Wednesday, July 1, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Clay Pots

I was witness to a conversation today that round and round in circle so many times that I began to feel dizzy. The two parties couldn't get out of their own way, despite the fact that both were seeking a common goal. The more they talked, the more complicated and convoluted the conversation became. It was a welcome relief to then dive into the book The Pursuit of Elegance and learn about Mohammed Bah Abba's clay pots.

Recognizing that subsistence farmers in Nigeria needed a way to keep fresh produce from spoiling so quickly, he took a common object in Nigeria, clay pots, and combined with a little middle school science to build a refrigeration device. Abba put one clay pot inside another larger clay pot, packing wet sand in between the two. Then, he placed a wet towel over the inner pot and let the science of evaporation do its work. As the water evaporates, it cools the inner pot, and any contents stored inside that pot. Farmers could preserve their produce longer to increase their sales at the market, raising income for those farmers and their families, spurring all of the positive side effects in a community as wealth increases.

So simple. Clay pot, sand, basic science principles. When cobbled together by Abba's creative mind and sense of empathy, these three things transformed a community. Abba's business has expanded throughout Nigeria and into other Africa countries. Abba saw a problem, took what he had, and crafted an elegant solution that could be made available to many at a very low cost. So simple, it make us wonder why it wasn't thought of earlier.

Abba's story made me re-consider the conversation I witnessed earlier today. It made me consider the importance of clarity of vision and the value of a solution that combines design and function in a simple, elegant fashion. And the equation to get to this type of solution isn't complex. Ask three questions: What are we trying to solve for? What assets do we have available to us? How can we use those assets to transform what we've got into what we need?

The photo above can be found at:

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