Skip to content

Some NGOs CAN adjust to Failure: The PlayPumps Story

Back in the 1990s, a billboard advertising executive in South Africa had a very good idea. Spinning on a merry-go-round connected to a water pump, children could generate plentiful, clean water without the time-consuming, hard work of traditional hand pumps.

At the primary schools in South Africa where the first of these merry-go-rounds were installed, kids got a place to play, their communities got free drinking water, and girls and women, who bear much of the burden of collecting water for their families, got time to attend school or pursue other activities. Billboards lining the raised water tank brought in advertising revenue to fund the pumps’ maintenance, and spread public health messages about hygiene or safe sex.

In 2000, the idea won the World Bank’s Development Marketplace award. In 2006, Laura Bush announced $16 million in funding from USAID/ PEPFAR and private foundations, with the goal to raise $45 million more to install 4,000 pumps in Africa by 2010. Jay-Z pitched in with concerts and an MTV documentary. PlayPumps announced plans to expand, first to Mozambique, Swaziland and Zambia, and then to Lesotho, Malawi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The nonprofit launched a sophisticated social networking campaign, and successfully raised money for “100 Pumps in 100 Days” on World Water Day in 2007 and 2008.

Sadly, somewhere along the way, PlayPumps stopped being a smart homegrown idea and became a donor-pleasing, top-down solution that simply didn’t fit many of the target communities.

The charity WaterAid wrote a position paper on why they did not adopt the PlayPumps technology. For one, they said, PlayPumps are too expensive. At $14,000 each, they cost four times as much as traditional pump systems. The mechanism requires specialized skills to repair and so can’t be fixed with local labor, and spare parts are hard to find and expensive to replace. WaterAid also decried the system’s “reliance on child labour.” A recent critical commentary in the Guardian calculated that children would have to “play” for 27 hours every day to meet PlayPumps’ stated targets of providing 2,500 people per pump with their daily water needs.

An aid worker and engineer in Malawi documented some of these problems in a brilliant series of blog posts. His anecdotes and pictures give limited but compelling evidence that PlayPumps in his area are not being used as the inventors intended:

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.

He also suggests one reason why PlayPumps might be slow to get that crucial feedback:

[A]s 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…. I’ve always figured that as soon as I leave the excitement wears off and the pump reverts back to its normal state: being spun manually by women and kids.

Does the story of PlayPumps carry a broader lesson about the aid world? Suppose the organization had charged ahead with a Twitter campaign to raise millions for THE solution to water problems in Africa, while reality kept diverging from their rosy picture.  Then PlayPumps would represent the triumph of bad but photogenic solutions in a broken aid marketplace.

BUT last fall, the CEO announced instead that their inventory would be turned over to the organization Water for People, where PlayPumps would be just one option out of “a portfolio of technologies from which communities can choose.” This seems like the right outcome. We can ask why it took so long to see the flaws in the PlayPumps model. But in contrast to the official aid world, where the old failed solutions keep getting recycled across 60 years, this is real progress!

This entry was posted in Aid policies and approaches and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Jeff wrote:

    An interesting case study, but I think you are really reaching for a happy ending. The real question is what were Development Marketplace and PEPFAR thinking when they funded the technology? Any responsible programmer should have looked at the costs and maintenance issues before funding this technology.

    Posted February 19, 2010 at 12:25 am | Permalink
  2. Wayan wrote:

    And how is an organization going out of business because it didn’t fix it’s unworkable solution, a happy ending? That just makes the next org that realizes it’s errors want to cover up it’s mistakes lest they too loose thier jobs.

    Playpumps demise isn’t rosy – they went out of business because their model was broken and they couldn’t fix it. In doing so they’re abandoning all those communities who are now stuck unmaintainable pumps.

    And the Water for People exit is a ruse. Why? Follow the money – the same foundation supported both orgs.

    So if anything, this is another funder covering thier butt.

    Posted February 19, 2010 at 7:11 am | Permalink
  3. solarafrica wrote:

    They may have stopped their programs, but they haven’t stopped the fundraising. The “Keep it Flowing” campaign on the website’s donation page is pretty murky.

    From the website: “Contributions to PlayPumps International are used to further our organization’s mission. We use gifts from donors where they can do the most good by pooling them with the gifts of others to make the greatest impact; these gifts are not individually tracked. [Policy updated, 10/8/09].”


