… that playground roundabouts were installed in rural Africa to provide water through children’s play, but there are reports that the adults are having to do most of the spinning?
—From Adapt: Saving the World One Failure at a Time by Tim Harford
Excerpt from Adapt:
Consider the PlayPump, a clever-sounding idea in which a deep well is connected to a pump powered by a children’s roundabout as a way of bringing fresh water to isolated communities. As the children play, the roundabout spins, and the pump fills a large tank that can be tapped as needed. The PlayPump removes the need both for unreliable electrical pumps and for hours of labour from hardworking women: clean water simply appears as a by-product of innocent play.
Or does it?
Because it’s a pricey and mechanically inefficient alternative to a hand-pump, the PlayPump justifies itself only if the village children really do spend much of their time playing on it. From the pictures sent back from rural Africa, it seems that they do. But rural Africa is a place where few of us spend much time, so it’s hard to be sure. Owen Scott, a young Canadian engineer, does spend his time in rural Africa. He lives in Malawi and works for Engineers Without Borders, so he can easily see what really happens when a PlayPump is installed: “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” he explains. But then comes the Kodak moment: “As soon as the foreigner with a camera comes out . . . kids get excited. And when they get excited, they start playing. Within five minutes, the thing looks like a crazy success.”
Sometimes the PlayPump replaces a traditional hand-pump. Scott compared how long it took to fill a 20-litre bucket with a traditional hand-pump (28 seconds) versus a PlayPump (3 minutes 7 seconds of strenuous and faintly humiliating running around). Scott also asked the locals, in sparsely populated Malawian villages, whether they preferred the new PlayPumps or their old, traditional hand-pumps. They were unambiguous: the hand-pumps did the job much better.
The trouble is, not everyone is as inquisitive as Owen Scott. And those photos the foreigners take after five minutes do look convincing, not to mention heart-warming. Soon the PlayPumps won a prestigious award from the World Bank. They were swiftly backed by the US aid agencies USAID and PEPFAR, private foundations, the then-President’s wife Laura Bush and the rap entrepreneur Jay-Z.
Owen Scott is up against quite a set of cheerleaders, but has managed to make an impact by posting video interviews with Malawian teachers on YouTube – “the message is stop immediately . . . play pumps are causing problems for Malawi”.
One of the funders of PlayPumps, the Case Foundation, now says it’s discovered that the pumps “perform best in certain community settings, such as at large primary schools, but they are not necessarily the right solution for other communities” and is looking at other approaches – an excellent example of adapting to failures.
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