Standardised hand pumps – a good thing?

Paul van Beers of FairWater.Org  manufacturer of the ‘Blue Pump’ is frustrated by the process (or lack of it) of standardisation around handpump designs.  He has a point.   There is a tendency in the rural water sector to assume that standardisation is a ‘good thing’ – because it helps to simplify spare parts chains, allows for economies of scale in acquisition and simplifies the task of district water officers, pump mechanics and others.  And these are all valid arguments.

However, the flip side of the argument and the risk of standardisation is that locking in a small number of technologies leads to stagnation and takes away any incentive for innovation.  Given the appalling lack of sustainability in existing approaches (an issue that kept popping up during discussions and presentations at the forum) there is clearly plenty of need for innovation – technical, financial, managerial.

What’s the solution?  To me it lies in clarifying and strengthening the systems by which pumps (and other bits of kit or indeed different management models) are accepted for inclusion in national rural water service delivery programmes.  Ideally this should be based on a clear and transparent process of testing, during which it can be seen whether the benefits of a new technology (or approach) are enough to outweigh the costs of its introduction (in terms of new skills, expanded supply chains etc.).  Such a system can test the hype of inventors and manufacturers in a rigorous way and help policy makers to understand the costs and benefits in a way that make it easy for them to make a decision.

Indeed several NGOs and other actors support programmes like this as part of their regular work.  And it is a common thread throughout much of our work in IRC – where we’ve identified the lack of emphasis on learning and innovation in the WASH sector as one of the most critical barriers to increased sustainability and equity.   And we are addressing the challenge directly through  the WASHTech programme (coordinated by IRC)  in Ghana, Burkina and Uganda – which aims specifically at defining and strengthening national frameworks and processes for new technology testing and adoption.

5 Responses to “Standardised hand pumps – a good thing?”
  1. Standardization or not in the handpumps bizz? I guess it all depends in what kind of economy one lives. Open economy, free market, in all respects? An economy that allows external and internal fair competition? It would seem as gradually open market economies with fair encouragement of local entreprise are on the increase in Africa? I may be wrong. But if the economy allows for fair competition standardization would not seem to be a need. Something else is of course whether policies of cross-subsidy to poor people would necessarily have to lead to some economies of scale standardization. If so, even then, fair competition should not be endangered!

  2. rwsnforum says:

    Patrick, I think you are right. RWSN did a big push for handpump standardisation to try and steer rural water supply away from the chaos of having each NGO or government body coming into a community and sticking in their preferred handpump type, which lead to patchwork of broken carcasses for which no-one had spare parts or expertise. This might be seen as ‘competitive’ but I don’t think it is when the choice of handpump is driven by the donor or implementing agency, not the end user.
    India has had a lot of success by standardising their handpump designs and this has led to a healthy and competitive manufacturing industry – one that is exporting to Africa.
    Standards are important to maintain quality – just look at ISO, EU or British Standards applied to things like electrics. In theory the ‘buyer beware’ principle should drive the market towards higher and higher quality products, but the reality of tight spending is that corners are cut to get the price down. For electrical goods that can be extremely dangerous so legal standards are needed. In rural water, a broken handpump won’t electrocute you, but it is a danger.

    Standards can be a barrier to market entry, but if quality of the product is to be assured, then it is a necessary barrier to keep out those are looking for a quick buck. However, the process does need to be looked at so the current public domain standards for pumps like the India Mark II and AfriDev don’t fossilise.

    If this is a topic that is of interest to anyone, then I would love here from you!

  3. think that IRC does not fully understand what is really going on in the handpump sector; they are too much in the books and not in the field. We work on a daily basic with many implementers and users of water pumps all over Africa and that gives a different picture.

    The basic is that if a government wants to impose standardization, they should assume responsibility, which they do not. By nature, standardization hampers development, even more if it concerns Public Domain pumps, and competition is not healthy but ONLY on price. The users of the pump suffer, but the buyers of the pump are happy and keep their mouth shut and continue with business as usual which is funding for their own charity projects that make no impact.

    The poor results of many thousands broken pumps in the field are sad statistical evidence. Even now suppliers of MK2 pumps complain that some others make MK2 below even the standards and get away with it because governments to not comply with applying standards.