    Posted February 19, 2010 at 9:01 am | Permalink
  4. Pablo Kuri wrote:

    The biggest issue here is: who is willing, ever, to say they made a mess of things? ¨why it took so long to see the flaws in the PlayPumps model¨, are they liable for misrepresentation, fraud, etc.?

    Posted February 19, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink
  5. HD wrote:

    Obama’s wife announced some o f the CNCS money was going to obese kids and this makes sense because it’s hard for a well funded US government agency to fail with billions and the US government and Congress backing them as opposed to an NGO that doesn’t. It’s even more difficult when government agencies like CNCS compete for the same work as the NGOs. NGOs usually try here by hiring the agencies employees like Americorps and/or get grants from the agency.

    To survive big government funding from agencies run by the President and Congress is difficult. NGOs have to buy into the government here.

    Posted February 19, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  6. Laura Freschi wrote:

    Huh, this might be the first post where someone has faulted AW for not being critical enough.

    Of course it would have been better if donors had realized the problems with the model before the organization got as far into scale up mode as it did. But this isn’t what happened. Point is, turning the inventory over to another organization, where PlayPumps is one technology among many, seems a better outcome than the actual alternative.

    I’ve written an email to PlayPumps and Water for People with some of the good questions you all raise about ongoing maintenance and fundraising. I’ll post any response I get.

    Posted February 19, 2010 at 3:56 pm | Permalink
  7. Owen wrote:


    First off, thanks for featuring my blog on Aid Watch – quite an honour.

    Since this has turned into a nice little debate, I thought I might just add some more information that people might find interesting.

    First off, as far as I know, there are actually two organizations who install Playpumps in rural Africa: Roundabout Outdoor (the founding organization), and Playpumps Int’l (the spin-off NGO). You can tell the difference by looking at the pumps – if the billboards cover the storage tank, then that’s installed by Roundabout (check out the picture in blog post 2/3), if the storage tank is exposed, then that’s installed by Playpumps Int’l (check out the picture in post 3). So even though Playpumps Int’l has ditched their stock, as far as I know, Roundabout Outdoor (the original organization) is still going strong. (I think one of the main reasons for Playpumps Int’l closing shop might also have just been a patent/licensing dispute with Roundabout, although I can’t say that with 100% certainty.)

    So not to be critical of this post (I love it), but I think there may be a bit more to the story. While WFP will likely be installing Playpumps as part of a suite of technological options, I’m pretty sure Roundabout will continue ‘business as usual’, which (according to the women interviewed in my second post) sometimes includes removing functional, simple, and maintainable AfriDev handpumps and replacing them with Playpumps. Definitely not the storybook ending I’d like to see to all of this…

    Posted February 20, 2010 at 5:17 am | Permalink
  8. solarafrica wrote:

    This debate has had a very immediate outcome – the PlayPumps website was edited to change the “Donate” page. It now steers all donations to Water For People — which seems both clear and appropriate. Good job.

    I am impressed that the comment and twitter debate generated by Laura’s and Owen’s blogs, was a) noticed by PlayPumps and b) responded to immediately.

    Interesting case study of the power of social media – and, I imagine, the power of Google Alerts.

    Posted February 20, 2010 at 10:00 am | Permalink
  9. solarafrica wrote:

    It’s interesting to follow the money backwards: Playpumps was (is?) the recipient of 100% of the profits of One’s One Water.
    (There is more than one “One” – this is One headed up by Duncan Goose and part of Global Ethics, not to be confused with One headed up by Bono or One Water out of University of Miami.)
    As of today, the website still shows a video of the playpump in action on its landing page. And they really believe in Playpumps: “We knew when we saw a PlayPump® in action that we were looking at a way to change the world. That’s why every single penny of the profits from One Water goes towards the installation of these fantastic systems. ”
    Well, ok. But now that Playpumps has contributed it inventory and financial assets to Water For People and is now directing all donations to them, what is One doing with the One Water profits? Is One also sending it’s money to Water For People? It’s not mentioned on the website. Perhaps the money is going to Water For People and is restricted to only being spent on the playpumps. Or maybe it is going to Water For People and they are allowed to spend it on the portfolio of safe water system technologies that Water For People offers. I hope so. I have a lot of respect for Water For People, and that would be a good use of the funds. But as it stands now, you can’t really tell from One’s website. Maybe it’s just a case of not updating the website. I tweeted Duncan Goose to ask, but I haven’t heard back from him yet.

