Esmatullah's shop 'Irfan Coolers' is ialmost submerged under stacks of coolers awaiting purchase. (Photos: Omaid)
When Esmatullah’s electric fan stopped during a power outage on a sweltering Helmand day three years ago, he resolved to design an air-conditioning system that ran independently of the cranky local electricity grid.
“Previously in Lashkar Gah there were no coolers that could work with less electricity, so that’s why I set my mind to inventing such a cooler,” said Esmatullah, who used to build cookers before his brainwave.
Today, stacks of the Irfan Cooler gleaming above his store attest to the popularity of his design, which retails from 35 to 45 dollars compared to imported Iranian or Pakistani units that cost ten times more and need a steady mains electricity supply.
Last year, Esmatullah and his twelve emplyees sold 4,000 coolers to buyers from Helmand, Kandahar, Farah and Nimroz provinces. This year he aims to sell 6,000 units and is expanding accordingly: “I hired five more staff to keep on top of the work,” says the designer, who's personal assembly rate in one day is nine units.
Back to basics
So what’s the secret of his design? Actually none, just a clever harnessing and packaging of an age-old method of creating cool air or liquid through heat exchange.
After switching from cookers to coolers, Esmatullah has so far cornered the local market.
Foreign troops deployed in Afghanistan in the summer months quickly learn the trick of slipping a bottle of warm drinking water inside a wet sock so that the warmth is radiated through the damp material and the contents cool.
Similarly, nomad tents are often covered in layers of thistles and watered, which sucks heat outwards and conducts cool air inwards.
Esmatullah’s units do much the the same and consist of three main components: an aluminium housing and grill, a fan and a water pump. The pump inside the housing drips water down the grill which initiates the heat exchange, and the fan draws the cool air through the box's ventilation slits and into the dwelling.
Depending on its size, the cooler can be powered by a 3.5-volt telephone battery, a 12-volt car battery, or a 150-volt solar panel. Esmatullah's first models were produced in conjunction with a friend who made the type of solar panels that many Afghans install on their houses to provide small amounts of power for domestic use.
Putting food on the table
As well as his adult staff, Esmatullah employs four boys who work at the store after school and take home a decent contribution to the family budget.
Eight-year-old Murad earns 150 afghanis a shift (three dollars), which enables him to put food on the family table twice a day, the boy says.
"People who used the coolers advertised them by singing their praises.”
Another teenager of around 14 is too engrossed in his work to talk long. He says he cannot afford to study because his father was killed in the civil war and he is now the main breadwinner for his family.
“Before this I worked at a blacksmith’s making implements from iron. This is easy compared to that job,” he says while fitting a pump to a cooler.
Summer looms, demand hots up
As the locals prepare for summer temperatures of 50C and more, there seems to be an insatiable demand for the coolers. Lashkar Gah resident Naseer Ahmad stands in front of Esmatullah’s store, preparing to buy a second unit after the one he purchased last year.
Murad's work at the store after school enables him to feed his family.
“I have other fans and coolers at home but this one is invaluable because it works on much less electricity,” he says.
Inevitably people will start copying and selling the design, but for now word is still spreading and does not appear to be any immediate competition.
One shopkeeper from Kandahar who mainly sells mirrors and batteries came back to Lashkar Gah to bulk-buy Irfan cooler units for resale after buying a trial batch last year.
“The first time I bought the coolers there was not much demand because customers were not familiar with it,” he said. “This year I want to get more because people who used the coolers advertised them for me buy singing their praises.”
Esmatullah is proud of his accomplishment, not just because it now makes him a very good living.
“It’s very important work,” he says. “On the one hand we are really making progress as a business, and on the other it brings a lot of benefit to the people.”