Reporter's Interview

Amy Costello

Interview With Amy Costello
Reporting on your own story

FRONTLINE/World: How did you come across the PlayPump story?
Amy Costello: I originally reported on the PlayPump as a radio story for “The World,” back in 2005 when I was working as an Africa correspondent for the program. Soon after that broadcast, I met with FRONTLINE/World’s executive director Sharon Tiller, who knew about my work covering topics like civil wars and AIDS. She asked me, “Do you have any POSITIVE stories from Africa?” I told her about the PlayPump and Trevor Field. She, like so many who heard the PlayPump story, was immediately taken by it. She gave me the assignment and the story aired as a web video for FRONTLINE/World in October 2005. The story proved to be popular with online viewers, and FRONTLINE/World decided to broadcast the story the following May on PBS.

How long after your original story did you realize the idea of the PlayPump was catching on with funders, celebrities, politicians? 

I think it struck me most powerfully when I attended the Clinton Global Initiative Conference in the fall of 2006. On the eve of the conference, I’d been told that First Lady Laura Bush would be making a “very big announcement” about the PlayPump. When she stood on stage and uttered the words, “Sixteen point four million dollars,” I was astonished. And I was also proud that Trevor Field, and a technology that I believed was a wonderful invention, providing both clean water and an opportunity for play, was now going to be brought to thousands more children in Africa. 

How did you react to news that there were problems with the technology, especially since your original story had helped shine a spotlight on the PlayPump?

I was very saddened. The PlayPump story had remained close to my heart in a way that few other stories had. After all, I had spent years traveling across Africa, covering stories like HIV in South Africa, to civil conflicts in Congo and Darfur. Reporting those stories had taken a heavy personal toll on me. And while I was so often inspired and humbled by the people I met along the way, I was also left feeling overwhelmed by both the enormity and complexity of the problems I’d witnessed up close.

Enter the PlayPump story. Here there appeared to be a dynamic, passionate “social entrepreneur” Trevor Field, with an actual solution that would help ease the dire need for clean drinking water in Africa.  And there was more: he’d do it by making children happy. To me, the joy the kids seemed to get from spinning on the PlayPump, something I didn’t see enough of in Africa, was just as important as the fact that they were getting clean drinking water.

As a reporter, the PlayPump story offered a powerful and welcome counterpoint to the reality I’d seen for so many children in Africa. Before and after the PlayPump, I’d seen and touched children who were days away from death due to malnutrition or diarrhea because they--like an estimated billion people across the globe--had no access to clean drinking water. I’d seen too many students in inadequate classrooms, with sanitary facilities that no American parent would accept for their own children. I had tried the traditional hand pump for myself and felt the burn in my arms as I feebly attempted to fill a bucket with water. The PlayPump, it seemed to me at the time, could help put an end to all these problems. And the $16.4 million pledge from Washington confirmed to me, in the most tangible way possible, that others agreed with me.

You went back to South Africa and Mozambique last summer to follow up on the story. What were your first impressions of what was going wrong on the ground and why?

At the end of my interview with Trevor Field, I asked him whether it had all been  “too much, too fast, too soon.”  This was my main impression of what had gone wrong with the rollout campaign.

This became apparent to me in myriad ways once I was on the ground in Mozambique. Some PlayPumps were not working because they had been put on sites that were unsuitable. Communities, like the one I visited in Mozambique, said they were not informed before the PlayPump had been installed. I think the haste to get pumps in the ground in order to fulfill an ambitious and arbitrary goal from Washington, likely contributed to instances of poor site selection and/or lack of community support for the device.

I saw a different reality on the ground than the one we had filmed for our original broadcast when I visited the pump at Intaka primary, which was no longer storing water in the tank. As I watched the school children trying to suck water from the tap there, I was filled with dismay. It was so different from the happy images that my original story, and the PlayPump promotional material, had showcased. It must be said that there are likely hundreds of PlayPump sites across southern Africa where the device is bringing joy and clean drinking water to children, just as it’s been advertised. But it is impossible to know for sure without independent visits to each of the 1,500 or so PlayPump sites.

I also know the empty storage tank that I observed at Intaka Primary was no exception. The Mozambique government report found no water in the storage tanks of any of the 100 PlayPumps they visited in the country. The reasons for this are likely manifold: there could be technical problems. Or perhaps, as Trevor insisted to me, there is simply too much demand on the pumps, so all the water pumped is being used. Or perhaps children simply aren’t using the PlayPump as much as everyone thought they would.

