Awards 2001 The Shell Award for Sustainable Development

The Shell Award for Sustainable Development

This award is given to a company whose commercial activity has actively fostered an environment that allows socially, economically and environmentally sustainable development to take place in a community.

The Winner: Mobah Rural Horizons

Mobah Rural Horizons

Garba Mainasara, a farmer in Jigawa state near Nigeria's northern frontier, has been able to buy oxen, a big help for ploughing his land and taking crops to market. He has more money these days, thanks to the desert cooler, a new approach to refrigeration developed by Muhammed Bah Abba, a lecturer in business at the Jigawa polytechnic in Dutse.

Jigawa farmland has potential. Vegetables can be grown not just in the wet season but also in the dry, thanks to ponds, streams and lakes and to the rivers which flow down to Lake Chad. The city of Kano, a big market, is 60 miles away. The problem is that tomatoes, spinach and aubergines do not stay fresh for long in the 40- degree heat. There is no power supply for refrigerators. Farmers send out their daughters to hawk crops as soon as they are harvested. Much is sold cheap. Much is wasted. Some is eaten after it has become rotten.

Muhammed Bah Abba, 37-year-old grandson of the Turaki and Ardo (assistants to the Emir) at the towns of Madagali and Gwoza, works for aid agencies among the Jigawa communities, establishing co-operative groups and encouraging small businesses. "I decided to come up with small, small additions to ease life for these people, without destroying the dignity of purdah," he says. Any new idea, he realised, would have to be acceptable in a conservative, Muslim, rural area. The idea he hit on was that of putting his grandmother's traditional craft, pottery, to a new use. If you put two pots one inside the other and insulate the space between them, then vegetables in the inner pot can be kept cool and last longer. This is the desert cooler.

It took him two years to develop the idea and answer related questions. Where were the pots best kept and what lasted best inside them? What was to be the insulator between the two pots? He tried foam out of an old mattress but finally decided on wet river sand. This not only insulated the inner pot the evaporation of water from the sand also cooled it.

He set up potteries and started employing potters, distributing the first 5,000 pots free and paying for them from his lecturer's salary. Each potter can make four or five pairs of pots a day. The kilns are open fires. A pair of pots costs Muhammed Bah Abba 150 naira (around 1). He sells them for 180 to 200.

For the idea to catch on, he needed some way to publicise it in largely illiterate communities. Training workshops were not effective. Nor were village criers. So he wrote a play with a drama group and had it put on video. His publicity team take a generator round the villages and project the video on a wall, providing an evening's entertainment which everyone turns out to see. Mobah [Bah's] Rural Horizons sells about 30,000 desert coolers, far and wide, in a year, despite the problems of truck driving in a sometimes muddy region with few metalled roads. Villagers out of reach of the trucks go to markets to fetch them.

Traders use desert coolers in the weekly Dutse market which attracts 100,000 people. Farmers and their wives store vegetables in the coolers at home and sell from there or at the market at a good price, instead of sending out their daughters to hawk them at a poor one. This means the girls can go to school, while young men can earn a living in the village instead of going off to Kano. "Aubergines," says Muhammed Bah Abba, "can last for 21 days." Without a desert cooler, they last only a day and a half.

One of his aims is to improve the situation of married women who, traditionally, cannot leave their village. He runs education centres for them and has found that his desert coolers help them earn the money to buy soap and other things they need. They make soft drinks called kunu, zobo and lamurje and sell them from the coolers. They trade in fruit and vegetables, either grown by their husbands or bought from other farmers.

Last year, Mobah Rural Horizons was one of five winners of Rolex Awards for Enterprise. The award is helping to set up more potteries. Next year, Muhammed Bah Abba plans to buy two more trucks (he has two at present) and produce videos in other languages, so he can introduce the desert cooler to other Nigerian states and other countries. It is used in two villages in Niger; and organisations in Brazil, France, Honduras, India, Pakistan and Tanzania have shown interest.

The Judges say

The climatic problems in many developing countries have long threatened the establishment of sustainable agriculture in rural regions. Mohammed Bah Abba's impressive project stands to be a catalyst for positive change in Northern Nigeria and further a field. Using simple evaporation principles, the earthenware 'pot in pot' cooling system has overcome many of the problems faced by isolated rural communities by preventing the rapid decay of food. Using appropriate entrepreneurial and commercial skills, Mohammed Bah Abba has begun a process of reinforcing rural life, in the face of an increasing trend to urbanisation. The project is helping to reduce disease, poverty, migration and unemployment, and has benefited local communities by creating skilled workers, raising family incomes, increasing access to education for girls, and allowing women greater involvement in the community. This 'virtuous circle' is completed through the opportunity for investment in better agricultural productivity and housing. This remarkably effective design is simple, easy to use, cheap to buy and maintain and only uses generational skill. We hope this easily replicable project continues to expand and attract international interest.

Mobah Rural Horizons, PO Box 10591, Kano, Kano State, Nigeria