Five years ago, Amy Costello reported a story for FRONTLINE/World. It was about the challenges of getting water in Africa, and a promising new technology called the PlayPump.
After years of covering "bad news" in Africa, she was happy to report a story that seemed to offer something to cheer about. Her story showed how simple it might be for children to pump fresh water just by playing. Behind it all, a South African entrepreneur named Trevor Field.
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Field had made his career in advertising, but when he heard about this new device, he formed a company and started making PlayPumps himself.
To cover maintenance costs, he proposed selling ads on the sides of the water tower. He said the PlayPump model would be a big improvement over the hand pumps that Africans have struggled with for years.
Field would become the PlayPump's public face and most tireless salesman.
“If we could put a 1,000 pumps in each country that's water stressed,” he told Costello, showing her how his merry-go-round water system worked, “we'd make a monster difference to rural water supplies.”
When her story aired back in 2005, there was an outpouring from across the country, and around the globe. A few months later, in late 2006, she was invited to an event in New York, where the PlayPump was being taken to a whole new level.
Celebrities, politicians and, most important, major donors had been hearing about the PlayPump, and, Costello was told, watching her FRONTLINE story. As Laura Bush announced $16.4 million in U.S. donor support to install PlayPumps across southern Africa, Field watched amazed from his office in South Africa.
“We were very very excited. We hired a flat screen TV and got a live link up to watch,” Field said.
The lion’s share of the money would come from the U.S. government, which pledged $10 million. Another $5 million came from a foundation run by Steve Case, the founder of America Online, and his wife Jean.
Steve Case called the idea of PlayPumps simple, but so perfect and the Cases would soon create PlayPumps International, a new nonprofit with an ambitious marketing plan.
Jean Case told Costello that her FRONTLINE story was the first thing she showed potential funders. Facebook, Twitter, and fundraising campaigns on charitable websites would soon follow.
With the promise of all that money, Field began expanding his factory and turning out hundreds of new PlayPumps.
As part of the fundraising push, PlayPumps International helped arrange for hip-hop legend Jay-Z to visit one of Field’s model sites, with MTV cameras rolling. Later, there would be a benefit concert. It was all part of a plan to raise more than $60 million for PlayPumps by 2010.
Costello’s little story about the PlayPump had become a big time cause.
Just a few months later, Field was expanding his PlayPump program in neighboring Mozambique. And PlayPumps International planned to help Field roll out the pump in 10 African nations.
Costello traveled with Field to Mozambique, where a PlayPump was being installed at Intaka Primary school. He seemed confident in the new technology he was delivering and the children seemed to be having fun.
As the rollout continued, the media ran with the story. CNN, National Geographic, and others reported on Field’s novel water solution that harnesses the power of children at play.
Three years later, Costello returned to Mozambique. She’d heard that the PlayPump rollout had run into trouble and wanted to see what had happened.
Back at the primary school in Intaka, the merry-go-round pump was still there but the children were standing idle.
“We don't know why but no water is stored in the tank,” the assistant principal told her. It didn’t used to be like that, he said.
Costello visited more PlayPump sites, the next one in a more remote part of Mozambique with fewer children around. Women tell her that spinning the merry-go-rounds is often hard work without help, and hard especially for the older women. They tell her the old hand pumps were much easier, and that no-one consulted them about the change. The PlayPump just arrived.
One of the women, Regina, tells Costello the PlayPump hasn't produced any water for six months. Field's plan to cover maintenance with revenue from billboards wasn't working here. And when the women called or sent texts to the repair line, they said they got no response.
Costello asks Joaqim George, from Mozambique's Rural Water Authority, what went wrong.
“Once the pump breaks, and it takes more than three months to repair, people in these communities no longer trust the PlayPump because they are demoralized,” he tells her.
A report commissioned by the Mozambique government on the PlayPump that was never released, cited similar problems with the pumps that Costello was seeing – women finding it difficult to operate; pumps out of commission for up to 17 months; children not playing as expected on the merry-go-rounds, and maintenance, "a real disaster," the report said.
