‘Smart Handpumps’ to bring a reliable water service to rural Africa | University of Oxford

‘Smart Handpumps’ to bring a reliable water service to rural Africa

2 July 2015

Oxford University’s “Smart Handpumps” project is being showcased by the Research Councils UK (RCUK) at their first ‘Research, Innovate, Grow conference’ on 2 July. The Research Councils UK (RCUK) event in London will highlight some of the ground-breaking and innovative research funded by the seven Research Councils through interactive exhibits, with the researchers involved talking about their work with attendees.

Worldwide 780 million people live without basic and reliable water supplies, with parts of rural Africa facing particular challenges achieving water security. Groundwater from handpumps is a primary water supply for many communities - but up to one third of these pumps are out of action at any one time and can take weeks to be repaired.

a team of researchers at Oxford University has created a device that generates data on handpump usage and transmits this information over the mobile phone network. The ‘smart handpump’, being trialled in rural Kenya, alerts the maintenance team if the handpump is not functioning. The results from Kenya showed a reduction in pump downtime from 37 days to two. In addition, the team are developing an innovative transparent finance model to leverage the funds needed to maintain the communities’ handpumps.

In their latest research paper, published in the journal World Development, they show how after the free trialled maintenance service, villagers are more convinced of the value of paying for a reliable water service. The paper says this could help solve ‘an enduring puzzle’ in achieving universal and reliable water service delivery, particularly in the case of community managed handpumps as previously many households were paying nothing toward the service.

In the 12-month trial in Kyuso in 2013, the researchers put mobile-enabled transmitters in 66 handpumps providing water to up to 20,000 villagers. After the trial, 630 households consulted in this study were asked about their previous payment levels for handpump maintenance and their willingness to pay on a monthly basis for the new service. At the 46 handpumps that broke and were repaired in 2013, there was a threefold increase in the number of communities willing to pre-pay regularly for a continued maintenance service. The percentage willing to pay for this service went up from 29 per cent to 91 per cent.

The Oxford team have now helped set up a small local business and introduced a mobile payment system whereby the water user committee at each pump responsible for the payment of the maintenance service gathers the money from local households to make the monthly payment through a mobile money platform. Pre-payment charges are set on the basis of the usage data. The researchers continue to assess whether people are prepared to pay for a fairer and more flexible payment model contingent upon reliable service delivery. The Government of Kenya’s Water Services Regulatory Board (WASREB) has already acknowledged the importance of such performance data ‘enabling WASREB to ensure that satisfactory performance levels are achieved and maintained, and enhancing transparency and accountability within the rural sector’.

The pilot project has since been rolled out to a larger area in Kwale County south of Mombasa. An additional 300 pumps have been fitted with transmitters and another local handpump repair business was set up. The researchers will continue to work in this area for the next four years.

The project is funded by the Department for International Development, UNICEF, ESRC and NERC.

For more information, contact the University of Oxford News Office on email: news.office@admin.ox.ac.uk or tel: +44 (0)1865 280534. Alternatively contact one of the researchers, Johanna Koehler, at johanna.koehler@ouce.ox.ac.uk or Mobile: +44 7748906525

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