Thursday, January 17, 2008

So Fresh and So Cool

Sometimes, an invention comes around that is so simple I can't believe nobody thought of it earlier. Sometimes that invention is also quite valuable. The most recent example of human ingenuity to blow me away is the pot-in-pot cooling system also known as the "desert fridge." The "desert fridge" is an innovation conceived of by a Nigerian man named Mohammed Bah Abba to keep agricultural produce and other items cool, thereby increasing the length of their freshness and shelf life.

The genius of the invention is its simple design that can be easily constructed with materials found pretty much everywhere in the world. In regions like Africa and elsewhere in the world that do not have reliable electricity, preserving crops for later consumption or sale is fairly difficult and spoilage is not uncommon. The pot-in-pot system developed by Abba in the late 1990's effectively prevents rapid spoilage.

As it's name suggests, the pot-in-pot cooling system consists of a large ceramic pot within which another pot of slightly smaller size is placed. Between the two pots is a layer of sand that is kept wet with the periodic addition of water. The pots are then covered with a wet cloth. As the water evaporates throughout the day it cools the pots and any produce items inside are kept fresh as a result, a miracle in climates that are notoriously hot and dry. It has been reported that eggplants stay fresh for roughly 27 days, instead of the typical three, African spinach is good for 12 days as opposed to just one and tomatoes and peppers last for around 21 days. Truly a remarkable system.

What makes the "Desert Fridge" especially effective is that not only does it create an income for people who produce the pots essential to its construction, its inventer Mohammed Bah Abba tours regions in Nigeria and elsewhere educating people about how and why to use his creation. The manner in which he goes about his teachings is quite impressive as well. Knowing that rural agricultural populations often lack the opportunity to acquire quality educations for various reasons, Abba demonstrates the power of the fridge with communication tools everyone can understand, namely through a theater production he authored or by showing a videotaped presentation of the production with a portable generator-powered projector.

For his inspirational efforts, Mohammed Bah Abba received the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2000 and the Shell Award for Sustainable Development in 2001 in addition to other international praise. Let this be a lesson to those who view Africa and Africans as a land and people incapable of progress and ingenuity. Also let this demonstrate to everyone the power of simply designing with what we have around us.

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