And perhaps the specific reasons don’t matter. What does matter is that the device in these instances just doesn’t operate in the way it’s been marketed: with no water in the storage tanks, it becomes a demand system, where, if children are to get water, they must send other children to begin pumping. If water were stored in the tank at Intaka, many more children would be able to get water during their short breaks between classes. Instead, as one child told me at Intaka, “We are thirsty.”

How did some schools get around the problem of inadequate water supplies, if the children were not playing long enough on the PlayPump?

To solve the problem of inadequate water supplies, I learned that in some places, children are put on a “play schedule” during which they are asked, or encouraged, or required, to spin in order to generate enough water for the needs of the school or the community. That gets to a vital question at the heart of the PlayPump technology: Is it play? Or is it work? Some argue that children across Africa have to work anyway, especially when it comes to collecting water. And, they say, it’s better to have children spin on a PlayPump than to undertake the grind of the hand pump.

But if we accept this argument, then we must acknowledge that, at least, in those circumstances, children who are on the pump as part of a coordinated and mandated “play schedule” are working. Play, on the other hand, according to one definition I read, is “freely chosen and personally directed.” The intended outcome of play should not be a life necessity. And drinking water, of course, is just that. It should be noted that the UNICEF report found no children who said they had been forced to “play” on the PlayPump.

And this brings me to the final aspect of the PlayPump rollout that struck me the hardest as I traveled to sites in Mozambique: this was a multi-million dollar expansion of a device that is vital to life, not a test case for something optional, let’s say, solar radios.

It was only when I met with the community in Mozambique, which had been without its own water supply for six months, that I fully appreciated how much care and planning must be taken before and during the rollout of a vital technology like this one. When the PlayPump is the only water supply for a community and it breaks down, it must be repaired or replaced quickly, no matter the reason for the problem, no matter who is ultimately to blame for its breakdown.

There appears to be a lot of passing the buck. Who do you think is ultimately responsible for what went wrong in Mozambique?

I think that ultimately all parties are responsible for the technologies they helped put in the ground. It seems clear that everyone needs to coordinate and communicate better with one another to ensure that every pump installed after 2006 with U.S funds is now working, will work in the years ahead, or will be replaced if not working as promised. 

Trevor Field is contractually obligated to maintain all the pumps for 10 years after installation. But if he is unable to generate the ad revenue needed for that purpose, for reasons of the economic downturn or otherwise, I would like to see his original partners step forward to help in any way necessary so that everyone who was promised clean drinking water via an American-sponsored PlayPump, has it.

You finally sat down with PlayPumps founder Trevor Field. How did he respond to all of the questions being raised about troubled pumps in Mozambique, the technology, and the PlayPump model itself?

Trevor insists that the 40 or so problematic PlayPumps sites in Mozambique are an anomaly among the 1,500 or so installed in Africa. “All of these questions that you are asking me are all based around that same thing,” Trevor said during our on-camera interview. “Not the 100 pumps that the Malawians were ecstatic with; not the 260 we've got in the Lesotho that are absolutely working 100 percent.” He blames Save The Children for the fact that those few dozen pumps in Mozambique don’t work, pointing to the fact that Save The Children chose unsuitable sites and then told him to install PlayPumps there.

In terms of Trevor’s Washington partners, he says he is obviously disappointed that things did not go as well as planned. He says he ideally needs more funds in order to maintain all the pumps now in the ground. “We're not getting any funding from them (PlayPumps International U.S.), which makes it difficult for us to go and maintain stuff when we've not got any money.”

Despite the fact that I observed children sitting idle on the PlayPump, and the fact that the Mozambique report found the same thing at sites visited, Trevor insists that children love his technology. “Why is it that you get playground equipment in every park, in every school, in every country around the world? Because kids play on playground equipment.” But Trevor concedes that installing PlayPumps in communities, rather than in schools, was a mistake. We don't put the things on communities anymore, we put them only at schools where you've got a lot of children.”

I think Trevor still believes very much in the PlayPump technology. He continues to manufacture, install and maintain them with the help of other funders from across the globe. I think his biggest funder today is the London-based OneWater, which donates proceeds of its bottled water to PlayPumps and to date has funded more than 615 sites in South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland and Malawi.

