This Business of Rural Refrigerators
23 year-old Emily Cummins was in Oslo last week, sharing the stage with the likes of Ratan Tata, to be honored by the Business for Peace foundation. She is one of the youngest people to receive this prestigious honor, which is conferred by an august panel of Nobel Laureates, upon “individual women and men who have proven able to grow their significant businesses in ways that are both socially responsible and financially sensible.” We know what Ratan Tata does, but what is Emily Cummins’s business? She developed a rural refrigerator for Southern Africa.
In 2005, Cummins spent her gap year in Namibia, where she designed the device that would make her famous. Her “solar-powered fridge” is a double-walled metal container. You fill the space between the two walls with sand, then wet the sand. Holes in the outer wall allow the water to evaporate, cooling the sand down, in turn cooling the inner wall, and anything it contains. For this innovation, Emily has won no less than 18 awards, at least some of which carry a significant cash prize – a sponsorship from the British National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA) was for £12,000.
But does Emily Cummins deserve all these accolades?Hasn’t she just updated a traditional, indigenous technology – replacing the porous clay walls of a matka with perforated metal? When core77.com ran a story about Cummins last week, disgruntled commenters pounced on it, crying foul. Some of them had the same objection as us – clay pots have been around for centuries. Others had a more specific bone to pick. The same principle was patented in Nigeria in 1995 by the award-winnning entrepreneur Mohammed Bah Abba, who developed a clay refrigerator called Zeer, which is also double walled, and also powered by wet sand.
I had another comparison of my own, closer to home. Mansukhbhai Prajapati was making clay water filters in 2001, when the Gujarat earthquake struck. A newspaper carried a photograph of him the next day, with the pieces of his shattered clay pots around him, above the caption “the broken fridge of poor.” This was the inspiration behind his own double-walled clay refrigerator, Mitticool, the first version of which was sold to a local civil engineer in 2005. Today, a few awards and several magazine and newspaper stories later, Mansukhbhai has become one of the faces of indigenous innovation in India. Prof. Anil Gupta, of the Honey Bee Network, holds him up as “a shining example of a successful enterprise that combines technology with traditional knowledge to deliver sustainable solutions.”
In their paper, Exploring Indigenous Innovations, Shashank Mehta and Ravi Mokashi-Punekar are quite categorical about who is an indigenous innovator: “The innovator is generally part of the same community facing the problem/necessity for new solutions.” They hold that this is important, because, “Indigenous innovations can help find the best solutions for local problems. By utilizing the indigenous knowledge and existing resources available, and in turn also generating new employment opportunities, indigenous innovations help foster self-confidence and self-respect amongst the community.” Emily Cummins is a little white-skinned British girl, adapting a traditional African idea and selling it back to Africans. Mohammed Bah Abba and Mansukhbhai Prajapati, on the other hand, are locals, innovating for their own communities.
But before we jump to judgments, this is only half the story. When Mohammed Bah Abba received the $75,000 Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2006, the head of the Rolex Awards Secretariat was very clear about why he was chosen: “Mohammed Bah Abba won a Rolex Award not simply because he designed the pot-in-pot. He overcame obstacles to produce and distribute it, and also ensured that it could be bought for an affordable price by the people who need it.” The subtitle of Mehta and Mokashi-Punekar’s paper on indigenous innovations is Ascertaining the Scope for Design Interventions for their Successful Commercialization.
It is this road to commercialization that ultimately differentiates the three rural refrigerators. Emily Cummins, arguably, had an easier time of it. Without a background and upbringing in the developed world, and all that it entails, it is doubtful if a 19 year-old could travel to Africa, develop a product, receive international recognition, and successfully commercialise it, all in just five years. Her product has all the sheen of a mass-produced object – It is machined, not moulded. Its surfaces are precise, but the peeping bits of mesh tell another story. It has that alluring paradox of being modern, but raw and basic at the same time. It probably sells to Africans because they relate to its newness, its modernity. It appeals to awards committees because it is still so recognizably third-world.
Mohammed Bah Abba’s story is the exact opposite. A teacher in Nigeria who grew up in a potter’s household, Bah Abba had to wait the longest, from concept to market. His Zeer is unashamedly “indigenous,” made as it is of Nigerian earth. His clay pots have the timeless quality of all clay pots, bearing the marks of the hands and paddles that beat them into shape. “I have no pretensions,” they proclaim. The Zeer works for his community because it is so familiar to them, it looks like they’ve always known it. And it can be made by any potter in any village.
Mansukhbhai Prajapati’s road to commercialization is the most interesting to me, because it falls so squarely in the middle. Mansukhbhai comes from a family of potters, but he was already an entrepreneur when he developed Mitticool. His efforts were noticed by the Honey Bee network, which has done an amazing job of connecting grassroots innovators in India. Through their partner organization GIAN (Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network) he was put in touch with designers at the National Institute of Design.
Together, they came up with the present form of Mitticool, which is such a mystifying juxtaposition of the traditional and the modern. The clay exterior, sometimes painted and ornamented, wouldn’t be out of place in any Gujarati home. But add the plastic tap and those shelves, and you have an unclassifiable creature. There is a whiff of the earth, but also a definite smell of urban kitsch. The rural innovator and urban designers have come up with an object that looks like it will be very happy to be hawked at any village market, because it manages to exactly capture the schizophrenic tastes of today’s Indian villager.
The three refrigerators, therefore, have their own unique, locally relevant USPs. Their designs are completely different, and their technology varies. None of them really infringes on the intellectual property rights (IPR) of the others. This is especially significant to note, because it is not inconceivable that these three products will soon be competitors.
Emily Cummins’s eyes are currently on Africa, but in their citation, the Business for Peace foundation claims that she “designs products to improve the quality of life in developing countries.” Note the blanket term “developing countries.” The Rolex Awards web site informs us that Mohammed Bah Abba “has been asked to help introduce and adapt his cooling device in Eritrea, where it could preserve insulin vials for diabetic patients in remote rural areas, as well as in India, Haiti and Honduras.” And before he developed Mitticool, Mansukhbhai Prajapati was making terracotta water filters that were being exported to Kenya.
Already, we begin to see the happy scenario painted by the Mehta/Mokashi-Punekar paper, and by Prof. Anil Gupta, start to break down. They advocate knowledge-sharing among indigenous innovators, carefully shepherded by proper IPR, and they see industrialized goods produced by large corporations as the real competition. But what happens when several innovators are competing for the same market, with a similar product, but with no IPR infringements? The market for indigenous innovations is precarious already, will it survive being fragmented in this way? Local inventors might have to start factoring into their designs the possibility that their local products might have a global market, and face global competition.
The tale of the three rural refrigerators brings up another possible scenario. There is a growing conversation between Africa and India about reaching their respective rural markets. A similarity in their traditional economies means that grassroots solutions developed for one market often resonate with the other. If we are going to see a growing industry of local products created with local ingenuity, we are probably also facing a growing challenge of competitiveness. Just as India and China are rivals in the mainstream emerging markets, the African nations and India might soon be locking horns over the low-tech, rural market. And they will both have to put some work into another indigenous innovation: a way to compete with the Emily Cumminses of the world.