PlayPump is a merry go-round for children to play. Behind the scenes, it is also a water pump. While the children are playing and having fun, they are also pumping water into a storage tank for their community’s use. It seemed like an elegantly simple concept and very cool technology. After years of favorable press and lots of money, the initiative seems to be on the rocks.
This is the story of how a seemingly good concept, promising new technology, lots of good intentions, and plenty of financial support could not deliver the promise of providing access to clean drinking water to rural communities in Africa. The timeline charting the rise and fall of PlayPump reveals a few critical lessons for all of us in the international development world.
Late 1980s: First sighting of PlayPump at an agricultural fair. Trevor Field licenses the technology. (Trevor Field bio)
1994: Device named PlayPump. First two devices installed in South Africa’s Masinga District. (How PlayPump Works)
1997: Outdoor advertising company, Roundabout Outdoor, created. “Also in the business of creating and marketing children’s PlayPumps.” (Tapping the Energy of Children at Play to Produce Clean Water and Promote HIV/AIDS Awareness)
1999: South African President Nelson Mandela visits a school where a PlayPump has been installed, bringing it to the attention of news media. (When Innovation is Child’s Play)
2000: PlayPump wins World Bank Development Marketplace competition. The $165,000 prize money is used to install 40 PlayPumps in South African villages. (Roundabout Outdoor HIV/AIDS Initiative)
2004: Kaiser Family Foundation provides $250,000 to install 60 PlayPumps in South Africa. A matching grant from South African Department of Water Affairs and Forestry adds another 60 PlayPumps.
Apr: Nearly 700 PlayPumps all over South Africa. A BBC report pegs the initial investment for one PlayPump at $9,000. (Why pumping water is child’s play)
Sep: World Food Programme, UNICEF, TNT, the Mozambique Departments of Education and Water Affairs, the Canadian Development Agency (CIDA) and the Lemelson Foundation partner to take PlayPumps to Mozambique. International Finance Corporation (IFC) through its Grassroots Business Initiative works on expanding PlayPump installations into sub-Saharan Africa. (Merry-go-round water pumps expand to Mozambique, Swaziland)
Oct: PBS Frontline airs an 8.35 min video on PlayPump. ” Soup to nuts, the whole operation takes a few hours to install and costs around $7,000.” (South Africa: The Play Pump Turning water into child’s play)
Sep: First Lady Laura Bush and former President Bill Clinton announce a $16.4 million grant at the Clinton Global Initiative. U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) commit $10 million each and the Case Foundation donates $5 million. Accenture Development Partnerships lends consulting support to ramp up operations. (PlayPump Project Receives Major U.S. Funding)
Nov: Hip hop artist Jay-Z lends support to PlayPump, raising $250,000 at a concert in New York. MTV airs a documentary “Diary of Jay-Z in Africa: Water for Life” featuring PlayPumps. (Jay-Z’s Charity Work, Events and Causes)
Dec: PlayPump International is formed. Jill Rademacher from Case Foundation is chairperson of the board. Geoff Hopkins from IFC is the managing director. PlayPump International-US created as fundraising entity. (Timeline: The PlayPump Trail, The idea, problems, and overselling by the media and its backers.)
