The Playpump III – “The challenge of good inquiry.”

The third in a series of posts on the playpump. (Posts 12, 3, 45, 6)

The last couple posts I’ve written on the Playpump seem to be attracting some attention. Good. I think the Playpump is a pretty weak idea, and if I can use social media to get the message out, then so much the better.

Recently I’ve visited a couple more Playpumps and shot more footage. Right now I can’t upload the footage, but maybe sometime in the future it’ll be possible. Stay tuned.

What I can show is some pictures, that I think are deeply illustrative of the challenges of this type of journalism. 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. But, as soon as the foreigner with a camera comes out (aka me), kids get excited. And when they get excited, they start playing. Within 5 minutes, the thing looks like a crazy success. Kids are piling on top of each other to spin around on the wheel, and women can fill their buckets without having to work (although I’ll note that the buckets still fill slowly).

I’ve always figured that as soon as I leave the excitement wears off and the pump reverts back to it’s normal state: being spun manually by women and kids. I’ve heard that kids do occasionally play on it even without camera-bearing foreigners around, but not for long enough to make a serious dent into filling the storage tank. The only really excited spinning I’ve seen is always for the benefit of a foreign guest, aka me. This morning I took a series of photos that I think illustrate the phenomenon. I hope you enjoy:


Photo 1: When we arrived at this pump there were a few women manually drawing water, with a couple of kids sitting around on the ground. Our arrival caused an immediate change to that scene. Kids ran over and started playing. The women relocated to the tap to take advantage of the situation and fill their buckets. This photo was taken about 10 minutes later. By now the excitement had worn off, and most of the kids had moved on. Only a few stragglers were left.


Photo 2: As the saying goes: inquiry is intervention. As soon as a I started taking pictures of the pump (i.e. as soon as I took “photo 1” above), the kids knew it was time to start playing again. As if on cue, they jumped on the wheel and started it spinning.


Photo 3: Now it was really go time. Kids were running from the woodworks. An azungu (foreigner) with a camera must be accommodated. Only a huge crowd of children will suffice. This seems to be a rule that kids in rural Malawi have ingrained into them from birth.


Photo 4: Wow, just like the commercial. Effortless water extraction! A friend who was with me suggested that if we just issued one full-time foreigner with a camera to every Playpump in Malawi, maybe the technology would be a success.


Photo 5: This photo illustrates the problem. To take this photo I used the powers of my magic camera to get the kids away from the pump. It seems that it wasn’t the roundabout that interested them so much as the azungu taking pictures. And what’s that in the background? Women, manually spinning the pump, back to work. All that playing by the kids was only enough to fill a couple buckets, and by now it was business as usual.


Photo 6: The pump, in it’s normal mode of use: women working hard to pump water slowly. Note how hard it was to get this picture. Maybe this is why so many people think the Playpump is a great idea – being a foreigner in rural Africa tends to distort things quite a bit.

The point I’m trying to make is this: if you show up in a community with a Playpump, it will look like a success. Kids will play. Water will flow. But all of this is likely only happening because you are there. And if you can’t ask the right questions, or if you are travelling with a guide who has a vested interest in the technology (e.g. an NGO worker who installs Playpumps), then you will never know the difference. Same goes if you only watch the promotional videos on the Playpump website.

In reality though, this technology is about little playing and slow pumping. I’ve visited 3 now, and each time the women I’ve talked to would prefer to have their old pump back. They’d prefer a functional, simple handpump, that can supply water with little effort. They’d prefer to not have to wrestle around a giant wheel to get water after an already tiring day. Wouldn’t you?


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


25 responses to “The Playpump III – “The challenge of good inquiry.”

  1. Hey Owen, your posts continue to intrigue me (I’ll admit I’ve been reading many of them in reverse order).

    The phenomenon you describe is often referred to as the “observer effect”, and tends to bias the observations of most – if not all – systems/occurences.

    I like your expression, “inquiry is intervention.” I reminds me of a quote from W.H. Zurek, an American physicist: “what the observer knows is inseparable from what the observer is.”

    It seems that the concept of observer bias has to be fully considered if any type of appropriate/sustainable technology is to be truly succesful. Easier said than done, I’m sure.

    Anyway, as always I remain impressed with your work and your blog. Keep up the good work bud.


  2. It seems that Owen is in the minority as the whole world seems to like PlayPumps.

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  11. Hi

    An interesting and very unbalance blog if you don’t me saying. You’ve managed extremely well to highlight the negatives and about PlayPumps, evening going so far as to cherry pick quotes from organisations who have chosen not to support the PlayPump scheme, why no quotes from organisations that do support? Or even links to the various positive remarks/findings?

    You state that “I’ve visited 3 now” – that’s less than half a percent of the total of installed PlayPumps (reading elsewhere they have in excess of 1500 installed). That’s hardly a decent cross section, but I suspect that you may have visited more by now as the last update on the blog seems to be 6 months ago. Are your findings exactly the same?

    I would be interested in you following up your article, preferably speaking to those directly involved in removing existing pumps and placing in the wheels/tanks to ascertain why they chose to do that. From the various positive posts/videos on YouTube, there are cases where no hand pumps actually exist and communities have had to walk several miles in order to have water and usually unclean. Are we arguing that PlayPumps are not worthwhile in these cases? Or are advocating a single solution for all scenarios?

    On the video where you time the output of water, were they situated on the same site, with the same water depth? Or are we proving drawing water from 5m as opposed 15m is easier?

    A agree that the Playpump is not without its faults, that’s the same in all walks of life, but the article I feel is in danger of propagating a myth and increasing a level of uncertainty as to whether we should invest in projects to aid those in most need. Africa, and other areas of the globe need access to clean drinking water and Playpumps, along with AfriDev all add to this aid and we should congratulate them to trying rather than simply knocking them and trying to prove one system is superior to the other.

    Hope to hear you update soon with a little more balance.



  12. Its like you read my mind! You seem to know so much about this, like you wrote
    the book in it or something. I think that you can do with a few pics
    to drive the message home a little bit, but other than that, this
    is excellent blog. A great read. I will definitely be back.

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