I believe Trevor is confident that his PlayPump will outlast any fractured relationships he may now have with his patrons from America. As I say in the broadcast, Trevor is constantly improving his technology and appears to be working hard to maintain the 1,500 or so PlayPumps now in the ground in Africa.

As far as you know, are there still communities in Mozambique waiting for broken PlayPumps to be fixed?

As far as I know, the 40 or so PlayPumps that Save The Children helped to install in Mozambique have been replaced with hand pumps. I understand that this was a joint effort by Save The Children, PlayPumps International US (now working with the organization Water For People), and PlayPumps International Africa (now going by the name Water For All).

Clearly, all parties knew there were problems for a while, but nothing was being done. As late as August, 2009, John Grabowski of Save The Children Mozambique told me that his organization had “concerns and clearly a commitment to partner with the communities, partner perhaps with PlayPumps, or other interested parties, in implementing some solution or set of solutions to the problem.”

"Here there appeared to be a dynamic, passionate “social entrepreneur” Trevor Field, with an actual solution that would help ease the dire need for clean drinking water in Africa. And there was more: he’d do it by making children happy."

But the fact was, Save The Children was taking months, and possibly even years, to fix or replace the non-working pumps.

It was only after my interview with Grabowski, and after all partners involved with the rollout knew I was working on this story, that I was told a solution had been found.

Is there any sense of how close the PlayPumps Alliance is to raising its goal of $60 million by 2010? Does the PlayPumps Alliance even exist anymore?

The PlayPumps Alliance itself was supposed to ultimately evolve into a $60 million public-private partnership led by PlayPumps International, the Case Foundation, USAID, the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and private sector partners. The Alliance would work in 10 sub-Saharan African countries to bring clean drinking water to up to 10 million people by 2010 by installing 4,000 PlayPumps.

Since the formation of the Alliance, it appears that many lessons have been learned by all the parties involved, and the ambitions for the PlayPump scaled back significantly.

Various parties have told me that they learned that the best approach for bringing clean drinking water to Africa is to offer not just one solution like the PlayPump. Instead, all parties are now moving to offer an array of water solutions and technologies tailored to the individual needs and circumstances of different villages. In retrospect, this may seem like common sense. But when donors, and journalists like myself, initially heard about the PlayPump technology, it seemed like a solution that could be put in any number of locations.

It is now clear that the abilities of the PlayPump are more limited than many supporters first thought, and it’s most appropriate at large schools, with populations that are big enough to provide enough “spinning time” by students throughout the course of the school day. The technology was found not to be a suitable technology for communities, where water needs are greater than at schools and where women, the primary collectors of water, may be reluctant to use the PlayPump. And when it is put in schools, it should be a secondary source of water rather than the only source of water for students.

As far as the parties involved in the original PlayPump Alliance, it appears to me that each party has branched out to offer an array of water solutions. And each party will decide at its own discretion whether or not to include the PlayPump within the umbrella of solutions they offer to communities.

Are the remaining members of the alliance still in touch with Trevor Field’s organization, which, after all, is still responsible for maintaining some 1,500 pumps?

I would be very interested in seeing whether any of the former members of the PlayPump Alliance step forward to offer their skills or money to help Trevor perfect or keep up the maintenance system that thousands of Africans now rely on, in part because of donors in Washington. I believe this was a project that began with good intentions and I like to think that that everyone involved in the roll-out will do whatever they need to do to ensure that pumps they helped pay for are still pumping water years from now.

Why do you think the Case Foundation refused to go on the record about problems that were clearly being identified, and why do you think it took them so long to say anything publicly about the PlayPump’s shortcomings?

I imagine that the Case Foundation can, and perhaps will, explain its decision not to speak for this program. Perhaps they can shed more light about what finally compelled them to acknowledge that they were encountering problems in the field and why they decided to acknowledge these problems when they did.

Are there any lessons about where the PlayPump technology is working effectively under the right conditions?

Yes, it seems the PlayPump works best in large schools. By sticking to these kind of sites, the London-based OneWater organization tells us that they have had great success with the more than 615 PlayPumps they’ve funded in South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland and Malawi.

One Water and The One Foundation Director, Maria Scott, tells us via email, “We have strict installation procedures that ensure that our PlayPumps are only installed in schools with a minimum of 350 learners, and all our feedback from our sites has been positive, with the school reaping huge benefits from the PlayPump installation in terms of both water and irrigation of vegetable gardens.”