The Playpump III – “The challenge of good inquiry.”

The third in a series of posts on the playpump. (Post 1, Post 2, Post 4)

The last couple posts I’ve written on the Playpump seem to be attracting some attention. Good. I think the Playpump is a pretty weak idea, and if I can use social media to get the message out, then so much the better.

Recently I’ve visited a couple more Playpumps and shot more footage. Right now I can’t upload the footage, but maybe sometime in the future it’ll be possible. Stay tuned.

What I can show is some pictures, that I think are deeply illustrative of the challenges of this type of journalism. Each time I’ve visited a Playpump, I’ve always found the same scene: a group of women and children struggling to spin it by hand so they can draw water. I’ve never found anyone playing on it. But, as soon as the foreigner with a camera comes out (aka me), kids get excited. And when they get excited, they start playing. Within 5 minutes, the thing looks like a crazy success. Kids are piling on top of each other to spin around on the wheel, and women can fill their buckets without having to work (although I’ll note that the buckets still fill slowly).

I’ve always figured that as soon as I leave the excitement wears off and the pump reverts back to it’s normal state: being spun manually by women and kids. I’ve heard that kids do occasionally play on it even without camera-bearing foreigners around, but not for long enough to make a serious dent into filling the storage tank. The only really excited spinning I’ve seen is always for the benefit of a foreign guest, aka me. This morning I took a series of photos that I think illustrate the phenomenon. I hope you enjoy:


Photo 1: When we arrived at this pump there were a few women manually drawing water, with a couple of kids sitting around on the ground. Our arrival caused an immediate change to that scene. Kids ran over and started playing. The women relocated to the tap to take advantage of the situation and fill their buckets. This photo was taken about 10 minutes later. By now the excitement had worn off, and most of the kids had moved on. Only a few stragglers were left.


Photo 2: As the saying goes: inquiry is intervention. As soon as a I started taking pictures of the pump (i.e. as soon as I took “photo 1” above), the kids knew it was time to start playing again. As if on cue, they jumped on the wheel and started it spinning.


Photo 3: Now it was really go time. Kids were running from the woodworks. An azungu (foreigner) with a camera must be accommodated. Only a huge crowd of children will suffice. This seems to be a rule that kids in rural Malawi have ingrained into them from birth.


Photo 4: Wow, just like the commercial. Effortless water extraction! A friend who was with me suggested that if we just issued one full-time foreigner with a camera to every Playpump in Malawi, maybe the technology would be a success.


Photo 5: This photo illustrates the problem. To take this photo I used the powers of my magic camera to get the kids away from the pump. It seems that it wasn’t the roundabout that interested them so much as the azungu taking pictures. And what’s that in the background? Women, manually spinning the pump, back to work. All that playing by the kids was only enough to fill a couple buckets, and by now it was business as usual.


Photo 6: The pump, in it’s normal mode of use: women working hard to pump water slowly. Note how hard it was to get this picture. Maybe this is why so many people think the Playpump is a great idea – being a foreigner in rural Africa tends to distort things quite a bit.

The point I’m trying to make is this: if you show up in a community with a Playpump, it will look like a success. Kids will play. Water will flow. But all of this is likely only happening because you are there. And if you can’t ask the right questions, or if you are travelling with a guide who has a vested interest in the technology (e.g. an NGO worker who installs Playpumps), then you will never know the difference. Same goes if you only watch the promotional videos on the Playpump website.

In reality though, this technology is about little playing and slow pumping. I’ve visited 3 now, and each time the women I’ve talked to would prefer to have their old pump back. They’d prefer a functional, simple handpump, that can supply water with little effort. They’d prefer to not have to wrestle around a giant wheel to get water after an already tiring day. Wouldn’t you?



  1. Owen - thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences on the play pump! The play pump has made an interesting point of discussion within our chapter time and time again and we all value your hands on account of the pump.

    OI had a few questions about the pump - I am wondering about is what sort of consultation went into implementing the play "pumps" you have observed? Were handpumps actually replaced by these play "pumps"? Who is it that installs these pumps? You mentioned that women express a desire for their "old pump" back - why is it that hand pumps are being replaced?

    Thanks! Looking forward to your next blog.

    -patrick Ucalgary Chapter

  2. Great post Owen. I read them your style, thoughfulness and effort.


  3. I love it!! Thanks for these posts!

  4. Awesome. I'm going to draw on these for a post soon.


  5. Wow. Owen, you continually amaze. Thank you for a wonderful post. I do find the whole situtation highly disturbing. Keep on sharing.