    Posted February 21, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Permalink
  10. solarafrica wrote:

    And here is Duncan Goose’s response via twitter: @duncangoose @solarafrica we’re still building them! The US are funding the maintenance of the pumps. Follow us on FB –
    Pretty quick turn around on the response. Although it doesn’t really address the broader issues of the efficacy of PlayPumps and listening to the locals. Tough to do in 140 characters, I guess.

    Posted February 22, 2010 at 8:49 am | Permalink
  11. Duncan Goose wrote:

    Further to solarafrica’s comment – yes it is tough to respond to the question in 140 characters. So here goes in a slightly more cohesive, I hope, way.

    In terms of history, Roundabout Outdoor (based in South Africa) created the original roundabout powered ‘pump’ – and they still do today what they always did – work with governments and local communities to install pumps into schools and communities.

    Global Ethics Limited sells a range of One ‘products’ and services which fund like for like problems – One water funds water projects, One condoms funds HIV projects, One toilet role funds sanitation projects etc etc.

    When we were looking for a ‘water’ partner back in 2005/6 we spoke to a number of larger NGOs, but none of them could offer the levels of transparency and sustainability that we wanted. (I’ve seen enough failed pumps to have this high up on my tick list and have seen charity money ‘mis-directed’ in the past).

    Roundabout powered water pumps provided an innovative solution to these problems – and were also able to tick a number of other boxes that other partners couldn’t. As a side note, we review our partnerships every 12-18 months and we’re still sticking with the original idea.

    Due to an promised influx of American money the pumps were rebranded ‘PlayPumps’, the US backed website was produced and the ‘international’ name applied.

    Whilst we, and the Roundabout Outdoor team have been going about our daily business, nothing much has changed except the US component has decided to work (probably more sensibly due to locality and time zones) with Water For People who are based in Colorado. The (US) PlayPumps website continues to function and donations continue to fund certain elements of the programmes because this made sense.

    I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Ned Breslin from Water For People and am a huge fan of their work – of which roundabout powered pumps form part. I am absolutely sure that we’ll work together on a wider range of water and sanitation projects, but at this stage their plans are in place and they don’t want to add more money to the pot (this is one of the reasons I admire Ned and WFP – they have a vision and a strategy and they execute against it).

    For me, the debate extends around many other issues, some of them highlighted here – cost, sustainability. testing of water quality, suitability, maintenance etc etc. and I’m still of the opinion, that roundabout powered pumps have a niche in the water debate – and that is as part of a portfolio approach and in or in close proximity to, schools.

    I’ve seen a lot of people knocking these pumps – so are fair knocks, some less so, but they do have advantages over other systems such as hand pumps.

    I am always open to funding new projects so if anyone has any specific proposals they want me to look at, or wants to come and talk face to face, then my email, or door, is always open.

    I hope that answers some of the questions raised, but if people do want to ask anything specific please do let me know.

    All the best


    Posted February 22, 2010 at 11:04 am | Permalink
  12. Stephen Jones wrote:

    I’ve seen a lot of people knocking these pumps – so are fair knocks, some less so, but they do have advantages over other systems such as hand pumps.

    Perhaps you’d be able to list a single advantage these pumps have.

    Posted February 22, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  13. solarafrica wrote:

    Thanks Duncan for responding and contributing to the conversation. Interesting to see how blogs/twitter encourage open discourse.

    Posted February 22, 2010 at 5:11 pm | Permalink
  14. Duncan Goose wrote:

    Hi Stephen,

    In my view they have a few advantages:
    1. the level of water quality testing (this is part and parcel of the installation package)
    2. the fact that the pumps have a maintainence schedule funded by the billboard advertising (accepting that we’re not 100% coverage yet, but it’s growing steadily) – interestingly one of the things we’re in discussions with WFP is their ‘riders’ maintenance programme which I like as it potentially dovetails into some other work we’re looking at in the micro-finance sector.
    3. That each pump carries a unique code, a text and freephone number so in the event of problem the community can contact the office to report it.
    4. That no time is spent ‘pumping’ water – it’s generated as children play
    5. The tank panels carry community messages – eg hygiene information.
    6. They can extract water from greater depths than e.g. afridevs and rope pumps – so the chances of getting a water strike, even when an aquifer is depleted, is better than other options.
    And a couple of other things like I like is that the team can accurately report where they are, community size/structure etc.

    These are the key things (when compared to funding handpumps or rope pumps) that I think are an advantage. I’m not saying they are the holy grail of systems, but I do believe, as I’ve said before, that we feel they fill a niche in the bigger water provision issue.

