PlayPumps and broken feedback loops

Case Study: How PlayPumps evolved in response to feedback from their villages writes…

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.
  • Spare parts are hard to find.
  • 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 also summarized in The Guardian:
Owen writes:playpump_women_misuse

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).

pdfOwen adds that all three women he interviewed preferred the old style pump. Others have posted a scathing ten-point summary of design & implementation flaws of the PlayPump here: 10-problems-with-the-PlayPump.

Lessons about the feedback loop

  • [Donor vs Recipient Buzz] PlayPumps was widely successful on the donor side. They had a cool idea, a sexy new technology, and attracted good press, including Oprah. We all wanted the idea to work. Donors who had never pumped water themselves loved it. PlayPumps was a highly successful fundraiser on GlobalGiving (read their final report) . All this illustrates the disconnect between donors and beneficiaries more than any shortcomings of PlayPumps itself.
  • [A single source gets reused a lot] One weakness of the PlayPumps story is that the dozen reports about it all reference Owen in some part. I have met Owen personally and trust him, but the absence of similar reports from any of the thousands of aid workers who must have encountered neglected PlayPumps reveals how rare COMPLETE feedback loops must be.
  • [The Last Mile Problem] Steve Davenport often notes how feedback moves up the chain of command but stalls just before it reaches the right person. In this story, I saw this comment on Owen’s blog:

“I hope an implementer of the PlayPumps stumbles across your blog and changes something.”

I and thought… hmm… I know someone at PlayPumps. I sent him the link.  The real lesson here isn’t a about pump with an inferior end user experience, but that a dozen people read Owen’s blog, took the time to comment, and didn’t think to direct their feedback to PlayPumps itself. This is the closing the broken feedback loop problem. How many time have we read or heard something and said, “boy that sucks” and moved on without telling someone who was in the position to change things?

This is this age of instant contact – you or I could  close the loop in seconds. For the woman in the village, it took

    1. Owen’s visit
    2. A digital camera
    3. Owen posting the blog
    4. You read his blog
    5. You thinking to email the person you know directly at PlayPumps

For the message to be received.

What Happened?

“In October 2009, PPI announced that it will contribute its existing inventory of manufactured pumps to Water For People, a nonprofit international humanitarian organization that supports the development of sustainable safe drinking water…We have learned that PlayPumps, like other water solutions, are best offered as a portfolio of technologies from which communities can choose…”.

PlayPumps seems to have folded as an NGO, though their work raised awareness about water problems in Africa and helped CharityWater, Water for People, WaterAid, and others who continue to install traditional hand pumps.

As far as I can tell, negative feedback caused the demise of the organization. So it comes as no surprise that that organizations are afraid of negative feedback.

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