"The Zimbabwe Bush Pump" by Marianne de Laet and Annemarie Molaet

First off, I just want to say it was very inspiring to see how enthusiastic Marianne and Annemarie were about such a cool and simple design. My favorite line was “For we happen to like, no, even better, to love the Zimbabwe Bush Pump in all of its many variants” (de Laet and Mol). They are passionate about a design that helps give clean drinking water to villages in Africa. How could you not be excited about that?

My second point came to me when the two of them were discussing what they considered what should be included in the Zimbabwe Bush Pump. I believe this is where 90% of all sustainable design failures occur. The first thought of most designers is build to fill a need. They need clean water? Build them a pump and lets move on. This, on paper, makes sense. However, the connection to the community is what drives success. de Laet and Mol included the community in their identity of the pump. In this way, future problems can be fixed by the community since they were an integral part of the production process. The quote “it takes a village” is extremely true for implementing sustainable design in developing countries.


After reading this article, I’m ready to jump on the bush pump bandwagon. I couldn’t help but start to love it. One of the many things I love about it is its reparability. Dr. Morgan designed it with sustainability in mind. The repairs can be done by community members with all sorts of odd items.

I am wary, however, of just how amazing it seems. The article doesn’t offer any criticism or possible points of improvement. Is it just that perfect, or do these love struck authors have some blindspots?


I too felt this way and was particularly concerned by how the authors claim this pump “makes no claims to heroic actorship,” i.e not being designed by a single person, but an evolving design product with contributions from many different people. While I understand the appeal of this from a sustainability perspective, I question as to how practical this is from the standpoint of reliability and maintenance. It stands to me as sort of the antithesis of Steve Jobs’ vision for Apple - that technology should be reduced to its most essential components in order to reach the largest number of users ( the consequence of this is constraining individual users from customizing products to their needs). So I decided to do some digging…

From a case study, it does indeed seem like these pumps break and have parts that are difficult to acquire/replace (perhaps this is an unintended consequence of the B-pump not being invented by one human actor).

Nkayi is located in the hydrological region four and five of Zim- babwe that is characterised by low (annual rainfall less than 450 mm). Temperatures are very high during the dry seasons thus 450 mm). Temperatures are very high during the dry seasons thus surface water evaporates quickly. The water points are deep, with an average depth of 45 m and the water table at around 28 m. The water sources are mainly boreholes that were mechanically drilled, and are equipped with the lifting device called a B-Type bush pump. Despite availability of modern technology, Nkayi had continued to experience acute water shortages, due to pump breakdowns.
One major difficulty for the people in ward 12 in Nkayi was to secure funds for spare parts for minor breakdowns. They also faced challenges to meet transport costs for the mechanic to travel from the ward to the district DDF offices to collect the spare parts to repair their water points once they break down. It is this dilemma that NGOs such as Practical Action have realised and assisted Nkayi community by rehabilitating and donating some materials for water points’ major repairs. However, this has already been a tem- porary solution, as NGOs can leave at anytime. It is perhaps this thinking, which necessitated Nkayi people to introduce local techniques of maintaining and managing their water points in a sustainable manner.

Also (slightly unrelated), while reading this I thought about Bill Gates and his effort to create a system that manages waste and sewage, while also creating clean water and electricity. I thought I’d share it in case others have not seen it.


Thank you for this info Alvin! It gives a lot to think about. I am curious which version of the Bush Pumps this paper is referencing – as the de Lait and Mol paper mentions that more recent (or, recent as of 2000) pump designs are being built for repair without specialized tools or parts. Honestly though, I see the bush pump as almost an extension of Steve Jobs’s design theory: it emphasizes ease of use and possibility for widespread implementation, but by leaving the design open for anyone to iterate on, the design can be simplified and modified to best suit the needs of the user.

A side note is that this design philosophy is super interesting to me when compared with the phases of traditional engineering design that I have learned in other courses. We are normally told to start with user research, move on to defining the problem, find a solution, then prototyping and iterating the prototype with feedback until you have a workable product. However, what makes the bush pump so successful is its break from this traditional, ends-focused design process. They appear to begin the process the same way, moving through user research, prototyping, user testing, and iteration, they have removed the final step of releasing a product out to the world – because it already exists in the world in previous forms, and will continue to exist in future forms. It reminds me of Olmstead’s dialectic: the product is not static, it changes throughout time, and we must design with the knowledge that we are not designing an object, but contributing to creation of a changing and evolving entity.