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Better than “Smart Handpumps” are Empowered Handpump Users

By Wayan Vota on July 13, 2012

Every so often, I see ICT4D projects that have way over-thought their solution, going for whiz-bang technology over simpler, human solutions. Here is an example from DfID, which is trying to help with water shortages in Kenya.

Water pumps are the main source of drinking water in rural communities but around one-third of them do not work at any given time. It can take up to a month for the water pumps to be fixed so the UK government has announced that it will back the pilot of “Smart Handpumps” in Kenya.

broken pump ict4d

The ‘Smart Handpumps’ project sees the hand pumps automatically ‘text’ local water engineers when water pumps break down or run dry. The data transmitters in the ‘Smart Handpumps’ will dramatically speed up the response by making water officials aware of when and where there is a problem, as well as when it has been fixed.

Now I can see the sexiness of having a pump automagically report when it is broken, along with usage data when it is working. But might that be a little two much tech?

Simpler is Better

Instead of a mobile phone/pump combo, which will need power, top-up, and constant maintenance, what about just giving local villagers the phone number of the local water engineers?

Presumably, the users of the pump have a very large incentive to accurately report when a pump is not working, and with simple additional incentives (free airtime, solar charger) they could report on pump usage using their own mobile phones, negating the need for delicate electronics installed in wet locations. Local villagers would feel that they were empowered and get direct access to water engineers for more in-depth first-hand reports.

Of course, this solution isn’t fancy and wouldn’t warrant an exciting announcement by DfID, but I would argue it would be much more effective.


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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. 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 his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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2 Comments to “Better than “Smart Handpumps” are Empowered Handpump Users”

  1. Jaume Fortuny says:

    Even more effective would be to have replacement parts close, cheap and accessible. And train local staff to make maintenance.

    Why not give additional incentives to local people, not just for report but for maintenance and repairing of water pumps? It would help to create sustainable business models.

    Perhaps technology should be used by the logistics of spare parts and for technicians training.

  2. FairWater Paul van Beers says:

    Wayen is completly right of course, but unfortunatly, also in saying that his solution isn’t “sexy” enough to get the attention of the media.

    FairWater therefore welcomed (and is amazed at the sasme time…) the attention the subject gets in the media.

    Off course there is already a much better, long term oriented and sustainable solution to the “handpump breakdown trauma”. But that is yet not sexy enough to get media attention, but one never knows…

    FairWater therefore makes “BlueZones”, indeed, when the pump breaks down, (does not happen often, because we use the reliable BluePump) the caretaker makes one phone call to the BlueZone Service Provider (BSP) and his pump will be repaired for a fair price.

    Already over 150.000 people in Africa are connected to the BlueZone, that starts now to spread out over Africa, but not yet so much in the news!

    More info on our website http://www.fairwater.org

    FaitWater Foundation
    Paul van Beers