Tapping into ingenuity

While children play on the merry-go-round,
the PlayPump system draws water up into
the storage tank nearby.
(Image: PlayPumps International)

Former president Nelson Mandela has
endorsed the Hippo roller system.
(Image: Changemakers.net)

A woman easily pushes the Hippo
water roller across the ground.
(Image: Changemakers.net)

Janine Erasmus

Accessing fresh water is a difficulty facing many rural African communities, affecting the health and quality of life of the population. Two South African inventions – the Hippo water roller and the PlayPump® Water System – have largely alleviated this problem by combining simple designs with practical solutions.

According to the World Health Organisation, 1.1-billion people have no access to any type of safe source of drinking water. Because of this about 1.6-million people, mostly in developing countries, die every year from water-borne diseases spread through poor sanitation. Of the deaths, 90% are children under the age of five.

However, the innovative PlayPump® Water System, which doubles as a merry-go-round and water pump, has brought fresh water to many rural communities, using the energy of children at play. In June 2008 the system was honoured by Reader’s Digest South Africa with a mention on its 60 Best list in the category of Innovations.

Simple idea, far-reaching effects

The PlayPump had its origins in a device exhibited at an agricultural show in KwaZulu-Natal in 1989. There, former advertising executive Trevor Field saw and immediately recognised the potential of the device. Field licensed it from its original inventor, engineer and borehole driller Ronnie Stuiver. With his colleague Paul Ristic, Field established Roundabout Outdoors with the intention of developing a larger system complete with a water storage tank.

Ever the advertising ace, Field also envisioned clever usage of the space around the tank to carry health-related messages from stakeholders, thereby funding maintenance of the system and adding to its sustainability. After revising and enhancing the initial design, the partners came up with the concept of the PlayPump® Water System as it is today – a merry-go-round and pump, sealed 2 500-litre storage tank and stand, tap and water run-off, and borehole.

The spinning motion of the merry-go-round pumps water from the borehole to the tank, which stands 7m above ground and is covered on four sides by advertising boards. Two sides are given to product advertisement, and the other two sides to messages raising awareness of public health matters.

At a rate of 16 revolutions per minute, the pump is able to move 1 400 litres of water from a depth of 40m, says the manufacturer, and can operate at up to 100m. Any excess water is simply returned to the borehole.

PlayPump systems are manufactured in Johannesburg, South Africa, and installations are carried out by local crews who are hired and trained especially for the purpose. Installation of the first two systems took place in the remote Masinga district of KwaZulu-Natal in 1994 and three years later 20 communities were benefiting from freshly pumped water and new play areas for children with limited facilities.

In 1999 an encounter with former president Nelson Mandela, who attended the opening ceremony of a school with a PlayPump system, drew media attention to the PlayPump project. The system was nominated for a World Bank Development Marketplace Award in 2000, which it won, and the associated exposure and funding allowed Roundabout Outdoors to speed up development and expansion.

The company later established a non-governmental organisation in South Africa – now known as Roundabout Water Solutions in its country of origin, and as PlayPumps International, a registered non-profit organisation, in the US.

Water for sub-Saharan Africa

PlayPumps International has targeted a number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa – Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia – as its focus until 2010. To date 1 000 systems have been installed in South Africa, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zambia, and plans are in place to expand into Kenya before the end of 2008.

Communities do not pay for the pump systems – all installations are donated. The company’s goal is to have 4 000 systems in place by 2010, giving 10-million people access to fresh drinking water. The PlayPump system has received extensive coverage in the international media, having featured recently on National Geographic weekend radio, NBC Nightly News, and PBS Frontline.

With millions of people denied a source of clean water, this critical global problem is one that organisations are fighting on a daily basis. Not only are water-related illnesses the leading cause of death around the world, claiming the lives of 6 000 people every day, but people’s efforts to supply themselves with water means many hours are wasted fetching and carrying the resource.

PlayPumps International says that over 40-billion hours are lost annually to this chore, which most often falls on women and children. With a PlayPump system in place, children can spend more time in school instead of fetching water over great distances, says the organisation, and women can spend more time with their families or take on income-generating activities.

The Hippo water roller

Another invention that is easing the lives of African communities is the Hippo water roller. This is a barrel-shaped polyethylene container that holds 90 litres of water and is rolled along the ground instead of being carried. A steel roller attached to the drum allows it to be pushed or pulled over bumpy ground.

The Hippo roller was developed in South Africa in 1992 by engineers Pettie Petzer and Johan Jonker, and since 1998 has been manufactured and distributed by the locally based Imvubu Projects. The manufacturer claims that because the weight of the water is carried on the ground, even children and the elderly can manage a full roller, allowing for collection of five times more water with less effort.

Costing about R595 ($75) per unit – therefore well beyond the reach of the people it is intended to help – the Hippo roller is distributed to villages through a funding partnership with the Africa Foundation. More than 27 000 rollers have been distributed throughout Southern Africa since the project was launched.

Former president Nelson Mandela has given the project his personal endorsement, appealing to the private and corporate sectors, as well as donors, to actively support it. A US-based non-profit organisation called Water to the People, incorporated specifically for the purpose, raises funds overseas for the distribution of Hippo rollers.

As with the PlayPump® Water System, the Hippo roller improves the lives of those who use it, not only because it facilitates access to clean water but also because it alleviates health problems that accumulate through years of carrying heavy water containers on the neck and shoulders for long distances. Pregnant women, for instance, who have to carry water this way and who are often already malnourished, risk damage to the development of their unborn babies.

A unique benefit of pushing a Hippo roller that it has the potential to save lives in situations where landmines may be triggered. Demonstrations showed that when a water-filled Hippo roller was pulled over a landmine, it absorbed enough of the blast to prevent hospitalisation of the person operating the roller, although bruising and cuts would still occur. In this way, the loss of limbs and possibly lives can be drastically reduced.

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