Mar: PlayPump International partners with Save the Children for the “100 Pumps in 100 Days.” Tennis star Nicole Vaidisova launches the campaign to raise $1.4 million. (“100 Pumps in 100 Days” Campaign to Launch on World Water Day)
Oct: A UNICEF evaluation finds that “When children are not available, adults (especially women) have no choice but to operate the playpump. While some women in South Africa and Mozambique reported that they did not mind rotating the “merry-go-round”, in Mozambique they also reported that they got embarrassed where the people watching them did not know the linkage between the “merry-go-round” and the water pumping (e.g. where the pump is near a public road).” (“An Evaluation of the PlayPump Water System as an Appropriate Technology for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Programmes)
Mar: Rotary Clubs of United Kingdom “partnering with their counterparts in South Africa to install innovative play pumps in Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa, and Zambia.” (Rotary clubs always pumped for World Water Day)
Apr: Approximately 1,000 PlayPumps installed. “The target at the moment is 4,000.” (Trevor Field of PlayPumps International)
Apr: Skat, an independent evaluator, completes a technical and social evaluation of PlayPump implementation in Mozambique. The report quotes PlayPump to estimate the average cost for one PlayPump at $14,000. The report “found no signs that communities had been consulted prior to installation or had a say in choosing the pump type of their choice.” (Mission Report on the Evaluation of the PlayPumps installed in Mozambique (pdf))
Aug: Owen Scott, a volunteer with Engineer Without Borders Canada, documents problems with the PlayPump model and implementation in a series of blog posts. The highlight is a video that compared the effort required to operate a PlayPump (3 mins and 07 seconds) with that of the traditional handpump (28 seconds) to fill a 20L bucket. “When children don’t play enough to fill the watertank on a Playpump, women are left spinning the wheel manually to draw water. For many women, this is frustrating – especially, like in the below example, when their community used to have a simple AfriDev handpump, which was taken away in order to install the handpump.” (The Playpump IV – Playpump vs. AfriDev)
Oct: A WaterAid report on viability of the PlayPump finds that “You could provide at least four conventional wells with hand pumps and associated safe sanitation and hygiene education for the cost of one PlayPump.” (Viability of PlayPumps (pdf))
Nov: The Guardian carries a scathing attack on PlayPumps and asks if “Millions of charity dollars are flowing into water pumps driven by children’s roundabouts, but is it money down the drain?” (Africa’s not-so-magic roundabout)
Feb: A blog post on AidWatch sees the positive side of the PlayPumps story. “We can ask why it took so long to see the flaws in the PlayPumps model. But in contrast to the official aid world, where the old failed solutions keep getting recycled across 60 years, this is real progress!.” A lively discussion about the future of PlayPumps follows the post. (Some NGOs CAN adjust to Failure: The PlayPumps Story )
Mar: PlayPump International-US announces that it will cease to exist. PlayPump International transitions all assets to Water for People which will “now offer PlayPumps as part of a larger portfolio of water solutions from which rural communities in Africa can choose.” (A letter from PlayPumps International staff)
May: Jean Case from Case Foundation writes in her blog post that “We learned that PlayPumps perform best in certain community settings, such as at large primary schools, but they are not necessarily the right solution for other communities.” (The painful acknowledgement of coming up short)
Jun: PBS Frontline airs a follow-up story that points out the various problems in the implementation – “Costello visited more PlayPump sites, the next one in a more remote part of Mozambique with fewer children around. Women tell her that spinning the merry-go-rounds is often hard work without help, and hard especially for the older women. They tell her the old hand pumps were much easier, and that no-one consulted them about the change. The PlayPump just arrived” (Troubled Water)
Jul: Daniel Stellar analyses the problem on Columbia University’s Earth Institute blog. “In addition though, I would contend that in many cases, the problem with PlayPump is that it was addressing the wrong problem. PlayPump can only work in very specific types of situations: when there are large supplies of high-quality groundwater, close to the surface, and when present infrastructure is insufficient. As we often argue at the Water Center, many times the root problem is due to actual water scarcity – not having enough supply to meet demand.” (The PlayPump: What Went Wrong?)
It is appropriate to let Owen Scott have the last word on how the Playpump “illustrates beautifully about one hundred things that are wrong about the development sector. It illustrates the triumph of rich-country whimsy over poor-country relevance.” (The Playpump V – Response to Recent Publicity)
Dear WLP, this is a great overview of the development project w/o consultation and participation! Thank you for publishing it. I remember when the World Bank here in Mongolia organized the first development market place, the WB representatives brought the example of the playpump to Mongolian entrepreneurs and community activists… It’s also a very sad story.
I have sent the link to many colleagues in Mongolia from NGOs and IOs.
Hilarious! I remember in 2004 when the playpump was heralded as an example of innovative development at the World Bank. It seems that the goal became to install playpumps instead of providing water.
@Dave: Yes, it is hilarious in a very sad way. In the intervening years, water has become even harder to get.
@Undarya: Thanks for the kind words. And nice to meet you virtually after the face-to-face in Indonesia. :)
Unfortunately, PlayPump has become a text-book case of development failure. However, even more unfortunately, we seem to come across this lesson in many different forms in the same text book, but never do we learn anything from it.