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Feb 28th 2017 | The Economist
New technology uses big data to keep the taps flowing
IN THE mid-2000s Playpumps International, a charity, hit on a photogenic way of providing clean water to rural African villages: a pump powered by children playing on a merry-go-round. International donors and celebrities pledged more than $16m. But the system was more expensive than alternatives and needed so much “playing” it was effectively dependent on child labour. It became a byword for wasteful Western aid, but it is far from the only example.
At any time around a third of the water infrastructure in rural sub-Saharan Africa, from simple hand pumps to pricey solar-powered systems, is broken. Even after spending billions of dollars most international donors still cannot ensure the pumps they pay for are maintained (just 5% of rural sub-Saharan Africa has access to piped water). Many of the village committees responsible for collecting the fees that should cover repairs are dogged by nepotism and corruption. More often, though, villagers simply struggle to gather money, find a mechanic and source spare parts, says Johanna Koehler of Oxford University. Kerr Lien, a village in central Gambia, reverted to using a manual well for nine years after the inhabitants were unable to fix a fault in their solar-powered pump. There are “lots of white elephants everywhere”, says Alison Wedgwood, a founder of eWATER, a British startup that aims to solve many of these problems. Its solar-powered taps, 110 of which have been installed in Kerr Lien and six other Gambian villages, dispense water in response to electronic tags. The tags are topped up by shopkeepers using smartphones; 20 litres of water costs 0.50 dalasi (1 cent), and 85% of the payment is set aside to cover future repairs. The taps are connected to the mobile network, so they can transmit usage data to alert mechanics to problems. EWATER hopes to have 500 taps serving 50,000 people in Gambia and Tanzania by the end of 2017.
There are other benefits too. Whereas other solar-powered pumps often work for just two hours each morning and evening, eWater taps function 24-hours a day. “There is no queue, so we can have water easily without fighting,” says Fatumata Sima, who fills four 20-litre jerry cans every day for her parents and nine siblings. Since they are paying for it, the women and girls who collect the water also take more care now not to spill any, leaving fewer puddles for mosquitos to breed in. Most important, though, is fixing pumps quickly. In Kenya Ms Koehler found villagers were prepared to pay five times as much for water so long as their pumps were fixed within three days, compared with the previous average of 27. FundiFix, the company spawned by her research, also uses mobile-connected taps to alert engineers, but still relies on village committees to collect monthly payments.
Startups like these could transform rural water provision in Africa, just as they are doing with solar-powered electricity. Twelve-year-old Isatou Jallow will still wash her family’s clothes with well water every week. But there will soon be a drinking tap just outside her house. That means more time studying, instead of spending afternoons carrying water back and forth from school. It also means loftier ambitions. “I want to be a government minister,” she says.