India’s premier low-tech innovator, Mansukhbhai Prajapati was raised in a family of potters who made a modest living by crafting traditional cookware and other common items from the local clay in their state of Gujarat. But young Mansukh, determined to make his own way in life, dropped out of school to try his hand at entrepreneurship. His first attempt at running a small business failed, so he took a position manufacturing clay roofing tiles a factory. Immediately intrigued by the automated press his employer used to mass-produce the tiles, Prajapati set out to design a similar machine that could produce the cookware his family was known for, and eventually pulled off the Mitticool!
Before Prajapati brought his new machine back to the family business, his father was able to hand-produce clay tawa pans at a rate of about one-hundred pieces per month. When he began stamping the pans out with his press, Prajapati’s production capacity increased to nearly one thousand pieces per day, and undercut the cheapest metallic competitors by 300 Rupees!
While most would be tempted to focus all available resources on selling a pan or two to each of the 300-plus million households in India, Mansukh refused to be sidetracked by the pursuit of substantial net worth. Motivated by a higher calling to improve the human condition with “low cost and eco-friendly [solutions] for the masses,” he would most certainly fit in the Not Impossible family.
Orders for his pans were steady, but Prajapati already had the inspiration for his next innovation. Many of his poor friends and neighbors were constantly struggling or perishing due to complications stemming from a lack of clean water.
“In a small village, everybody drinks water that comes from the well or the local stream and the water is not very good, it’s filled with bacteria et cetera, so most of the money is spent on curing diseases that come out of contaminated water,” said Prajapati.
This circumstance alone is enough to keep poor people in a cycle of poverty. If people are constantly battling disease, their time and resources are mostly dedicated to that effort. Driven to level out the playing field in a society where “rich people always have water filters,” the ceramics visionary designed an affordable dual-chamber water cooler that purifies to 0.9 microns utilizing only clay filtration and gravity. Then, just as he hit a stride with the manufacturing of a second brilliant product, his home state of Gujarat was dealt a devastating blow.
In 2001, the massive Gujarat Earthquake killed tens of thousands and injured over 165,000 more. Most of Prajapati’s facilities and inventory were destroyed. As news agencies flocked to his village to cover stories of the destruction and its survivors, one article in particular depicted Mansukh amongst the rubble of his clay pots with a caption reading, “The fridge of the poor breaks into pieces." These words got him thinking
“If [my] water filter is supposed to be the fridge of the poor, why not actually make a fridge for the poor?”
This sparked his next endeavor: an inexpensive clay refrigerator that anyone could manage to purchase, use and maintain. Under normal circumstances, much of India’s population cannot afford appliances or the electricity they require to operate, let alone during the desperate aftermath of a natural disaster. So, Mansukh got to work designing a solution using the “botijo effect” (evaporative cooling property) inherent to clay, and the Mitticool Refrigerator was conceived.
Before Mitticool, a person living without electricity basically had one primitive option for keeping things cool, a pot-in-pot container commonly known as a zeer pot. While a huge improvement over having to keep and consume all food and drink at room temperature, a top-loading zeer pot is not exactly a user-friendly system. Imagine taking several of your favorite items from the refrigerator and trying to stuff them inside of a 12” terra cotta pot. Then imagine trying to access the items without unloading the entire pot each time. Tedious at best. The Mitticool Refrigerator is a modern, front-loading icebox reminiscent of a large dorm fridge, and features a clever dual-purpose water reservoir that fuels the unit's cooling mechanism and dispenses cooled water for drinking (the perfect companion to a Mitticool Water Filter). After several iterations, his product has been finding its way into homes all over India, and even exported to Africa and other international destinations.
The lifestyle augmentation this refrigerator represents in third world environments is palpable (ingredients last much longer, leftovers are one of life’s simplest pleasures, etc.), but the greater implications might not be as apparent. Refrigerators can help a developing country with over 350 million illiterate females advance their culture and build a middle class. You read that right. Access to refrigeration means that women can spend less time shopping for ingredients and preparing food for the family. The efficiency gains in their household management allow more time for mothers and their female offspring to take advantage of educational opportunities. It also means that women can generate income by selling food directly from their homes, decreasing their dependence on their husbands as sole providers.
This movement is perhaps best summed up in a quote from former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, “If you educate a man you educate an individual, however, if you educate a woman you educate a whole family. Women empowered means Mother India empowered.”
With three novel inventions under his belt, Mansukhbhai Prajapati is already regarded as one of the top innovators in India by everyone from the President of India to Forbes magazine, but it seems as though the Mitticool revolution is just getting started. Never satisfied with the status quo, Mansukh has an even bigger vision of what is possible now: “a Mitticool Home made entirely of clay that doesn’t require electricity.”
When he cuts the ribbon, we’ll join Mother India and the other developing societies his work is empowering to salute him with enthusiasm.