The rise and fall of the playpump

By Benoît Miha Lang

The Playpump, an idea to secure access to water while entertaining children on the playground, was to become a game changer in Africa's water pump industry. Why it's decorating Malawi's government facilities rather than being used by children, and why it's still a great invention, is what I'm going to talk about in this blog.


In an interview with Muthi Nhlema, BASEflow's team leader in Malawi, he said that many people want to reinvent Africa's problems. One of the latest ideas is to create solar-powered water pumps that pump water from a borehole into a raised water tank, which is a great idea, but why replace a system that already works well, like the Afridev. Afridev is a simple hand pump that works well, is easy to maintain and has been installed at many boreholes across Africa. Is the playpump also an invention that was never really thought through and the result of technology hype, or did it fail for other reasons?


The Playpump is a product manufactured by the South African company Roundabout Outdoor and was designed to use the energy generated by children playing to pump groundwater from a borehole into a raised water tank. From the water tank, people could take the water through a pipe from the tap or use it to water their crops. In many ways this seems like a great idea because you can "kill two birds with one stone", you can give a lot of children the opportunity to play with a carousel and you can give a certain number of people easy access to water.



The playpump, invented by Ronnie Stuiver, attracted a lot of media attention early on, winning the World Bank Development Marketplace Award and even Nelson Mandela, who wanted to install a playpump in one of his schools. A thousand playpumps were installed after the media frenzy, but soon the effectiveness of the playpump was questioned. Muthi Nhlema told us that to meet the basic needs of 200 people, children would have to 'play' for 27 hours a day to pump enough water into the tank to meet the bare minimum. This is obviously not the case and what happens early in the morning, late at night or when the children are at school? Then it's just a big pile of overly complex and expensive mechanisms. And with children really needing to "play" a lot on the pump, the question arises:


It also became clear that the play pump was quite complex to maintain and therefore expensive to service, which was a huge disadvantage because with a pump like the Afridev you wouldn't have these costs. Originally, there was also the idea that you could put advertisements on two sides of the tank tower to raise money to maintain the pump and on the other two sides you could put something to raise awareness of public problems like HIV etc. In the end, this was not the case.


But all in all, I don't want to drag the Playpump through the mud too much. With the playpump, you can see that there is a lot of commitment to solving a problem like water supply, and a lot of people who are willing to innovate, invest and risk a lot to come up with new solutions. So it's great to see people learning from their mistakes, looking forward and trying new things. Sometimes you need to see the small steps forward to not get lost in all the bad news and disasters in the world, and even though the playpump didn't live up to its full potential, it's still a step in the right direction.