The devastating earthquake of 2001 destroyed thousands of homes in Gujarat, but the destruction sparked an idea in the mind of Mansukhbhai Prajapati.
Prajapati had been making earthen water filters but a benign news caption about his broken water filter wrought a change in perspective.
In February 2001, a Gujarati newspaper carried a photo feature on the earthquake. Among the photographs was one of a broken water filter produced by him, with the caption: ‘the broken fridge of poor’.
"This got me thinking and I actually started working on a refrigerator that would keep food cool without needing electricity," said Prajapati about the pradigm shift in his thinking.
After a painstaking three years during which he tested all sorts of soil, clay and refrigerator designs, Prajapati finally came out with his unique "Mitticool" fridge in 2005.
Mitticool is made of a specific type of terracotta clay with numerous pores on its walls. Its function is simple: keep things cool, for which it uses the basic principles of physics.
About 10 litres of water travel through it, circulating through the pores and eventually evaporating. The evaporation lowers the temperature of the clay, and keeps things stored in the ‘frig’ fresh.
"Mitticool can keep the food fresh for five days," Prajapati explained.
The Rs 3,400 ‘desi gadget’ is affordable for the masses, and a hit in the region.
Impressed by Prajapati’s efforts, Anil Gupta, a professor at IIM Ahmedabad introduced Mitticool to National Innovation Foundation in 2005.
He also helped Prajapati with the much needed cash to expand his business further. "I received Rs 1.8 lakh due to professor Gupta’s efforts that gave me financial security and boosted my confidence," the innovator says.
Today Prajapati makes several clay products that include a tawa, pressure cooker, non-stick tawa, water filter, pot and dinner set, among other items.
His company, christened (what else?) Mitticool recorded annual sales of Rs 45 lakh during the fiscal 2012-13. "We have been growing at 15-20% every year," he said, adding that 230 Mitticool refrigerators are sold every month.
But the journey to this success was paved with thorns. Between 2001 and 2004, during which he was researching on the clay and other modalities, Prajapati had to sell off his ancestral home to repay loans.
"I had taken a loan of Rs 7 lakh which after accumulated interests had ballooned to Rs 19 lakh. The situation got so bad that I had to sell off my ancestral home to pay off the bank’s interests," Prajapati said.
After Mitticool became a reality in 2005, a civil engineer saw the fridge and looking at its applications gave him an order for 100 units, and an advance payment of Rs 2 lakh. "This set the ball rolling for me," said Prajapati.
During his participation in a traditional food festival in 2008 where he sold his other products along with Mitticool several visitors asked him to improve upon the black handi as well. "This gave me the idea of developing a clay cooker," he reminisced.
Similarly, ideas to develop an earthen thermos flask came in, and he made two models of 1 litre and 2 litres capacity.
Prajapati is keen to improve upon his products and is working to improve the Mitticool by fitting an RO (Reverse Osmosis) unit to it so that one can also get purified water.
He is also researching on making small ‘Minute Mitticools’ such as a 5-minute Mitticool or a 2-minute Mitticool, essentially meaning that the device would cool water in the time specified.