For rural communities in some countries around the world, handpumps are vital for drinking water, washing, bathing, laundry and for watering livestock and irrigating crops.
However, one in four handpumps are not working at any given time and effective systems often aren’t in place to manage their upkeep. This results in pumps being out of action for weeks or even months with local communities often forced to travel miles for unsafe or expensive water, with potentially serious health consequences.
About the project
The aim of the Smart Handpumps project was to address the challenges caused by unreliable pumps and improve the sustainability of water supplies through the innovative use of mobile data. Combining this with professional maintenance, the project hopes to deliver reliable drinking water and secure water supplies for rural communities in Africa and Asia.
The original technology, developed by Dr Patrick Thomson of the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment converted existing handpumps into ‘smart’ handpumps by installing a device that measures the handpump’s use.
It uses an accelerometer, similar to that found in most mobile phones, to measure the motion of the handle and a Global System for Mobiles module to transmit this information to a central database so an operator can remotely monitor how much the pump is being used and whether it is working.
Now his team are working with colleagues in the University of Oxford’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering on the next generation of the technology. Artificial intelligence technology, like that used to monitor jet engines and vital signs such as blood pressure in patients, is being used to help predict pump failures, so that repairs can be made before communities lose their water supply.
As important as the data, was having mechanics who could respond to the smart pump data immediately and repair the pumps within hours or days. The research team initially established a local maintenance organisation in Kenya, called FundiFix, to support the trial of the Smart Handpumps, with repairs triggered by the data from the transmitters.
FundiFix, now an independent, locally managed social enterprise, has expanded from repairing handpumps to larger boreholes, small, piped networks and water treatment systems. It currently manages water systems for over 70,000 people in two counties in Kenya, employing 15 people, including women in senior management and technical roles.
Impacts of the project
The project, which has combined novel engineering and institutional innovation, has had a number of impacts.
Faster pump repairs
Data gathered allows FundiFix and their team of mechanics to respond quickly to repair the pumps, reducing the repair time from 30 days to less than three days, with huge positive impacts on health and livelihoods. Preventative maintenance also mitigates premature failures.
Better value for money
Monitoring and professional maintenance represents good value for communities as the time pumps are broken for is dramatically reduced with the pumps providing more water to more people for longer. FundiFix’s size gives economies of scale in sourcing genuine spare parts, which can be costly for individual communities.
Professional maintenance also provides value to donors, investors and governments installing new systems, contracting FundiFix to provide maintenance and management services to installed or rehabilitated systems to ensure that the water systems last through the design period.
Data for planning
The Smart Handpumps tell us how much water is being pumped throughout the day and how this changes over seasons. Smarter data allows governments and funders to make better decisions when managing existing assets or planning new infrastructure to ensure it has the greatest impact and is targeted at those most in need.
Dr Patrick Thomson explains:
To get to where we are today, a decade after the project began, has involved a lot of collaborators: our partners in Kenya at the University of Nairobi and Rural Focus have been critical to making the research happen; UNICEF has supported the research into the Smart Handpumps and setting up FundiFix; we have also had funding for FundiFix’s operations from corporate donors Base Titanium Ltd, doTERRA and shareBerlin.
FundiFix maintains water systems for schools, health centres and communities in rural Kenya.
Shadrack Gathege, Principal of Ukunda Secondary School said:
We have been working with FundiFix for the last three years. They never let you down and the quality of workmanship is quite superb. Anyone having a borehole or a handpump needs to get in touch with FundiFix.
In 2019 the University of Oxford launched a public crowdfunding campaign. Alongside matching funds from the Global Challenges Research Fund this raised over £100,000 which has been used to upgrade the IT infrastructure from its experimental system to one that allows the platform to work across multiple countries simultaneously.
Following the success of the trial the team at the University of Oxford went on to form a spin-out company to be able to continue this project beyond research.
OxWater Ltd currently manufactures the latest operational version of the Smart Handpump devices, which incorporate features that have been refined over years of trials with partners in Kenya and Bangladesh.
It is a UK-based organisation who have worked with other UK small and medium-sized enterprises to develop the hardware and software for the Smart Handpumps and this project, it works with communities on the ground to implement cost effective water solutions.
OxWater Ltd and FundiFix continue to work together: the Smart Handpumps provide data to support FundiFix’s operations, planning and performance related contracts; FundiFix acts as a beta tester for system refinements and upgrades.
This project shows how investing in research for international development and building long-term relationships is at the forefront of developing innovative solutions to global development challenges.
Dr Jacob Katuva, who worked on the project for his PhD and is now a Director of FundiFix said:
This is an excellent example of how university research can go on to have a direct impact on people’s lives, providing reliable water in a very water-stressed part of Kenya.
The FundiFix model provides professional services to these water systems ensuring that they are operated properly, well maintained and remain functional throughout their design lifetime. This protects investments and guarantees returns while maximising impact.
I would highly recommend international and local NGOs, governments and other stakeholders to incorporate such a model during planning and investment in new water infrastructure or rehabilitation of old water infrastructure.
The work, initially funded by the Department for International Development, now the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and UK Research and Innovation, built collaborations with the University of Nairobi in Kenya, the Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya in Spain and the United Nations Children’s Fund, amongst others.
Top image: FundiFix mechanic inspecting a non-functioning handpump. Credit: Dr Jacob Katuva