Water, dignity and the Hippo Roller Project

More than 50,000 Hippo Rollers have been distributed in more than 29 countries, changing the lives of millions of people, according to Play Your Part ambassador Darren Smith.

hippo roller project water
The Hippo Roller is the recipient of the Frost & Sullivan’s 2016 African Rural Portable Water Solutions Product Leadership Award. (Images: The Hippo Roller Project)

Melissa Javan
In a conversation with a teenage girl, Grant Gibbs, executive director of the Hippo Roller Project, realised that the basic human need for dignity could be easily overlooked. He describes the conversation with this girl as one of his highlights of the project.

“In South Sudan, where I interviewed a teenage girl, I asked why she liked the Hippo Roller so much and she responded without hesitation: ‘Because now I can look like a city girl.’
She explained that she could not braid her hair to look attractive when carrying heavy buckets of water on her head,” he says.

Hippo Roller, a South African-made drum to transport water, allows users to transport five times as much water as a 20-litre bucket. Instead of carrying the standard 20-litre bucket on your head, the Hippo Roller is rolled on the ground. They have been distributed in more than 29 countries.

The project was established in 1994 to tackle the lack of access to water, a challenge in rural communities in South Africa.

Darren Smith, who handles the donor and media engagement for Hippo Roller, is a Play Your Part ambassador. Play Your Part is a national movement by Brand South Africa to encourage active citizenship and social cohesion.

hippo roller project darren smith
Darren Smith of the Hippo Roller Project says the initiative leverages its relationships with sponsors, corporate partners and NGOs to provide African communities with an immediate and winning water solution.

Brand South Africa writer Melissa Javan talked to Smith and Gibbs about the Hippo Roller Project.

Melissa Javan: Why did you get involved in this project?

Grant Gibbs: I was employed as a technician and sales executive at Infotech from 1987 to 1998, and during that period I became a part-time distributor of the Hippo Roller.

Infotech persuaded me to pursue this option with them, and together we formed Infotech’s reconstruction and development programme department in 1994. A little later the Hippo Water Roller Trust was formed. Though Infotech decided to close the department (and trust) in 1998, I chose to continue and have been managing the Hippo Roller in my personal capacity ever since.

Darren Smith: I have followed Grant’s journey with the Hippo Roller almost since its inception more than 20 years ago. When the opportunity arose to join the team, I jumped at it. Personally and professionally the whole reason to be of the Hippo Roller energised me. “Simple ideas. Changing lives.” This is our “why”. This gets us up in the mornings.

MJ: Who are the beneficiaries?

DS: Millions of women and children struggle daily to collect water. It is for this group that the Hippo Roller has an immediate and profound impact. It significantly improves their ability to collect more water, more efficiently, and empowers them to spend more time on education and other important tasks in the home and community.

hippo roller project grant gibbs
Grant Gibbs is a Play Your Part ambassador.

MJ: How old is the Hippo Roller?

DS: The Hippo Roller itself was conceptualised in 1991 by Pettie Petzer and Johan Jonker, two South Africans who grew up on farms and experienced the national water crisis first-hand. They saw people carrying heavy buckets of water on their heads for kilometres every day.

With roots in these water-dependent, resource-poor environments, Petzer and Jonker were familiar with the struggle to access water that millions of Africans experience daily.

Jonker noticed that workers on his father’s farm collected empty 20-litre plastic containers to use to fetch water. These containers are typically of poor quality and not very durable. He thought there had to be a better way.

As co-inventor Petzer describes it, the original idea was based on a wheelbarrow including a moulded tank for a low centre of gravity. In trying to get their concept going, one of the first problems they encountered was the price of the wheel itself. It was the most expensive component.

Petzer thought: “Let’s put the water inside the wheel!” And so, the Hippo Water Roller was born. Initially branded the Aqua Roller, it received its first design award in 1992.

MJ: How does it work?

DS: The Hippo Roller is made from UV stabilised linear low-density polyethylene and is designed to cope with the rough surfaces found in rural areas. The drum’s volume is 90 litres and it has a large opening (135mm) for easy filling and cleaning, yet it is also small enough to prevent toddlers from falling inside.

MJ: How do you choose beneficiaries?

DS: Our experience has been that it remains important for the community leaders and the community itself to be fully consulted and engaged in the process of introducing the Hippo Roller.

There are seldom enough to go around in any given community, and so they are diligently allocated and distributed to the neediest first (women, child-headed homes, the elderly or frail) by the local community leaders.

We have discovered too, that a Hippo Roller is never idle. Often it is shared widely, and works hard, each Hippo Roller potentially meeting the needs of dozens of people. In a recent project in Mozambique, for example, 30 Hippo Rollers are serving the needs of nearly 4,000 people.

hippo roller project malawi
Residents in Malawi using the Hippo Roller.

MJ: How do they benefit?

DS: Time is our most precious resource. By addressing the difficulty of retrieving water, the Hippo Roller simply buys more time. In turn, that time can be put to more productive use for education, social development and local entrepreneurship.

MJ: What do you mean when you call Hippo Roller “a social enterprise”?

DS: As a social enterprise, the Hippo Roller is a for-profit business that seeks to be sustainable. It works closely with NGOs, corporate social investment sponsors, government departments and other donor organisations and individuals.

And on that note – of sustainability – we expect Hippo Roller’s business model to scale by an order of magnitude in the coming years.

MJ: What has been your highlight so far?

GG: There is not one “most rewarding” experience. Literally each recipient of a Hippo Roller glows with pride on receiving it. The Hippo Rollers are jealously guarded and highly prized possessions, which change the lives of their owners.

That said, they are shared widely within the communities too, and it would be fair to say that a Hippo Roller rarely sits idle. While we don’t often get to see the results first hand, stories from all over the world reach us, and it is always incredibly humbling.

DS: There is no single highlight that springs to mind. Quite simply, every time we engage with people in communities struggling with access to water, I am moved to action.

MJ: How can people get involved?

DS: Many current community development initiatives around the world, with a completely different focus from water, can be more effective in the communities they serve just by improving access to water.

Even NGOs that install wells and boreholes could serve a wider territory by including Hippo Rollers from the same borehole. Water is something that most of us just don’t think about. But for millions, it’s all they think about, every single day.

A first step then, would be to visit HippoRoller.org. Even if you can’t donate, sharing the knowledge and spreading the word goes a long way to keeping the visibility of the water crisis high.

MJ: How do you use social media to spread your message?

DS: Historically, the need has found us. Over the years, people working closely with rural communities have contacted us. Corporate social investment (CSI) professionals have contacted us.

We’ve put the two groups in touch with each other, operating as an innovation partner and providing a conduit for sponsored Hippo Rollers to reach communities in need.

Since the advent of the web, and more recently the social era, we’ve actively promoted the Hippo Roller via its web presence, a community newsletter, social media platforms and at events across the globe.

The Hippo Roller has been covered by all manner of print, digital, broadcast and social media influencers, all of which have helped keep our profile reasonably high.

This visibility is primarily aimed at the NGOs, CSI professionals, government departments and other donor organisations and individuals with whom we engage, rather than the communities or recipients themselves.

MJ: Why should all South Africans play their part in their communities and be brand ambassadors of South Africa?

DS: While Play Your Part’s objective is to lift the spirit of the nation by inspiring all South Africans to contribute to positive change, it is primarily by becoming involved and starting “to do” that we can all make a difference. And just as it is with water, every drop counts.

Play your part, and let’s keep on rolling.

Get involved with Hippo Roller, via its:

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