The Playpump II

The second in a series of posts on the playpump. (Post 1, Post 3, Post 4)

How often do you get to hear about the results of a development project from the people who are actually using it? Not that often. Most of what you hear gets filtered through layers of PR. Well, with post, I’m trying to change that. It might end up being a bit anticlimatic, but read on for an on-the-ground consumer review of a new piece of “development” technology.

I spent last weekend in Blantyre, at a team meeting for EWB, running a high fever the whole time. Monday I was feeling a bit drained, so was definitely glad when the opportunity came up to hitch a ride back to Chikwawa with Joseph, one of my Malawian co-workers, rather than enduring the minibus.

Joseph and I have talked about the Playpump before, and he’s not a huge fan. His feeling is that it’s expensive, hard to maintain, and not as user friendly as a handpump. Is this becoming a familiar refrain yet?

Anyways, as we were driving, low and behold, what did I see on the side of the road but…a Playpump!?!?!

I asked if we could go check it out, and without hesitating Joseph hit the breaks, pulled off the road, and drove us down a dirt path to the towering structure.

When we arrived, there were two women drawing water, with a bunch of kids hanging around. One of the women was locked in a full body struggle getting the wheel to spin (picture her heaving it around with both arms, throwing all of her weight into each motion).

With every rotation I could hear a small splash of water in the tank (about 20ft above), followed by a splash of water into the lady’s bucket on the ground beside us. Because the tank wasn’t full (which I figure they almost never are), the lady was essentially having to exert herself to move the water 20ft upwards, just to have it come back down again. I don’t know what you think, but to me it seemed like a bit of unnecessary extra effort to fill a bucket.


The pump’s storage tank is behind the billboards. Sorry for the dark photo…it was dark outside.

Upon noticing that a foreigner and a Malawian in a pickup truck had just come to see their pump, the kids dutifully climbed onto the wheel and started spinning and laughing. They actually got the thing going really fast – dizzyingly fast in my opinion. After a few minutes they lost interest and climbed off. Maybe I was supposed to give them candy or something.


A bunch of smiling kids and the women, standing with their Playpump.

Joseph and I asked the women some questions about the pump -neither of them were very happy with it. You see, previously at the school there was a handpump. A simple, easy to use technology, that has stood the test of time in water supply everywhere. But when the Playpump came to town, the handpump was removed and replaced to make way for development and progress.

As we were talking, I had the thought to snap a quick video to let you see for yourselves what one of the women thought about this new technology. This is my first stab at the world of documentary film, so apologies for four things:

1. The stuttering quality of my Chichewa. I got kinda nervous being on camera. (not that my Chichewa’s that great anyways).

2. Not really asking that many questions. I only had enough room on my SD Card for a short video, and this was all somewhat unplanned. I think we covered the basics though.

3. Not getting the woman’s name. That was just plain bad manners. Won’t happen again.

4. The darkness. Forgot my floodlights in Blantyre…

Anyways, with no further ado, a quick user-review of the Playpump:

Well, that about sums it up doesn’t it. Anyone want to give this thing another award?



  1. Hey Owen,

    Thanks for putting efforts in sharing those experiences. When I heard about the playpump last year, I felt somehow worried by all the attention it was receiving ...

    I haven't seen one in Burkina Faso this summer, but your serie of posts on the subject definitely made the topic more clear for me.

    That's the problem when a technology seems so sexy on paper slash picture slash video ... There's no accountability or incentive for long-term support.

    Just a quick question, who was adverstising on the billboards of this playpump you saw ?


  2. Great post Owen, I was at a talk on different pumping technologies last spring and I remembered thinking that the playpump seemed like a real dice roll, working as long as the kids like to constantly play on a merry-go-round.

    That tank looks pretty high too. It makes me wonder if they need that much pressure to fill a bucket.

    Mark Brown

  3. Great post Owen and I think your Chichewa was great! But that's probably cause I was in Ghana and don't know a word! If you hadn't mentioned it, I thought you were doing great.

    Language thoughts aside, thanks for posting the video and blog write up... I know it aint easy putting these things up on a blog, so thanks for making the effort! 10 points for message / conciseness mix too! :)

  4. Hi Owen,
    Thanks for posting this - I'm doing some research on the PlayPump and I find it terrifying how this idea can have gained so much momentum, especially when you look at the basic design of the technology, and the claims that are being made. You might be interested in this memo: which highlights some concerns towards the PlayPump.

  5. I find it very strange that EWB can support an "unofficial" critical blog of the PlayPump System
    And ignore an official EWB advocacy of the same system???

  6. Hi Anonymous,

    The advocacy article you mentioned is from EWB-USA, which is completely unrelated to EWB Canada.

    Check out and