For whatever reason, this morning I got thinking about one of the things I loathe the most in the African rural water supply sector: the Playpump.
Judging by the attention and support it’s getting, apparently this thing seems like a good idea to a lot of people. However, I would disagree.
Why? Well, a few reasons. It’s probably hard – if not impossible – for local mechanics to repair. (Where would you even get spare parts?) It’s also probably kinda awkward to spin that giant wheel if you need water and there’s no kids around to play. Further, as far as financing, advertising revenue is not widely available in rural areas (who would pay for a billboard?). And the list could go on and on.
Critiquing the Playpump on the above grounds, however, is not what I want to do. My problem with the Playpump starts well before the challenges listed above. It starts from the idea itself – or rather the problem that the idea seems to be tacitly trying to solve. I call that idea “the motion”, and I’ve outlined it in the following figure?
I mean, come on, is this really what the bottleneck in water supply is: moving a pump handle up and down? Is harnessing the active energy of kids really a meaningful solution?
The problems in rural water supply in Africa are many, but the up-and-down arm motion required to operate a standard pump is not one of them. Some of the real problems are around financing (e.g. getting more $ to install water supply infrastructure), routine repairs, monitoring of water supplies, planning of water supply projects – to name only a few.
The Playpump, in my opinion, does nothing to address these problems (and is in fact regressive on some of them). In a competitive market place, with real incentives and accountability, the idea would probably be thrown to the curb in a heartbeat. Instead, in the development sector it’s gaining traction (10 getting installed in Thyolo apparently – replacing existing functional pumps) and winning awards. Go figure.