By Nicole Graham, Humanitas Global
For years, the “Hippo Roller” Water Project has been gaining attention on the internet. It has been seen in viral videos on Facebook and YouTube, featured in news articles around the world, and even endorsed by Nelson Mandela as a local project with promise.
The Hippo Roller was created in 1991 by Pettie Petzer and Johan Jonker, two South African men who grew up on farms experiencing the national water crisis first-hand. With roots in a water-dependent, resource poor environment, the creators are familiar with the struggle to access water that millions of Africans are currently experiencing.
The concept is simple: An easier, more efficient way to collect water. The product reflects that simple concept: A large drum that can carry 90 liters of water is fitted with a “utility cap”, which filters and cleans the water as it enters the drum. It is then attached to a large steel handle, allowing the drum to be rolled across the ground, similar to a wheelbarrow. Promotional videos provided by Hippo Roller show women, men, and even toddlers rolling full drums across the ground with ease.
At 26 years old, Emily Pilloton founded the non-profit Project H Design, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to investing in youth to serve as builders, innovators and creators. The volunteer design firm focuses on issues addressing: Humanity, Habitats, Health and Happiness. When introduced to the Hippo Roller, Pilloton and Project H’s first initiative became a plan to fund and deliver 75 Hippo Rollers to Kgautswane, South Africa.
According to the Hippo Roller’s website 45,000 Hippo Rollers have been distributed, alleviating challenges to water access for up to 300,000 people by transporting 7 billion liters of water. Although the Hippo Rollers had a significant impact on the community, on her first trip to South Africa, Pilloton quickly realized that the Rollers could be improved. There were design flaws and the product was difficult to ship in bulk. The Rollers themselves cost only $35, and yet shipping two-thousand to Angola, for instance, cost nearly $30,000.
With the help of Engineers without Borders, Project H introduced a revamped and sturdier Hippo Roller despite experiencing many obstacles, including the loss of funding. Pilloton carefully documented the experience so that other innovators can learn from the process, and bypass some of the same obstacles.
Why it Matters
Of the 783 million people who do not have access to safe drinking water, 37 percent reside in sub-Saharan Africa.
Recently, science journal PLOS One published a study using data amassed in 24 African countries to indicate definitively that women and children spend more than half an hour every day fetching water. This task is grueling, but labeled as a “low status job” and disproportionately falls on young women. Of the children surveyed collecting water, 62 percent were girls. Long walks to retrieve water can cause health risks, be punctuated by violence, and often prevents young women from pursuing schooling or jobs.
Carrying heavy loads of water so frequently leads to musculoskeletal damage and early degeneration of bones and tissue. A gallon of water weighs eight pounds, and most women carry five gallons a day. These 45 pounds cause headaches, issues with childbirth, and unnatural spine curvature.
Waterborne diseases are also more easily contracted, such as worm infections. Jay Graham, researcher of the PLOS One report, found that with a five minute decrease in water collection time, which could be facilitated by the Hippo Roller, there was a 14 percent drop in diarrhea risks and a higher body weight score for children under five years old.
Daily water retrieval is highly inefficient. A study in Kenya found that retrieving water costs approximately $20 per month, more than the average water bill in the United States. This money goes towards fees paid to water vendors, the treatment of diarrhea and other waterborne diseases,
By addressing the difficulty of retrieving water, the Hippo Roller can improve health, sanitation and even time poverty in many African countries. Upwards of five times the amount of water that can be carried on an individual’s head can fit into the Hippo Roller, reducing the amount of time girls or women spend gathering water. The African invention would free up time for women and children to attend school, hold a job, complete household tasks more efficiently and dedicate time to food production. With five times more water at their disposal, the Hippo Roller improves water access, nutrition, health and income generation.
Within the same vein, other organizations are attempting to address Africa’s time poverty issue. Partners for Care and packH2O have changed lives by distributing water transportation backpacks in East Africa. Unlike a standard water backpack used for hiking, the packH2O can hold up to twenty liters of water. While fitted like a backpack, it also has arm straps to alleviate the weight distribution of the water.
This innovation, along with Hippo Roller, addresses a necessary market. Many creative and increasingly cheap options are available to purify water, but time poverty and transport have remained largely unaddressed. The Hippo Roller is now widely recognized as an acceptable product in Africa, and has spread rapidly. With its continued success, women and children will be able to spend more time towards their own sustainable futures with schooling and jobs.