villages in Jigawa. In this initial phase of his project, he received limited financial and in-kind contributions from the UNDP, the regional government, a local university, a local women\'s development group and even his family.

The impact of the Pot-in-Pot on individuals\' lives is extraordinary. \"Farmers are now able to sell on demand rather than \'rush sell\' because of spoilage,\" says Abba.
In 1999, Abba built additional pot-making factories and supplied another dozen local villages with 7,000 pots, again mostly at his expense. He estimates that three-quarters of the rural families in Jigawa are now using his cooling device.

The impact of the Pot-in-Pot on individuals\' lives is extraordinary. \"Farmers are now able to sell on demand rather than \'rush sell\' because of spoilage,\" says Abba, \"and income levels have noticeably risen. Married women also have an important stake in the process, as they can sell food from their homes and overcome the age-old dependency on their husbands as the sole providers.\" In turn, and perhaps most significantly for the advancement of the female population, Abba\'s invention liberates girls from having to hawk food each day. Instead, they are now free to attend school, and the number of girls enrolling in village primary schools is rising.

These factors, coupled with the effect that the Pot-in-Pot has had in stemming disease and slowing the pace of the rural exodus to cities, are what, in Abba\'s words \"make the Pot-in-Pot a tangible and exciting solution to a severe local problem\".

Encouraged by these positive results, Abba will soon begin distributing the cooling devices to the four Nigerian states bordering Jigawa, starting with Yobe. However, looking at his experience over the past five years, he understands that one of the biggest obstacles is educating the villagers about this simple technology.

Training workshops and the use of \"criers\", village PR men, were only moderately successful so Abba has devised an educational campaign tailored to village life and the illiterate population. The innovative campaign features a video-recorded play by local actors who dramatize the benefits of the desert refrigerator. Abba has begun showing the video in villages using a makeshift cloth screen and a portable projector and generator.

Abba has recently begun to sell his pots at 40 U.S. cents a pair, 10 cents higher than the original production cost. The proceeds will help finance manufacturing and distribution costs. He estimates that it will take five years to cover the whole of northern Nigeria and hopes one day to export the Pot-in-Pot to other hot, dry countries facing similar problems.




Reprinted with permission from Vara Prasad.

To read another Global Envision article about innovations, see Plumpynut - A Tool for Malnutrition.



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