x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

'Mad scientist' models industry that improves lives

The sleepy remote town of Wankaner reveals few clues that it is home to one of India's most famous inventors whose creations have improved the lives of many people.

Mansukhlal Prajapati makes a refrigerator from clay at his workshop. His designs have won numerous awards.
Mansukhlal Prajapati makes a refrigerator from clay at his workshop. His designs have won numerous awards.

WANKANER, GUJARAT // The sleepy remote town of Wankaner reveals few clues that it is home to one of India's most famous inventors whose clay creations have improved the lives of many people.

It was here that Mansukhlal Prajapati gave up selling tea in favour of a career in which he would be made fun of as a "mad scientist" by family and friends before being called "a true scientist" by the former Indian president, APJ Abdul Kalam.

"My dream used to be that someday I will ride in an airplane," said Mr Prajapati, 47. "Now I have so many invites to talk in so many conferences that I have to pick one flight out of five. That is when I think I don't mind being seen as a mad scientist anymore."

He spoke from the headquarters of his company, Mitticool, located down a narrow dirt road from where his tea stall once stood in Wankaner, about 200 kilometres from the bustling Gujarat city of Ahmedabad. Within the spartan premises, which holds his clay workshop and factory, Mr Prajapati overseas the manufacturing of kitchen appliances that are affordable to India's poor, about half of whom live on less than US$2 a day, according to figures from the World Bank. Possibly his most innovative product is a refrigerator made of terracotta that runs solely on circulating water, an important feature in a country where at least 300 million people have no access to electricity. The appliance, which sells for 3,500 rupees (Dh235), keeps vegetables, fruits and milk fresh for up to a week.

Mr Prajapati's work has earned him plaudits from around the world. He was named one of the top seven rural entrepreneurs in India by Forbes magazine in 2010 and now tours India to talk about his work.

His first invention was a clay non-stick griddle, used for making rotis, which sell for between 135 and 220 rupees depending on the size. He has also created a terracotta water filter, which at 625 rupees costs half the price of the least expensive model available in stores. Mr Prajapati has even managed to invent a pressure cooker made of clay, which c=uts cooking times in half. The cooker sells for 500 rupees.

Despite his current success, Mitticool almost failed as it was getting off the ground.

In 2001, Gujarat was hit by an earthquake that killed more than 20,000 people, injured more than 100,000 and left more than 400,000 homeless in Gujarat and Pakistan. Mr Prajapati lost everything.

After the earthquake, he applied for several loans but was rejected.

"Banks would not give me a loan because I was worth nothing. After the earthquake I started from zero. Everything was gone."

Despite this, Mr Prajapati was determined to complete his next project, the refrigerator. In researching the viability of his refrigerator, he ended up going into 1.9 million rupees of debt from private lenders.

Mr Prajapati persevered, determined to prove to the banks wrong. That was easy for a man who has spent his life proving the world wrong - starting with his father.

The family had been potters for many generations. Mr Prajapati's father left the trade and disapproved of his son's decision to take it up again.

"'Why do you want to go back to something that has given us no money?' my father would say to me, but I knew there was something to clay."

Then there were the villagers, who taunted Mr Prajapati, a high school drop out for "playing at the wheel". But there was one person from his youth who inspired him to think beyond the tea stall, his wife Neera. The embarrassment he felt when she would visit the stall drove him to keep dreaming bigger, he said.

"Sometimes when she used to walk towards the stall, I would hide in shame," said Mr Prajapati. "If I hadn't been engaged to her, Mitticool would have never happened."

It was not easy in the beginning. Mr Prajapati said he broke 150,000 griddles, experimenting with the right mix of clay, water and kiln temperature, before he achieved success.

Then another idea struck, watching his family draw water from the pond to drink. In 1995, he made the terracotta water filter, which was his first economic success. A businessman from Nairobi bought 500 pieces and then a whole shipping container's worth, paying him 200,000 rupees.

In 2004, after four years of debt and experimenting with the design he created a "special clay" that made his refrigerator work. It caught the attention of Anil Gupta, who paid him a visit after reading newspaper reports about his struggles to make his creations amid mounting debt.

Mr Gupta is a professor of innovation management in emerging markets at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad and the executive vice chair of the Indian National Innovation Foundation that supports grassroots innovation.

"It was simplicity at its best," said Mr Gupta, recalling the first time he saw on Mr Prajapati's creations. "He is a great metaphor for how blending creative innovation and traditional thought can be turned into a emphatic, sustainable model of development."

Mr Prajapati's griddle design has been shared with at least a hundred other potters, through free workshops he holds.

"The technology behind the products, you think is complicated but it is not, and look at how he has transformed hundreds of lives by freely sharing his technology and creating employment around him," Mr Gupta said.

Mr Prajapati employs more than 30 people, mostly women, from Wankaner, who work on everything from decorating the pots to drying the clay. They make a generous wage by local standards, up to 38,000 rupees a month.

"His idea that he must share his good fortune with everyone around him is a tremendous business model that you don't come across easily," said Mr Gupta.

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae