Zero-energy cooler keeps fruits and vegetables fresh in desert communities

The Fenik uses evaporative cooling and high-tech fabric to keep fruits and vegetables cool without electricity.

Google hosts World Food Programme data and device startups Six project teams won a spot in the Innovation Accelerator and the chance to pitch to Silicon Valley mentors and funders.

A Boston company has updated a traditional design with modern materials to improve food storage in communities with no electricity.

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The Fenik uses evaporative cooling to create a portable food storage device that keeps fruits and vegetables fresh without using electricity.

Image: Veronica Combs

The Fenik zero-electricity cooler is based on the zeer pot-- a low-tech cooler that uses evaporative cooling to keep food fresh.

"Most cultures have a version of this that uses evaporative cooling," said Quang Truong, CEO and co-founder of the company.  

This zeer pot uses two clay pots, sand, and water to create a mini-refrigerator. One pot is nested inside the other and sand fills the gap between the two. The user adds water to the sand. As the water evaporates, it draws heat from the inner pot—cooling the food in it. As long as there is water in the sand, the cooling effect continues.  

The pot is simple and effective but also heavy and fragile. Fenik has taken the basic design elements of the zeer pot and modernized the components. The Fenik is a rectangular box with a lid and collapsible sides made of PhaseTek. The fabric is divided into vertical chambers which are filled with water. The fabric allows the water to evaporate. A user fills the vertical chambers with water to start the cooling process. Fenik invented the material, which is similar to the fabric used in a breathable rain jacket.

These coolers work best in places with less than 60% humidity. That caught the attention of the World Food Programme (WFP)  when Fenik applied to the accelerator program because the WFP works in many desert communities. The WFP is a non-profit based in Munich that feeds 90 million people in more than 80 countries around the world.

The WFP also wants to provide better nutrition to children and pregnant women by making fruits and vegetables more available. The Fenik can extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables by 200%. The cooler also will help shopkeepers who don't have refrigerators or access to electricity. With the cooker, stores can start selling perishable items like fruits and vegetables without the risk of spoilage.
 
Fenik is conducting pilots in Morocco, Kenya, and Mali with USAID, MIT, and Siemens respectively. A family in Morocco tested the company's first units, and the country inspired the company name (The fennec fox is native to Morocco and its large ears help to dissipate heat.).

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The company has produced 1,000 coolers and distributed 600 of them mostly through a recent Kickstarter campaign.The current version of the cooler is $150, and Fenik is selling to campers and development agencies. Truong said he is planning to develop new form factors for the device, including a smaller version that would cost $50. Truong is also looking for an investment of $500,000 to develop new form factors and advances with the Plantek fabric.

Sofia Griet Brancot of the WFP said that the low-tech factor of the Fenik is a selling point.
"Other low-cost coolers use solar panels, which can be complicated to use," she said. "There is no training required to use the Fenik."

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Quang Truong is the CEO and co-founder of Fenik, a Boston start-up using PhaseTek material to create a portal cooler that requires no electricity.

Image: Veronica Combs