About 15 percent of the world’s population lives without electricity. When it comes to meeting this segment of the global population’s needs, solar lights, water filters and cook stoves tend to get the most attention. But the team behind Evaptainers, an electricity-free mobile refrigeration unit, says refrigeration is just as critical to helping small farmers and the rural poor.
Without refrigeration, up to 40 percent of produce grown in Africa spoils before it’s eaten—food waste rates similar to regions like North America, only the root cause is different.
An Evaptainer is a lightweight, collapsible storage unit that uses evaporative cooling to keep perishable food fresh for up to two weeks. (The human body uses evaporative cooling to regulate its temperature by sweating.) The inner compartment of the container, a rubbery water-resistant chamber, is enclosed in a moisture-wicking fabric shell.
Two years into the endeavor, the Evaptainers team is close to launching a new version of its product, with plans to roll out hundreds of units within the next year. Evaptainers chief technical officer, Jeremy Fryer-Biggs, notes the team filed for a provisional patent on its design earlier this year and likens the filing to taking a ticket at a deli counter. “This gives us a placeholder for a year to continue to develop technology and put together a stronger product,” he explains.
Evaptainers co-founder and CEO Spencer Taylor spoke with Smithsonian.com about the challenges and triumphs of social entrepreneurship, and why combatting food waste and rural poverty go hand in hand.
Where did the idea for Evaptainers originate?
My Evaptainers co-founder, Quang Truong, has a background in international agriculture development. He’s worked all over the world. When he took time out to get his master’s degree at the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, he cross-registered at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology in the Action Lab for a class called Development Ventures. MIT professor Joost Bonsen started the course with low bar: students were encouraged to come up with a good or service to change the lives of one million people.
The most pervasive problem Quang had witnessed in his work around the world was post-harvest spoilage, meaning produce spoiling between the moment it is picked and the moment it will be eaten. In places with no dependable electrical grids, there are high spoilage rates, and this impacts both the producer and the consumer side.
Across Africa, the post-harvest spoilage rate is around 40 percent, at an average annual cost of $4 billion. Yet the continent receives over $3 billion in food aid and also receives food imports.
Quang saw a lot of solutions—solar photovoltaic systems, thermal batteries and battery banks—that address the issue in heavy-duty installations for a point of irrigation, for example, but not for the last mile for small producers and the rural poor.
In Nigeria, Quang came across the zeer pot, a brilliant and rudimentary large terra cotta pot developed in the 1980s. It works by putting a smaller pot filled with perishable goods into a larger pot, filling the space between them with moist sand, and covering. This keeps food fresher, longer.
So the Evaptainer is based on pot-in-pot refrigeration. How does an Evaptainer differ, and how does it work?
The zeer pot isn’t that widely adopted. We started by asking: what are barriers to adoption? A giant clay pot is hard to mass-produce, both due to its weight and delicacy, and there’s a lot of user error. If, for example, you use too much water, it won’t work properly.
Because development for this happened in an MIT class, others wanted to do all the things an MIT engineer would want to do—add solar panels, for example. But we needed to keep this simple and inexpensive.
Water is a pain to work with. We needed a static system, and we figured out pretty quickly that the evaporative panels needed to be the tank. Our provisional patent is based on that.
Primarily, we needed to match the flow rate from the evaporative surface with the evaporative rate. To cool, heat is pulled out of the central chamber as the water evaporates, and this cools at up to 35 degrees Fahrenheit using no electricity.
That won’t keep a beer cold, but it will extend the life of tomatoes from one to two days in open air to up to two weeks in a cooler.
How did you go from the idea phase to building a working prototype? How did you get this off the ground?
Quang pitched the idea and won a Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award (SISCA) at Tufts. After that, he also applied and got into the MassChallenge non-profit startup incubator, at which point he had a sketch on a piece of paper and a proof of concept.
Quang and my wife were in the same cohort at Tufts, and I’d previously started a software-as-a-service company in online fundraising. I saw potential for massive impact with Evaptainer and signed on as CEO in August 2014. Another finalist from the MassChallenge class, Jeremy Fryer-Biggs, had been working on a 3D printing company that he didn’t see going anywhere. He signed on as our chief technology officer.
Quang moved to Morocco so we could launch a field trial there. Jeremy and I stayed behind in Boston to continue working on prototyping. We built six units and shipped them to Quang, who passed them along to beneficiaries for testing. In 2015, we secured a grant from National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative. USAID also gave us a grant to run a large field trial.
Why set up shop in Morocco?
We had a good in-country connection. In the original group at MIT, one student’s father worked in the Moroccan agriculture ministry.
Looking beyond commercial launch, our market is constricted below the climatic envelope where there’s an average of 60 percent humidity. When we launched, Evaptainers were not collapsible, so we thought we’d need regional production centers.
Morocco is interesting because it’s a country with advanced production, like injection molding plants, but no widespread, reliable rural electrification. Some people are rich enough to grow horticultural products, which require land, and they have traditional refrigeration. That is not the case in Nigeria.
Plus, the Moroccan market is our real consumer, where lots of poor people live with limited or no electricity. It was a reasonable size market to address. We don’t want to be the Super Bowl and try to go big by going into a market like India. There’s also the Green Morocco 2020 plan, which encourages entrepreneurship. We hired a field team in Morocco that is constantly talking at events about Moroccan entrepreneurs and how to build products and teams on the ground there.
How do you find fiscal sponsors and partners?
People tend to have this preconceived notion of startup culture, egged on by endless media coverage. Hardware—building a physical product—is hard. It takes time. It’s expensive. It’s slow.
For those reasons, traditional angel investment and venture capital are not really options for us. There are so-called impact angels, but those are few and far between, and also hard to find. Social entrepreneurship is often lauded but intermittently supported.
We went out and beat the bushes, applying for grant after grant. I put in my own money, and many of us worked for free on Evaptainer while taking other jobs.
If we want to drive innovative ideas to help the poor, we need to really support that.
How did you find families to test the product, and how will you continue to distribute Evaptainers?
Through affiliations with other NGOs, we identified core communities and found about 150 families in the rural population.
As I said, this is hardware. We built a thing, and we have to sell it. The goal is to keep the price under $30 US, which would pay for itself in savings in just two and a half months. That said, having that much money in one place at one time is challenging, so we’re also looking for microloan partnership and venture capital opportunities. We’d like to work with NGOs and development organizations that have connections to rural health, agriculture and food stability; ideally, we’d be able to piggyback off of their infrastructure. I’d love to keep the price as low as possible; I’d love to see it sold for $10.
Already we have teams selling at souks, or weekly markets, to gauge interest and ability to buy other related products, like solar lights. We want to know what kind of messages and cadence work as we bring our product to market.
What’s ahead for Evaptainer?
We’re about to release our next version! Our next big horizon line is to build between 300 to 500 units and run a field trial in the first half of 2017. We’re planning for commercial launch soon after.