The Playpump

The fourth in a series of posts on the playpump. (Posts 1, 23456)

For whatever reason, this morning I got thinking about one of the things I loathe the most in the African rural water supply sector: the Playpump.

What is the Playpump? Well, check it out for yourself. Easily accessible online is a schematic diagram, and a short video. Either one should explain the concept well enough.

Judging by the attention and support it’s getting, apparently this thing seems like a good idea to a lot of people. However, I would disagree.

Why? Well, a few reasons. It’s probably hard – if not impossible – for local mechanics to repair. (Where would you even get spare parts?) It’s also probably kinda awkward to spin that giant wheel if you need water and there’s no kids around to play. Further, as far as financing, advertising revenue is not widely available in rural areas (who would pay for a billboard?). And the list could go on and on.

Critiquing the Playpump on the above grounds, however, is not what I want to do. My problem with the Playpump starts well before the challenges listed above. It starts from the idea itself – or rather the problem that the idea seems to be tacitly trying to solve. I call that idea “the motion”, and I’ve outlined it in the following figure?

The MotionFigure 1: The Motion

I mean, come on, is this really what the bottleneck in water supply is: moving a pump handle up and down? Is harnessing the active energy of kids really a meaningful solution?

The problems in rural water supply in Africa are many, but the up-and-down arm motion required to operate a standard pump is not one of them. Some of the real problems are around financing (e.g. getting more $ to install water supply infrastructure), routine repairs, monitoring of water supplies, planning of water supply projects – to name only a few.

The Playpump, in my opinion, does nothing to address these problems (and is in fact regressive on some of them). In a competitive market place, with real incentives and accountability, the idea would probably be thrown to the curb in a heartbeat. Instead, in the development sector it’s gaining traction (10 getting installed in Thyolo apparently – replacing existing functional pumps) and winning awards. Go figure.

This post was transferred from my old blog. See the original post (with comments) at:


16 responses to “The Playpump

  1. Pingback: The Playpump II « Barefoot Economics

  2. Pingback: The Playpump IV – Playpump vs. AfriDev « Barefoot Economics

  3. Ok on the basis that anything is better than nothing these ideas could be thus classified You dont need to understand up an down motions cultural issues how to fix it etc it is better than nothing
    problem is thats just at the beginning as time goes on and faults occur the better than nothing item begins a journey leaving a trail of broken bits, failure and worst of all liability and heartache headache too for the people and the governments who had thought themselves lucky to have something better than nothing Of such let downs Africa reigns supreme and the twits who instal these and like projects should be banished to sitting at home knitting

    • Hi Jim. Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately in the case of Playpumps in Malawi, the “anything is better than nothing argument” (flawed though it is) doesn’t even hold, because organizations have been removing functional AfriDev handpumps, and replacing them with Playpumps. Thus it’s not a “we had nothing, now we have something, even if it’s flawed” situation, but rather a “we used to have something simple and functional, now we have a far inferior piece of technology.”

      Which is why, when I’ve been doing interviews, some people have borderline begged me to help them get their old handpumps back. (Although with 100 times too much pride to justify the word “begged”, I just couldn’t think of a sufficient synonym to capture their exasperated desire for their old handpump back, and frustration with the current situation.)

  4. It would seem a simple solution… the tanks are in place, the well is dug…why not remove the PP and install a solar powered pump for the well to the tank

  5. Pingback: The Playpump V – Response to Recent Publicity « Barefoot Economics

  6. Pingback: The Playpump III – “The challenge of good inquiry.” « Barefoot Economics

  7. Pingback: The Playpump – A Review from Teachers | Barefoot Economics

  8. Pingback: “Playpumps”; OR, “The post in which you see how messed up the development sector can really be!” | Anna's Blog

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