Reducing Fruit and Vegetable Losses with Clay Pot Coolers: An Ancient Technology for the Current Moment
For tens of millions of households, a lack of effective postharvest storage options leads to food loss and waste, and that means a reduced supply of the nutritious fruits and vegetables essential to a healthy diet.
Now, what if I told you that there is a simple, traditional technology that can dramatically increase the shelf life of nutritious fruits and vegetables in hot and dry regions, but is being massively underutilized? And what if I told you that it doesn’t even require electricity to operate?
Relying on the evaporation of water to create a cool and humid environment, clay pot coolers are easy to assemble and can be made using materials that are typically available in communities in arid regions. My venture, CoolVeg, is working with governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and local businesses to raise awareness and promote the usage of this technology. Often, people ask me, “Why should we promote these ancient technologies when the real goal should be to electrify as many communities as possible to enable modern refrigeration?”
My answer is that I don’t see this as an either/or choice, clay pot coolers or electric refrigeration. Below, I have outlined three reasons why clay pot coolers should be promoted and adopted alongside efforts to increase electrification and access to modern cooling technologies.
1) Clay pot coolers can be rapidly deployed to help right now
Extending the electric grid to rural communities can take years, even decades. Clay pot coolers can help people in off-grid communities right now. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 was established in 2015 to address the urgent need to bring modern energy to the over 1 billion people without electricity access. However, even with billions of dollars of investment, 670 million people are projected to still be without electricity access in 2030, 85% of whom will be in Africa. Many of these people would benefit greatly from the improved fruit and vegetable storage that clay pot coolers can deliver. A training and awareness campaign to disseminate clay pot coolers could reach tens of millions of people in hot and dry regions within five years, well before electrification can be reasonably expected to reach many communities. Once the concept of clay pot coolers becomes well-known among early adopters in a community, it can further spread without the need for additional external resources.
2) Clay pot coolers are more cost-effective than electric refrigerators for fruit and vegetable storage
Clay pot coolers will never replace refrigerators for those looking to store items like dairy, meat or medicines that require temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius, or products that require a low-humidity environment. However, for fruits and vegetables that greatly benefit from cool and humid storage environments, clay pot coolers offer a compelling, cost-effective solution.
By relying on inexpensive, locally available materials, clay pot coolers avoid the need for complex refrigeration equipment that requires electricity. Even if electrification becomes widespread in a community, households would still need to purchase a refrigeration unit. A modern electric refrigerator currently costs between $40 and $200 for a device with similar storage capacity to a clay pot cooler (10 to 70 liters), while the materials for a clay pot cooler only cost between $3 and $15 in many regions.
Requiring only 1 to 3 liters of water per day, clay pot coolers can store produce for over a week while using less than 1% of the water required to grow the produce being stored. In comparison, a small electric refrigerator can cost between $20 and $80 per year to operate, which is comparable to one month’s income for many people in the Sahel.
3) Clay pot coolers are easy to make, easy to understand and affordable — and can empower communities
Unlike electric refrigerators, clay pot coolers do not require complex machinery or centralized manufacturing and distribution. Because they can be made with locally available materials and because guidance on how to use and make clay pot coolers is publicly available, this technology is not controlled by any person or institution. This makes them highly adaptable to different cultural and geographical contexts. By drawing on traditional practices and local craftsmanship, communities can be empowered with practical skills and knowledge.
What is next?
What needs to happen for tens of millions of households to adopt clay pot coolers and benefit from reduced food loss and increased access to nutritious fruits and vegetables?
The answer is a matter of communication and awareness. Many households across the Sahel and other arid regions already use clay pots to keep water cool. Creating a clay pot cooler for fruit and vegetable storage only requires a few additional steps.
In-person training programs in Mali have shown to be effective in stimulating the adoption, with 73% using clay pot coolers after attending the training. Positive impacts reported by users include:
- Less food waste (98%).
- Spending less time traveling to buy produce (95%).
- Eating more fruits and vegetables (88%).
By using a cascade training model, large numbers of people can be reached quickly and cost-effectively.
Radio and digital tools can be used to supplement in-person training sessions and word-of-mouth to further raise awareness and communicate key concepts. For example, CoolVeg and dooiy have developed a WhatsApp chatbot as a cost-effective way of sharing clay pot cooler training content in text, audio, images and videos.
Investment in the dissemination of clay pot coolers will allow this simple technology to quickly reach households facing food loss and lack of access to nutritious fruits and vegetables. This technology is more cost-effective than electric refrigerators for storing many types of produce and can be deployed in a decentralized manner while leveraging local knowledge.