On average, an American family of four loses upwards of $1,500 each year to food that is purchased but not eaten.
In the developing world, food waste also is a big issue – but for very different reasons. It’s called post-harvest spoilage. Improper packaging, poor roads and an inadequate refrigeration distribution system are partially to blame. But for the individual families shopping for groceries, it often comes down to access to electricity.
In Africa, 57 percent of the population does not have access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. Without electricity, you can’t have refrigeration. And without refrigeration, almost half of the produce that’s grown in Africa spoils before anyone can eat it.
Quang Truong understands the incredibly powerful role refrigeration plays in locking people into a cycle of poverty. Quang has a background in agricultural consulting and has worked in Vietnam and throughout Africa. When he paused his career in 2014 to get a Master’s degree in international development, he took a course in which his teacher challenged the students to create a good or service that would change the lives of one billion people.
Quang immediately thought of the problem of post-harvest spoilage, something he had seen firsthand in his career. He also recalled a Nigerian device he came across when he was doing work in Africa called a Zeer pot or a “pot-in-pot” cooler. It’s a simple evaporative device that helps to extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables stored inside. He knew the Zeer pot was an amazing tool, but it was heavy, easily breakable, was difficult to mass produce and was prone to user error. So Quang set out to take this rudimentary – yet highly effective – device and bring it into the 21st century, making it lighter, less breakable, cheaper and easier to distribute through mass production.
Quang quickly partnered with two other entrepreneurial minds – Spencer Taylor and Jeremy Fryer-Biggs – to bring his idea to life. Together they figured out a way to use the power of sweat – or evaporative cooling – to help keep produce cool and, in turn, help unlock the cycle of poverty.
The result? Evaptainers: an electricity-free mobile refrigeration technology that uses only sun and water. Today, the team has a provisional patent on the Evaptainer technology, and the product is being tested by families in Morocco.
“Over the course of ten million years, we have evolved to sweat,” says Jeremy, one of the Evaptainers co-founders. “Turns out it’s a really good way to get heat out of the body. Our Evaptainer takes that principal and puts it on steroids. The idea is that when you pull energy away from a system, the net effect is that the system cools.”
Here’s how Evaptainers work: Water is poured into a specialized evaporative material, and as the liquid turns into vapor, it takes the energy with it – cooling the unit up to 35 degrees Fahrenheit from ambient air temperature. This can extend the shelf life of food from two days to two weeks in warm and dry climates. The current model can run for two days using only one liter of water.
Evaptainers have gone through a handful of major design rounds. When the team was working on the third generation of the unit, they ran into a technical problem that they didn’t know how to solve. They needed to put a spacer into the evaporative fabric that was big enough that water could flow through, but not too big so that all the water would splash out and disappear in a matter of minutes, rendering the unit useless. So they called 3M.
“3M has this extremely strong VHB tape that’s meant to stick stuff to other stuff,” said Jeremy. “But we wound up using it as a spacer, and it was perfect. It was just the right thickness and size for our product, plus, it’s waterproof, so we could flush it through with lots and lots of water and it stayed in place. So it was a unique reapplication of something that had no business being this other thing – but 3M was open-minded enough to see it and to help us find that solution.”
Hamid is a 29-year-old who lives in Ain Mersa, a small settlement south of Fez, Morocco. He’s one of the Moroccan families testing the Evaptainer. Hamid’s household consists of eight people – his parents, his brother, and his brother’s wife and children. They have no electricity or running water. According to Hamid, the Evaptainer allows him and his family to keep food longer, which helps cut down the need to make extra trips to the souk, or market. These trips to the souk are no simple task: Hamid has to take time off of work and pay money for a cab ride each time he goes to the souk. And with weekly earnings of about $52, these trips cost a significant portion of his income.
During the hot summer months, Hamid’s food only lasts two to three days, which means he’s repeating this process two to three times a week, just to keep his family fed. With the Evaptainer, Hamid only has to make the trip once a week, providing a massive recoup in time and money for him and his family. It’s a $30 investment that, in Hamid’s case, pays for itself in less than three months.
It is stories like these that compel the Evaptainers team to keep the field tests going and bring the product to market. The people in the field – like Hamid – who are willing to test the product for Quang and his team have been integral to helping them determine how best to tweak the design of the mobile units to make them as impactful as possible.
“At first, I was afraid that the initial users would be reluctant to tell me anything bad about the refrigerator,” says Quang. “Surprisingly, they were quite honest about what they wanted to see improved and what needed immediate fixing. Their feedback has helped immensely. The idea that they would put so much thought into improving a product that was once just an idea in my head is pretty humbling.”
Evaptainers have received grants from a number of organizations, and they’re sponsored by 3M. The team’s dream of providing affordable refrigeration for millions of people in the developing world is likely soon to become a reality: The mobile refrigerators are slated to launch commercially in 2017.
“This device is perfectly suited to help the most vulnerable populations in the world in an incredibly basic way,” says Spencer. “If we can use a simple refrigeration device as a tool to help improve peoples’ lives – to provide such a basic fundamental need – that’s what most excites us.”