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Wheeling water to tackle inequality

June 28, 2022
topics: Innovation
by: Bob Koigi
located in: South Africa
tags: clean water, innovation, South Africa, water crisis

A South Africa-based initiative has found a unique and efficient way to tackle clean water access issues across borders. FairPlanet spoke to its founders about the origins, scalability and future of the project.

Water is life. Yet water inequality appears to be on the rise, with over 771 million people globally experiencing a daily struggle to get access to clean drinking water.

Women and children are particularly affected, as women across the world cumulatively spend 200 million hours a day collecting water. 

The global water crisis is predicted to worsen, with 1.6 billion people expected to struggle to get clean water access by 2030. 

That said, low-cost innovations developed across the world are addressing these water woes.

A social enterprise in South Africa called Hippo Roller has for the last 30 years introduced over 60,000 unique rolling drum water carriers in 52 countries, reaching more than 600,000 beneficiaries. This has improved access to water, addressed inequality, saved time and opened up opportunities for communities. 

In an interview with FairPlanet, Hippo Roller's founder, Grant Gibbs, and Creative Director, Warrick Gibbs, talked about how their model works and the role of innovative solutions in addressing water issues globally.

FairPlanet: Tell us about Hippo Roller and the inspiration behind the project?

Hippo Roller: The inspiration came from two South African designers who were working on weaponry. They were raised in a farming environment and experienced the problem of women and children carrying heavy buckets of water on their heads for long distances. As engineers, they developed a technology dubbed 'aqua rollers' to tackle the challenge of back pains for women and children and address the long time it took them to find water and bring it home. This was in the early 90s. 

Grant Gibbs, the founder of Hippo Roller, saw a news article about the aqua rollers. He was looking for something that would have valuable impact on the world around him. He contacted the engineers to see how he could get involved in trying to get the solution out there and promote it.

That is how Hippo Roller was born. For over 30 years now it has developed into a social enterprise. We manufacture the hippo rollers, but we are also expanding into other areas where we want to focus our fundraising efforts, as this has become one of our greatest challenges since inception of Hippo Roller.

The product is not designed to be affordable, but to be durable. However, the people who need it cannot afford it at such high prices. We are therefore looking at how we can bridge the gap between the beneficiaries and the sponsors. We would like to distribute more Hippo Rollers across the world.

What specific issues regarding water did you identify and how have you sought to address them?

About 30 percent of the world population lacks access to safely managed and readily available drinking water. This means that 2.2 billion people globally do not have safe water on tap in their homes. What this means is that those people are walking somewhere to go fetch water and bring it to their homes and these are the people we are targeting with our project.

In Sub Saharan Africa, an average household has seven people. When hippo rollers are distributed to specific communities, they are given to households that might have the greatest need, such as those with a disabled member, child-run homes or those far away from water points. So far, we have reached more than 600,000 direct beneficiaries. 

Water on wheels 

How exactly do Hippo Rollers work and what makes them unique?

The standard Hippo Rollers that we manufacture can accommodate 90 litres of water and are designed to last at least five to seven years. 

The materials used to make them are carefully selected to make sure that the innovation is strong, durable and able to withstand the frequent use. It also requires low to no maintenance. The large drum is manufactured from a flexible and UV stabilised polyethylene substance that has a suitable wall thickness to withstand the harsh and rocky terrain. The material and design of the rollers can take on rocks and sand that it runs over. The sand granules get embedded into the plastic rolling surface and create an additional protective layer - sand rolling on sand.

We used to make the handle with galvanised steel, but over time in some areas, especially coastal, we noticed they were being corroded. We moved to stainless steel handles that are fitted with protecting bearings.

These bearings are one of the most critical components in the Hippo Roller. Without them, the steel would wear through the drum and make holes at the pivot points, which would cause the Hippo Roller to lose much water. 

The large opening allows the operator to clean the interior of the drum but is small enough to protect small children from falling in. We have to consider all possibilities. 

The engineers were clever in coming up with ways of putting water into a 90-litre container and transporting it easily. The wheel is the most expensive part of the innovation. It becomes the container holding on the weight, which is then rolled along the ground.

The 90 litres is evenly distributed across the wide rolling surface. We have done measurements to test what kind of force is required to move the 90 litres drum and it works out to 10 kilogrammes on the level ground. 

The positive impact we have had on communities has increased every time a roller is distributed. It is not limited to a one-off impact. Immediately, a beneficiary receives the Hippo Roller they start saving time and energy.

'a drop in the ocean'

How exactly do you work with the beneficiaries?

We do not sell the solutions to beneficiaries directly. The way we see it, there is a responsibility on government, corporates, NGOs and faith-based organisations to support these people, because water inequality is a harsh reality and it is not improving quickly enough.

We are predominantly reliant on sponsors, donors and governments to purchase these rollers on behalf of the beneficiaries and partner with local NGOs who then identify them.

We have also been building a database of water stressed communities who need the most help. We do this to help donors who want to assist but don’t know who to give the rollers to. That, however, is a drop in the ocean in terms of the need for this appropriate technology.

What have been the significant breakthroughs since you rolled out the innovation?

That would be the reach that we have. We have distributed the products in 52 countries and every community that these Hippo Rollers go to have a unique situation and impact of its own.

What challenges have you faced with the intervention and how have you tackled them?

Besides sourcing funding, another key challenge is affordability. The cost of manufacturing a roller and the cost of distribution, especially out of the country, are the bulk of our expenses. It takes a lot of time to manufacture one drum. It is difficult to manage the cost of our manufacturing while providing as much durability as possible. We have to strike a delicate balance between affordability and durability for our beneficiaries. 

Some of the solutions we have come up with to address these challenges include shipping in bulk, which brings down the cost drastically. We are also pursuing local production of the drum components to maintain control of the quality and standards by manufacturing the roller closer to the location where they will ultimately be shipped to.

innovation is crucial, but not enough 

What, in your opinion, is the role of innovation in addressing water issues in Africa and globally?

The global water issues are out of control. There is not going to be any one solution that will help us out of this situation. It will require a change in behaviour and education on taming water wastage.

Innovations will only work if the global community understands why we are where we are and why we need these innovations.

What future plans do you have with the initiative?

We want to start local manufacturing of rollers in various countries. This will add more skills, create jobs and reduce the 'landed cost' of the solution. Hippo Roller has been a standalone solution for 30 years. We now want to expand and are looking at other exciting solutions that improve access and quality of water including treatment and reticulation.

We are creating a portal for training using GIS mapping targeted at elementary schools. This will allow students to learn vital lessons about water, such as where does it come from and how do people use it. With that information, they will be tasked with the responsibility of raising funds to give Hippo Rollers to needy communities.

Through an interactive map, the schools will be able to see where the hippo rollers have gone and learn about the unique stories of the beneficiaries. The portal will also allow anyone who wants to be involved to create and run campaigns around water access.

We are also starting a 450 club to put 450 Hippo Rollers in a shipping container that will then be distributed globally. For this initiative, which is expected to go live very soon, we are looking for sponsors and partners to join us.

Image by Hippo Roller. 

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
South Africa
A standard Hippo Roller can accommodate 90 litres of water and is designed to last at least five to seven years. 
A standard Hippo Roller can accommodate 90 litres of water and is designed to last at least five to seven years. 
© Hippo Roller
\'The positive impact we have had on communities has increased every time a roller is distributed.\'
"The positive impact we have had on communities has increased every time a roller is distributed."
© Hippo Roller
\'Innovations will only work if the global community understands why we are where we are and why we need these innovations.\'
"Innovations will only work if the global community understands why we are where we are and why we need these innovations."
© Hippo Roller
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