Creative Thinking: The Play Pump

I saw a documentary on PBS Frontline about the Play Pump. Trevor Field, a true creative thinker, saw a problem (poor water quality and availability in South African villages) and designed a solution (a pump that taps an aquifer far underground and fills a holding tank above ground) powered by an untapped energy source (kids wanting to play.) Excerpts and video from Frontline below.

Link: FRONTLINE/WORLD . Rough Cut . South Africa: The Play Pump | PBS

Trevor Field, a retired advertising executive, had done well in life and wanted to give back to his community. He noticed that in many rural villages around the eastern Cape, the burden of collecting water fell mainly to the women and girls of the household. Each morning, he’d see them set off to the nearest borehole to collect water. They used leaky and often contaminated hand-pumps to collect the water, then they carried it back through the bush in buckets weighing 40 pounds. It was exhausting and time-consuming work.

"The amount of time these women are burning up collecting water, they could be at home looking after their kids, teaching their kids, being loving mothers." He knew there had to be a better solution.

Field then teamed up with an inventor and came up with the "play pump" — a children’s merry-go-round that pumps clean, safe drinking water from a deep borehole every time the children start to spin. Soup to nuts, the whole operation takes a few hours to install and costs around $7,000. Field’s idea proved so inventive, so cost-efficient and so much fun for the kids that World Bank recognized it as one of the best new grassroots ideas.

In true ad-man style, Field’s next idea was to use the play pump’s water towers as makeshift billboards, selling ad space to help pay for the upkeep. He reserves a spot for the national loveLife campaign, which helps educate children about HIV and AIDS. "We’ve got to get the message through to them before they become sexually active," he says. "It seems to be working."

In the film, Costello and producer/photographer Cassandra Herrman drive out to a small village where the taps have been dry for a week. There, a crew sets to work installing a play pump near a children’s play area, boring 40 meters down until they hit the fresh water table below. As soon as the last colorful piece of the puzzle is in place, dozens of children show up to play — much to Field’s delight — pumping cool, clean water to the surface as they spin.

The indefatigable entrepreneur wants to build thousands of these pumps to help water-stressed communities across South Africa, then expand to other African countries. He says, "It would make a major difference to the children, and that’s where our passion lies."

Watch the Frontline Play Pump video