Mansukhbhai Prajapati remoulded his family’s struggling pottery business to produce the Mitticool range of ingenious earthenware, including a fridge that works without electricity.
Reporting on the devastation and thousands of lives lost during the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, local newspapers had this intriguing headline describing the havoc wreaked at a potters’ colony: ‘Garibon na fridge no bhookon’ (Pieces of the poor people’s fridge). Among the debris were the shards of hundreds of broken clay pitchers.
That headline proved to be a game-changer for Wakaner-based potter Mansukhbhai Prajapati, who literally picked up the pieces to begin afresh on a remarkably innovative idea — the Mitticool refrigerator, which is made of mud and works without electricity.
Originally from Morbi village in Rajkot, south Gujarat, Prajapati, a tenth-standard dropout, began working at a tea-stall after his father discouraged him from entering the family’s pottery business as the income was negligible. Later, he became a supervisor at a roof-tile manufacturing company and eventually, in 1989, returned to his passion for pottery by producing tavdi or tawa (frying pan) from clay.
Although his father-in-law desired him to continue working at the roof-tile company, Prajapati’s wife encouraged him to experiment with the family business all over again.
It was this abiding interest in innovation that led him to develop the Mitticool water filter way back in 1997.
A lot of rigorous experimentation went into his work on the Mitticool refrigerator, which he launched in 2002.
Besides a tank for cooling and storing 10 litres of water, the earthenware refrigerator has two compartments for storing 5 kg of vegetables, fruits and other food.
It takes about seven days to make one Mitticool fridge. The special terracotta clay used is baked at 1,200 degree Celsius to harden it. Like any clay pot used to cool water, the fridge too works by keeping the inside temperature 10 degrees lower than the outside.
The natural cooling process keeps vegetables and fruits fresh for up to five days, and milk products for up to three days.
Measuring 27 inches high and 15 inches wide, the fridge costs Rs 3,000 to Rs 3,500. As it works without electricity, it is especially useful in villages that experience frequent power cuts.
Each Mitticool refrigerator fetches Prajapati a profit margin of Rs 250. The tawa is priced Rs 150–300, while the water filter and clay pressure cooker manufactured by him are priced between Rs 500 and Rs 700. Interestingly, each of his products is decorated with handmade designs, and his tawas come with approved food-grade coating.
Since 2005, Prajapati has sold more than 6,000 Mitticool refrigerators, with most of the sales coming from South India (apart from Gujarat) including Kerala, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai.
“I want to make more such eco-friendly products that are affordable to the poorest of the poor,” says this entrepreneur brimming with novel ideas. His products have also received ISO certification.
Firm against huge odds
But his path to success has been far from smooth. Burdened under heavy loans, Prajapati stuck to his ideas against all odds.
“From 2002 to 2004, I had a huge debt of Rs 19 lakh. Of this, Rs 11 lakh was a bank loan,” he recalls. “I sold my house in order to repay my debt, as I was on the verge of bankruptcy. But by the grace of God, my family supported me through the ordeal. I was determined to prove that a clay fridge is possible.”
His tenacity was rewarded in the form of help from a professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. Anil Gupta, Executive Vice-Chairman of the National Innovation Foundation did not just give him financial support but also recommended him to Rural Innovators of India, a Forbes guide to rural entrepreneurs.
Observing that India’s villages have become a hotbed of innovation, Gupta points out that it is the rural poor who develop these inventions out of necessity. “Several of the people on this (Forbes) list have just elementary school education and nothing else.”
NIF attempted to forge a collaboration with the Future Group to help Prajapati sell his products at two Big Bazaar branches in Ahmedabad, but that did not last as the “margins were not beneficial”. Prajapati is determined to keep Mitticool products affordable for the poor and prefers to go it alone.
He has now ventured online and retails through eBay, Craftvilla and Nethaat.com among others. He, however, clarifies that he is in talks with retail houses such as Essar and Future Group to sell his wares under a different format.
Besides featuring on Discovery channel and making it to Forbes’ list of seven most-powerful rural Indian entrepreneurs, Prajapati also appeared on Indique — Untold Stories of Contemporary India, an award-winning 2007 travel series on CNBC, USA.
Among so many achievements to his credit, Prajapati is especially proud of educating his children to make it better in life. His elder son, after completing his diploma in ceramic engineering, now assists him at Mitticool and the pottery business, while his younger son is in the final year of BSc.
Not one to rest on his laurels, however, Prajapati is hard at work to realise more dreams — a house that functions without electricity, a natural lighting and cooling system, and more.