    I am very open to other options and partnerships – and always looking for other projects to fund (we’re starting to fund filtration systems in Indonesia), so if you have anything that you’d like to propose, please do get in contact.

    Hope that helps, but if you do have any more questions, please do let me know.

    All the best


    Posted February 23, 2010 at 4:42 am | Permalink
  15. Stephen Jones wrote:

    4. That no time is spent ‘pumping’ water – it’s generated as children play

    But as many have pointed out it’s not. What is happening is that the women are obliged to put in three or four times as much effort they would with a conventional handpump in order to push the roundabout round, and a single woman would find that even more difficult.

    the fact that the pumps have a maintainence schedule funded by the billboard advertising

    Are you suggesting that pumps in the middle of nowhere are going to get a significant amount of advertising revenue. If the advertising revenue model works, then set up a hoarding next to a normal pump.

    That each pump carries a unique code, a text and freephone number so in the event of problem the community can contact the office to report it.

    And how much would it cost to stick that information on a plaque on a handpump? (hint — you can do it in engraved granite for a tombstone for less than $10)

    the level of water quality testing (this is part and parcel of the installation package)

    And it could be part and parcel of the testing of a handpump. I believe the US advises the 15% of its population that uses well water to test their water every six months. Hardly onerous.

    They can extract water from greater depths than e.g. afridevs and rope pumps – so the chances of getting a water strike, even when an aquifer is depleted, is better than other options.

    The well in my garden goes down a hundred feet. The first forty feet are taken up by a large six foot diameter brick and cement lined normal well, like the one you see in pictures of old farmhouses. It lifts the water with an electric pump which you probably wouldn’t want as it would get nicked, but the point is it cost me a total of around $1,300

    Posted February 24, 2010 at 5:20 pm | Permalink
  16. Duncan Goose wrote:

    Hi Stephen,

    I like some of the thinking in your comments – but I go back to one of my original points which is that the PlayPump fills a niche, it’s not the only solution and if you talk to WFP in Denver they’ll explain what that niche is – I assume you’re based in the USA.

    That said, deep wells exist, rope pumps exist, diesel generators exist – all have their issues (as you point out) – however, no one to my knowledge has connected the media (and by ‘media’ I mean community messages ‘sponsored’ by a brand) component to the maintenance solution (or the text etc system) so perhaps that’s something that is worth exploring in a little more detail.

    All the best


    Posted February 25, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink
  17. Stephen Jones wrote:

    No, I work in Saudi and live in Sri Lanka during the academic vacations.

    It seems to me we are dealing with a niche for donations, not a niche for the provision of water.

    Still, you don’t come near to my favourite water story, which is nearer home. A Spanish charity had money left over from tsunami rebuilding (how this happened I don’t know since loads are still unhoused) and decided to spend it on a desalination plant (guess what country the providers of the desalination plant came from). This is in the wet zone of Sri Lanka, in an area where you only need to go down fifteen feet to hit the water table and which has a fairly good piped water system that is being upgraded (unnecessarily in my opinion) by a Dutch charity.

    The project seems to have thankfully stalled, but I’m told the building for the plant is there near the police station.

    Posted February 25, 2010 at 6:42 pm | Permalink
  18. We debated this issue two years ago during our graduate class in global philanthropy. The research then showed that two days worth of the money raised in the USA on the stock market, or one day spent by the US Government on all programs, employees, etc. would easily pay for the entire world’s water problems, providing all of the power for wells, purification systems, pipes, drainage, etc. We need to figure out what is really important here. Clean Water is essential to life on this planet! So far the amount of money spent is like throwing a dart at the ocean and saying “I got it, I got it really good. Do you see that? My dart hit that ocean with such force it must have fixed it!” Come on get real!

    Posted February 26, 2010 at 2:11 am | Permalink
  19. HD wrote:

    Anyone have more information on the desalination plant?

    Posted February 28, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

2 Trackbacks

  1. By uberVU - social comments on February 19, 2010 at 2:43 am

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mister_Minit: Some NGOs CAN adjust to Failure: The PlayPumps Story: The mechanism requires specialized skills to repair and so c…

  2. By FCP Weekly Digest – Full Contact Philanthropy on February 26, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    […] Some NGOs CAN adjust to Failure:  The PlayPumps Story | Aid Watch The story of a highly publicized NGO with a seemingly great solution for providing clean water in rural African villages, and what happened when that solution turned out to be far less effective than advertised. […]

  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

    "Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking." - H.L. Mencken

  • Archives