  6. Hey Owen!

    Thanks a lot for this post! Your previous posts about the playpump have been great as well! Every time I read one I get so angry! It's driving me insane that the women have to waste so much (more) valued physical energy trying to get water - it actually drives me insane. I hope an implementer of the play pump stumbles upon your blog and changes something!

    Thanks for being honest!

  7. Beautifully said and illustrated. It left me angry, resigned and wanting to hear more.

    I always avoided taking out my camera around school kids. I figured the teachers were tired enough and the kids were excited enough by the presence of an azungu that they really didn't need any more encouragement. As a result, I'm impressed by the shots you managed to get. And the sequence. It's very telling.

  8. Hey Owen,

    Thank you so much for posting about this (I did the annoymous post on your last PlayPumps post). Its so difficult to find anything online that actually paints what I think would be a full picture of the PlayPump - people seem to just want a feel-good story - so I am very grateful that you're doing so. I guess to be fair (grudgingly), this is only one area, so maybe it does work better in other places, though I can't imagine how. It would be so much cheaper and more effective to just install handpumps (and a roundabouts alongside, if you really wanted one).

    Another thing I dislike is the PlayPump claims of how many people it can provide with water. Apparently 1000 PlayPumps provide water to over 1,000,000 people. Say you go with their statement of 1400l/hr. Running non-stop for 12 hours gives you 16,800l, and if you had a 1000 PlayPumps, thats 16,800,000l per day. Assuming everyone needs a minimum of 25l per day, you can serve 16,800,000/25 people = 672,000 people, and that's with very conservative estimates. If I've assumed something wrong please let me know, but to me it doesn't add up.

    However, there's an interesting post on the PlayPump website: "In October 2009, PPI announced that it will contribute its existing inventory of manufactured pumps to Water For People, a nonprofit international humanitarian organization that supports the development of sustainable safe drinking water...We have learned that PlayPumps, like other water solutions, are best offered as a portfolio of technologies from which communities can choose...". Maybe they are trying to change their approach...?

  9. I saw this comment, "I hope an implementer of the playpump stumbles across your blog and changes something," and thought... hmm... I know someone at PlayPumps. I have a friend who interns there. I sent him the link. It does seem disappointing that the PlayPump attracts so much attention if it is really a step down for the end user. But so much of development is the absence of feedback loops.

    Take a look at this post, for example. We're all talking about PlayPumps in the age of instant contact, and no one bothers to email playpumps directly so they can hear what Owen saw? How many of you read this post and said, "boy that sucks" and never thought of providing that feedback directly to those who might be in the position to change things, and make it better?

    For you and me, it takes 2 minutes to close the feedback loop. For that woman in the village, it took Owen's visit, plus a digital camera, Owen posting the blog, plus you and I reading his blog... and even after a journey of a thousand miles, we forgot to take the last step and deliver the message directly to PlayPumps.

    In the interest of transparency, I logged in so you can see my blog. Unfortunately, it can't verify me anywhere. I am Marc Maxson at

    Thanks again Owen for providing the best thing possible - a first hand eyewitness account with photos to back it up.

  10. Hey Owen,

    I am sure you already know this site but maybe some of your readers do not. it is a non profit spawn of playpumps as a result of some organizational conflicts. I definitely appreciate your points, as I do a lot of work in africa. What sometimes seems like an obvious solution on paper will not necessarily translate into a sucessful product. Heres hoping that Water For All can help with this...

  11. 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???

  12. Hi Anonymous,

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

    Check out and

  13. Just seen your impressions supported by a 2008 document reviewing PlayPump installations in Mozambique:

    ...In most schools visited, children were not
    always moving the play wheel – they often
    enjoyed the PlayPump as a gathering
    place, just sitting on it and chatting. However, as soon as the evaluation team (foreigners) walked towards the PlayPump,
    the children rushed to the pump (like they have been told), showing their ability to
    rotate the play wheel at an enormous speed. The children pushing the wheel with such
    a high speed could only keep up this pace for a few minutes before being exhausted...

    p.24 of the document 'Mission Report
    on the Evaluation of the PlayPumps installed in
    Mozambique', available here:

  14. You are focused on realizing all you possibly can about this. We're completely satisfied you discovered us. On this site, we have introduced collectively an unlimited array of data and sources on this.

    Accountants in Leeds

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.