One of the Best Inventions of the Past 20 Years: The Pot-in-Pot Refrigerator

Fagjun | Published 2017-05-16 09:28

Sometimes, the best inventions don't need state-of-the-art equipment or an inventor with advanced degrees in whichever scientific field is relevant. There are times when all a good idea needs are easily available materials and a millennia-old way of doing things.

There's beauty in simplicity, as the pot-in-pot refrigerator shows. This invention is basically a simple no-electricity food cooling system. All you'd need are two clay pots, one smaller than the other, wet sand, a wet cloth, and food.

The Stuff of the Best Inventions

The science of the pot-in-pot refrigerator
[Image by Peter Rinker]

Back in the late 90s, Mohammed Bah Abba developed a food cooling system that can improve the lives of people in rural Nigeria. Abba adapted an ancient technique for keeping food cool and created a cheap and portable food cooling system. This simple system can extend the shelf life of perishable food by days and weeks.

In rural Nigeria, at the time at least, electricity was either extremely expensive or simply unavailable. People had to eat food right away if they didn't want it to go bad. Of course, this isn't always practical or possible. Thus, Abba sought to find a way to improve the lives of his fellow Nigerians. It was what made his cooling system one of the best inventions at the time—it was geared towards changing lives in as unassuming a way as possible.

Abba, who had been a teacher, came from a family of clay-pot makers. His food cooling concept consisted of packing wet sand along the walls of the larger clay pot, fitting the smaller pot in, filling it with fruits and vegetables, and covering the whole thing with a wet cloth. That was all it took. At the time, the entire thing cost $2-$4.

The cooling mechanism is simple as well. The water in the sand evaporates through the outer pot and draws heat away from the inner pot. Temperatures in the inner pot can go as low as 4ºC. The system can extend the shelf life of eggplants to four weeks, and that of tomatoes to three weeks. Thus, families would no longer need to make frequent trips to get food, and farmers can keep their produce fresh for longer.

Butterfly Effect

Abba demonstrating how to use the pot-in-pot refrigerator.
[Photo by Rolex Awards/Tomas Bertelsen]

Time hailed the pot-in-pot refrigerator as one of the best inventions of 2001. Before he died in 2010, Abba had managed to refine his concept as well as mass-produce the refrigerator. Abba won the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2001, as well as a $75,000 cash prize. He used his prize money to hire potmakers that will help him produce more of these cooling systems. In doing so, he was able to make the product more widely available in Nigeria.

His first batch consisted of 5,000 pots, and the next one consisted of 7,000. Eventually, by 2005, over 90,000 spread not just in Nigeria, but in Sudan, Cameroon, Eritrea, and Chad as well.

The best inventions aren't always high-tech, expensive, or reliant on rare or expensive materials. There are times when a great invention is something simple, almost mundane, but can cause ripples of improvement throughout people's lives.

Hey! Where are you going?? Subscribe!

Get weekly science updates in your inbox!