Field was reluctant to speak about the problems. But in Mozambique's capital, Costello meets with John Grabowski. His group, Save the Children, worked with Field to install dozens of pumps in Mozambique just before Grabowski became the group's country director. “In December of 2007, all of the pumps were operational,” he said. “Right now there are only 13.”
Save the Children was reluctant to say that the problems with their PlayPumps were, in part, their own doing, since it turns out they'd chosen poor or unsuitable sites for installation. They were then slow to resolve complaints from the field.
The Mozambique government report in part blamed Save the Children itself for not properly testing sites and the quality of water at those sites, before they installed PlayPumps.
The agency was receiving complaints about the PlayPumps “pretty much right after installation,” Grabowski tells Costello.
Back in Washington, DC, Costello tries to get an interview with PlayPumps International in Washington. The media spokesperson tells her the CEO is much too busy to see her. Over the course of six months of requests, no one from the Case Foundation or PPI would agree to speak with her.
Then, late last Fall, she obtained this UNICEF report. It was circulating among major funders, and laid out more problems with the pump and the rollout.
At UNICEF'S New York headquarters, Clarissa Brocklehurst told Costello about the aid group's brief experiment with the PlayPump. After installing dozens of PlayPumps, UNICEF concluded the system was not as sustainable as it needed to be to work in rural Africa.
“You can put in a beautiful perfect pump, and if it breaks down and there's no spare parts, then it was only as good as the six weeks or six months that it ever lasted for in the first place,” Brocklehurst told the reporter.
Despite the negative reports, PlayPumps International continued to push for more pumps across southern Africa. They stepped up the fundraising to meet their goal of 4,000 pumps by 2010.
Kristina Gubic visited more than one hundred PlayPump sites when she was communications manager for PlayPumps South Africa. She said she also encountered pumps in the field that weren't working and felt there was pressure to roll out as many pumps as possible.
Earlier this year, Costello tried again to speak to the man who had always been at the center of this story. And, after months of discussion, Trevor Field finally agreed to sit for an interview.
She met Field in Johannesburg, where he told her his side of what had happened with the PlayPump rollout – his frustration of wanting to hit targets; keep people happy and put the $16 million to work to install 4,000 pumps.
“That's why we jacked up the factory; that's why we invested loads of money in people and time and computers and equipment,” Field explained.
When asked about the maintenance problems and communities going six months with a broken pump, Field said that he may not have fixed all of the pumps all of the time, but the majority of the pumps were working, and “the rest of them will get attended to.”
He tells Costello that he didn't think he was responsible for what had gone wrong with a few dozen pumps in Mozambique, and says he told Save the Children that the sites they'd chosen would never work.
"We tried to fix it… We went back three times four times to try to repair it… We informed PlayPumps International. We informed Save the Children in Mozambique. No response … for months," he said.
Both Trevor Field and Save the Children tried to get PlayPumps International to pay to replace the non-working pumps but were told they would not release the money.
Meanwhile, with some 1,500 pumps still in the ground, and others being installed, Costello asked Field if he still believed in the idea of the PlayPump and if children were a reliable source of energy.
“People say, ‘Oh the kids don't play on it, there's no water in the tank.’ It's easy to be critical about the system. But our policy is that we're trying to give enough water for the kids to survive for the day. And the pump does do that,” he told Costello.
Although Field said he's learning, and improving his technology along the way, he concedes that the PlayPump, which is mainly effective at large schools, will likely never live up to its initial promise.
Field and the Case Foundation had initially wanted to install thousands of PlayPumps across Africa, but the rollout came to a very quiet end last fall.
The only public acknowledgment of what had happened would be this brief letter on their website, posted right around the time we started asking questions.
It said that the organization had long-standing challenges with the PlayPump, and that the campaign had been "hard and humbling work."
They would ultimately hand over their inventory of unused PlayPumps to another charity, which plans to use them only in limited circumstances.
As FRONTLINE prepared this report, we heard that PlayPumps International had at last decided to address the problem of the non-working pumps in Mozambique. Then the villagers finally got the simple solution to their water problems they had been asking for: their old hand pumps back.
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