RCUK highlights Oxford's 'innovative' smart handpumps project | University of Oxford
Research trip to Kyuso, Kenya. L to R: Handpump mechanic in Kenya; Patrick Thomson, Oxford; Dr Rob Hope, Oxford; and Dr Peter Harvey, UNICEF.
Research trip to Kyuso, Kenya. L to R: Handpump mechanic in Kenya; Patrick Thomson, Oxford; Dr Rob Hope, Oxford; and Dr Peter Harvey, UNICEF.

RCUK highlights Oxford's 'innovative' smart handpumps project

The Research Councils UK is showcasing an Oxford University project which uses mobile phone technology to transmit data on handpump use in rural Kenya. 

The ‘Smart Handpumps’ project is led by Dr Rob Hope, an Associate Professor at the School of Geography and the Environment and Director of the Water Programme at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment. It is one of 13 projects funded by the seven Research Councils highlighted as ground-breaking and innovative research at the RCUK’s first ‘Research, Innovate, Grow’ conference, attended by business leaders, entrepreneurs, and policymakers.

Patrick Thomson, from the University’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, designed the mobile phone technology that enables smart handpumps to send automated data on when and how much they are used. This flags up when they are broken so they can be fixed quickly, significantly improving waiting times for maintenance services. In rural Africa, one million handpumps supply water to over 200 million villagers. Yet up to one third of pumps are out of action at any one time.

Researchers work in two test sites in rural Kenya, Kyuso and Kwale, to resolve the problem of broken pumps and provide reliable water. From a delay of a month, the pumps at the sites are now fixed in under two days.  Previously many households were paying nothing toward the service, but after a free trial many villagers are willing to pay for the new maintenance service based on past performance.

The smart pump data also show how much water the pump is using and its reliability. It is therefore possible to charge communities that use their pump less at a lower rate than those who use the pump more frequently. Equally, the first ever hourly data on observed handpump water use provides important insights into water demand and seasonal variation. For example, in both sites the researchers have evidence to show that when it rains people switch to alternative water sources which may be less safe.

Professor Rick Rylance, Chair of RCUK, said: ‘We are delighted to be holding such an exciting and engaging event to show how the UK is a world leader in research and innovation, with a reputation for excellence of which we are immensely proud. We truly punch above our weight on the global stage in terms of the quality of research we produce and its high impact on economic growth and prosperity. Strong, sustained investment in the UK research base is essential to strengthen and let fly the excellence, creativity and impact of the UK’s world leading researchers, innovators and businesses. We need to invest now to secure its future.’

The Government of Kenya has identified the translation of the research into a business model as an important contribution to their efforts to find new and sustainable ways to maintain water services. Local businesses set up by the project have a model that can provide a long-term, reliable maintenance service for village handpumps that allows performance to be measured and accountable.

The work is expanding in Kenya, with other countries in Africa and Asia interested in adopting the model based on the evidence the project has provided on innovative engineering solutions and institutional design, including mobile water payment systems.