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6 Lessons ICT4D Practitioners Can Learn From PlayPumps Failure

By Wayan Vota on July 19, 2010

Children playing on merry-go-rounds can pump ground water to a storage tank, and ads on that tank can pay for pump maintenance. That’s the simple idea behind PlayPumps International, which went from a small South African effort to a multi-donor cause célèbre to most recently, a poster child for good intentions gone bad in Africa.

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You can read more about PlayPumps many issues and eventual failure on other websites. Here on ICTworks, I wanted to focus on the implementation issues that we in the ICT4D field can learn from a water pump failure. Working from a WaterAid report on PlayPumps International, I’ve found these six implementation issues with their model:

  1. High pump installation cost
  2. Cheaper competing pump technology
  3. Complexity of pumping mechanism
  4. Lack of spare parts networks
  5. Improper community placement
  6. Reliance on volunteer labour
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Now let’s translate these issues into lessons that we can apply to ICT4D projects – any ICT project, using any technology in Africa:

1. Keep it cheap

Rural and underserved communities are also poorly resourced and financed communities. They often lack the resources to pay for new technology themselves and those that would donate to them have many other competing communities who need the same resource. So no matter who is paying for the technology, keep it as cheap to install as possible, as this is the first and foremost barrier to adoption.

2. Explore all options

No matter how cool or innovative you think your technology is, there is always an alternative technology. It may not be as exciting to you, but its there and being used by other communities. In ICT, we often forget about older, proven technologies like FM radio or even last year’s must-have technology – both which can be easier to obtain and work with than today’s cutting edge gadget.

3. Keep it simple

Africa is a punishing environment that’s unforgiving on ICT systems and tech support is often very distant and expensive to obtain. So engineer any solution to be easily repaired by minimally trained technicians. This doesn’t mean reduce functionality or benefits, but to be sensible about what will last over the long term.

4. Use common components

While it can be troublesome to get custom components when you’re developing an ICT tool in an R&D setting, its almost impossible to get and install those same components in rural Africa – be it software or hardware. So design your solution using easily available parts in the communities in which it will function.

5. Install in an enabling environment

This may come to a shock to ICT practitioners, but not everyone knows how to use digital tools, or even wants to. Make sure, before you install, that the community that will use your solution, really wants the solution and sees the benefits to its usage. Also, make sure there are local champions of influence who are eager for the change the solution will bring.

6. Have dedicated administrators

The administration of ICT solutions (vs. just using them) requires a specific, advanced skill set. Yet without a skilled administrator to apply regular maintenance, any ICT solution will fail. So don’t entrust this key success factor to just anyone – make sure there is an identified, compensated ICT solutions administrator involved in every aspect of the project.

Conclusion

While PlayPumps International focused on water issues, its challenges are no different than the ones faced by ICT practitioners who deploy digital technology in Africa. We all need to develop appropriate solutions that are welcomed by the recipient community and sustainable over the long term.

Hopefully, these 6 lessons learned from PlayPumps can improve our own implementation efficiency and avoid their same fate.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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