    Even worse, also still IRC does not really understand where it is all about in the end, even not after a 25M study by Bill Gates. Let me try to explain it again:

    My dears, it is about providing water for the POOR! Yes, for the people that live at what they call so nice “at the Bottom of the Pyramid”. The so called BOPs.

    My dears, these BOPS have really no interest in VLOM pumps that break down all the times and cost a fortune for them to maintain. The NGO can make a nice picture in the beginning, everybody happy, but after a few years the people sing a different song. See the lady at the following Utube video:

    This lady complains about the maintenance COST, in the background you can see that the pump is working, so accordingly to IRC and AKVO standards everything is fine! The pump works!

    But in reality, it is a drama, this pump as so many many others, cost about 300 to 600 US$ per year to maintain. Many repairs and spares, every 2 to 3 month it has to be repaired for 50 to 100 $ each time and that adds up at the end. We think that’s not fair and can be done better.

    What is the future for these BOPs? There is no better future, because everything is fine according to international IRC standards.

    My dears, again, it is NOT about how many pumps work or not, it is about what people pay for what and how often the pump breaks down. The BOPs don’t read the nice reports about Capita Cost etc; they want daily water at a low price.

    The standardization policy has led to inferior Community pumps all over Africa, many of them abandoned because people could not PAY the repairs; the rest that is working is just squeezing out the last penny of the users on repairs and repairs. If you still don’t see that clearly, I would advise you to check your eyes.

    With FairWater we amazingly succeeded in delivering that, just by developing a very reliable BluePump with a sound management system; the BlueZone. Over 800 pumps are already in Africa, working everyday, giving over 300.000 people water every day.

    BluePumps are bought from local reliable dealers by serious NGOs, like IRD, and Oxfam Kenya, etc. they understand that for quality pumps and quality service you pay a bit more. So there is hope.

    Besides improving the design of the BluePumps, FairWater also started a rehabilitation program to replace broken pumps with the BluePump for only 2.500 euro each. The Gates funded IRC study cost 25M and provided nice reports for a few people to read. With that money we could have rehabilitated 25M / 2.500 = 10.000 broken pumps in Africa, for about 5.000.000 people. And not for just a few years, but for all years to come.

    For more info, see

    Thanks and wake up my dears, this also includes Mr. Bill Gates, I will bring you a nice cup of coffee from Africa, and you are welcome to start with us really helping the BOPs with water at an affordable price.


  4. Paul – thanks for your comments – though not sure if you realised that this is a post from 201. You might want to check the new IRC site or the Water Services that Last site for some more up to date thinking on this.
    Actually, we aim to do a bit more than just publish nice reports. We aim to push the discussion and action in the sector so that we stop wasting money on services that don’t last and that don’t meet people’s most basic needs (let alone demand). I think we’ve been quite successful in this over the years – contributing to a shift in sector thinking and action that sees much more emphasis being put on sustainability. Through our WASHCost work we’ve provided a set of tools – and concepts – that allow people – including yourself – to move from anecdote and videos to actually showing potential investors WHY they should put money into your offer rather than in the myriad other possible users of their money.
    The offer that we’ve made to you in the past – on several occasions – to help you to look at your numbers and make them available in a form that is useful for comparison with other technologies and management models stands. In the meantime, you might be interested in attending this upcoming debate that IRC is hosting on the 3rd June or indeed the Sustainability Forum on the 30th June in Amsterdam Regards, Patrick

  5. FairWater says:

    Hi Patrick! So now we are in 2017, with over 1.200 BluePumps in Africa and the BluePump has really proven itself in the most harsh conditions up to 100m deep and is the Oxfam preferred handpump.

    Also the BlueZone regional O&M system is getting momentum and is a proven concept, if well supported by the local government and not undercut by NGOs that implement in the same area water projects with non-BluePumps with the outdated VLOM system.

    All in all, i feel we have succeeded in showing a new way forward, by making it possible that rural communities can have low cost water (about 1-2 US$ a family per year) all year around. So we hope that IRC and more NGOs are developing more interest in what is now becoming a new “Blue Revolution” in Africa.

    You are very welcome to discuss more about what we do and to visit BluePumps in the field, or to come to our factory in Amsterdam we we have a BluePump on display.

    Hope to hear from you soon!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: