John Eastman interviews Trevor Field, the founder of PlayPumps International. They discuss many facets of the PlayPumps International projects as well as the daily life and difficulties of the average South African. Trevor Field elaborates on the catalyst for developing the system, the rewarding aspects of his work, and the partnerships that he has forged with supporters, including former AOL CEO Steve Case.
If you look at rural African schools, they haven’t got swing sets and the kind of playground equipment that European and American kids have got.
You saw a version of the roundabout at an agriculture fair in Johannesburg. Why were you drawn to it? What made you want to do this?
FIELD: Well, what I saw at the agricultural fair was actually a model of a roundabout. And it was a working model built very small, perhaps at a tenth scale. I just thought it was a really cute idea. I had seen 100 people battling to obtain water in various parts of the country. And I just thought it was a really good idea in a very simple way, and an environmental friendly way of providing water to people. If you look at rural African schools, they haven’t got swing sets and the kind of playground equipment that European and American kids have got. So it was like killing two birds – or, since then, about six birds – with one stone. That’s what turned me on to it pursue it.
Were you looking for a project? Or did it come to you to work like this once you saw the model?
FIELD: No. I’m a keen fisherman. Often would get out to the coast to a place they call Transky, which is on the east coast of South Africa. It’s called the “Wild Coast” because it’s called the – it’s wild, you know. It’s hard to get to. You need a four-wheel drive car and that’s why the fishing’s good. It’s difficult to get to. I think I went down there for a boy’s fishing weekend, and I observed some ladies standing next to a windmill waiting for the wind to blow, because the concrete reservoir at the bottom of the windmill was cracked and broken. And it wouldn’t hold water. And we were there for a couple days. And when we came back and these ladies were still there waiting for the wind to blow. And I thought, “that’s quite pathetic.”
So I had this notion in my mind of trying to come up with the idea of a sort of starter handle, like you get on an old motorcar, so you can turn the windmill when there was no wind. But that didn’t work because you’re going the wrong way for a gearbox. So, yes, I was looking for a solution. And I just stumbled across one.
Once you had the idea and were looking at reengineering and redesigning, did you build an initial prototype?
FIELD: Yes. The guy who came up with the idea and I set about designing it and redesigning it. I’m not an engineer at all, but he came up with a couple of designs. And the first one that he came up with worked on an Archimedes’ screw principle. That only goes in one direction. And so the kids showed a resistance and wanted to go both ways. They all went the other way, the kids pumping water. So he had to come up with a method to get this thing to work in both directions, which is what he did, eventually. And we – my company, Roundabout Outdoor, bought pipe from him, and we reinstate it a half a dozen times since then. It’s going to be an export-quality product that we can leave in a very rural community. And it won’t tear or break down. And it won’t get damaged, ’cause it’s very, very strong and robust. We have trademarks in every country where we believe it will be used in the world.
Okay. As good of a cause as this is… what your organization is accomplishing, do you have competition at this point? Has competition emerged?
FIELD: Yeah. We’ve had an outfit copied our system completely in South Africa. And we informed them they were infringing on our intellectual property via our patent attorney. We do know that the system has been duplicated in India. We don’t know how effective it is. But I’ve looked at their designs, and without being slanderous to them, I can tell you that from what I’ve seen on the drawing board, they should not put in the field. It’s not going to last far with this. It’s just the wrong thing.
Do you know the companies who you feel infringed upon your patent and copied your product? Are they for-profit or are they a nonprofit like your organization?
FIELD: No. They’re a for-profit.
Your product works by extracting water from the ground with pumps powered by children playing on the roundabout, or the merry-go-round, and you subsequently sanitize the water and store it in towers. Have you looked at, or has the thought come up for using this type of solution to solve other types of problems in similar environments, as in the sub-Saharan area?
FIELD: Yes. Well, we won the World Bank Development Marketplace competition in February 2000, in Washington, D.C. We were the highest-scoring division in the event competition was the replicability of the system. You know, we can take this system we’ve got here in our factory in Johannesburg, put in a 747 and fly it into your backyard, so to speak. Actually, if we find a borehole that has a sufficient quantity of water and quality of water, even I could bop this thing together and it would work exactly the same in your backyard as it works in South Africa, or it would do the same in India or China or anywhere else. Obviously, it won’t work in the Artic Circle or in the desert it would be so hot, you know, you wouldn’t be able to touch it. But in fairly temperate climates it’ll work anywhere.
Before you founded PlayPumps your career was in advertising. How do you compare the two in terms of personal satisfaction? Is what you’re doing now as rewarding, more rewarding? Can you speak to that for a bit?
FIELD: Sure. I mean on a personal satisfaction level, I believe what I am doing now is a lot more satisfying. I can sleep at night. It really rocks me to know we’re making a difference to a lot of people who are nowhere near as privileged as I am or my family is. But when I was in advertising, I worked for Penthouse Magazine. That was a lot of fun, too, and quite satisfying.
Kept you up at night, huh?
FIELD: Oh yeah.
How many people are involved in the Johannesburg operation?
FIELD: In our offices here, we’ve got about 14 people who organize database and computer systems. And at the factory we’ve got about 35 people involved in the factory manufacturing the product. And then we’ve got all of the installation crews, who are contractors in the various provinces and countries where we install. So, all in all, this probably – we’re close to a hundred, I would guess, in total.
Are the majority of those people from the area?
FIELD: Yes. Everybody at the factory works and lives in the area. Everybody here lives in Johannesburg. And all of the contractors who install and repair my timing equipment live in those provinces. You know, it’s ridiculous for us to drive to very far to go fix a leaking crack. We’ve got a Durban crew that lives there and they do all these fixes and do maintenance in that particular territory.
That’s great. I read that in September of last year, 2007, Dale Jones joined the company as the Chief Executive Officer. Tell me, how did you come to know him? What impact will he have? Why was he chosen to be the CEO?
FIELD: Well, Dale is – I don’t know a great deal about his background, but I do know that he was one of the most influential people for one the biggest recruitment agencies in the States. And Steve and Jean Case were looking for someone to head up the operation in the US, that type of international Washington. And they called him up, and he thought that they wanting him to find somebody, when in fact, they were wanting him, personally. That’s how I got to know him. I think he’s going to have a fantastic impact because he’s very well connected. He’s particularly articulate. And because he’s a gentleman and now a good friend of mine now. So I think that why he was chosen to run the company because he’s just such a nice people’s person.