When Innovation is Child’s Play

November 2006

(Photo: Frimmel Smith)
(Photo: Frimmel Smith)

At the end of another school day in Acornhoek – a rural community in the semi-arid eastern part of South Africa – children shriek with laughter as they whirl each other around on a colorful merry-go-round. Women carry home buckets of water. Boys chase a football.

But there is more to this scene than meets the eye. Forty meters under ground, each turn of the merry-go-round powers a pump. At 16 rotations per minute, it pumps water effortlessly to a 2,500-liter storage tank, supplying the needs of the entire community at the turn of a tap.

The storage tank above the children’s heads displays four billboards. These carry educational, public health and HIV/AIDS prevention messages, as well as commercial advertising, generating enough revenue to fund ten years’ maintenance of the system.

An hour’s play produces up to 370 gallons of water. The billboards carry public health messages and generate advertising revenue to fund maintenance. (Courtesy of PlayPumps International)

The idea was first dreamt up by engineer and borehole-driller, Ronnie Stuiver. As he traveled the country drilling wells, fascinated children would crowd round him– most with boundless energy and few outlets for play. He devised a merry-go-round attached to a simple pump. It worked. But it took the entrepreneurial vision of advertising executive Trevor Field, who stumbled across the pump at an agricultural fair in 1989, to transform an ingenious invention into an innovative, sustainable solution to one of the region’s most pressing problems.

Turning point

With two business colleagues, Mr. Field licensed the concept from the inventor and launched Roundabout Outdoor. They developed and patented the PlayPump™ water system. For years it remained a small venture. Then in 1999 President Nelson Mandela opened a new school with a PlayPump merry-go-round and took a spin on one. The press photos captured the imagination of donors and investors. A collaboration began to flourish between the PlayPumps International non-profit organization and big business and government sponsors. The following year, Roundabout Outdoor won the World Bank Development Marketplace Award, bringing extra visibility and new funds.

The boys of Boikarabelo wash in the water they pumped while playing. Access to clean water means better hygiene and sanitation so less disease. (Photo: Frimmel Smith)

Today, some 700 PlayPump™ systems are installed in disadvantaged communities across South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland, transforming the lives over a million people.

Take Boikarabelo village, for example. Journalist Kristina Gubic describes the scene. Two hours drive from Johannesburg, Boikarabelo is home to 700 people living in corrugated iron shacks. Before, the residents had to walk across boulders and grasslands to the edge of a farm to collect water from an underground spring. Just carrying the minimum for cooking and washing was exhausting work. Today, each family has a vegetable garden and laundry hangs everywhere. The school is constructing greenhouses to make it independent of the sporadic donations on which school meals used to depend. With cabbages, spinach and beans to supplement the maize diet, the children’s nutrition has improved dramatically.

The economic and social impact reaches further. Clean water prevents the diseases which kept children from school and parents from work. Freed from the daily toil of water-carrying, girls have time for education; and the women elders of Boikarabelo have started a small craft business. Across the street, another resident has begun raising chickens, which he sells to the local supermarket. "Being able to bring them fresh drinking water and to wash out their cages makes them healthy so I can fetch a good price," he says.

(Courtesy of PlayPumps International)

The project continues to gather speed. If PlayPumps International achieve their goal, they will reach ten million people throughout Sub-Saharan Africa within the next three years.

(More information: www.playpumps.org)



By Elizabeth March, WIPO Magazine Editor, Communications and Public Outreach Division

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