Every day, women and children spend more than 200 million hours collecting and carrying water for basic household needs. According to consultancyafrica.com, the number of Africans who do not have access to clean water equals the total population of the US and Russia combined.

A typical five-gallon bucket of water represents the same weight as your luggage allowance when you fly on a plane. Imagine carrying that on your head over rough terrain for miles just to have water you need for the day. People who must do this on a daily basis have been known to suffer spinal and neck injuries as a result.

In 1991, two South African engineers, Pettie Petzer and Johan Jonker, devised a solution. Known as the Hippo Roller for its round shape and tough skin, their product makes it possible to collect and transport 24 gallons of water – nearly five times as much -- in considerably less time, with much less effort and strain.

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Project manager Grant Gibbs explains:

“[They] were working in the arms industry and used their talents to develop a better way of transporting water over long distances. Growing up in a farming community, they saw the need for this. While developing a wheelbarrow with a low center of gravity, it was found that the most expensive component was the wheel. With some lateral thinking the idea was born to put the water "in" the wheel. The Hippo Water Roller, formally known as the "Aqua Roller", was designed in 1991 and received its first design award in 1992 from the SABS Design Institute of South Africa.”

Their work on this project won the "Design for Development Award" by the South African Bureau of Standards and its Design Institute in 1997, and has been widely covered in years since, so you may have heard of it or seen it before.

Hippo Rollers are in use in more than 21 countries in Africa today, changing life dramatically for more than 300,000 so far, and production plans for South America and India are in the works. With just three components -- the barrel, screw-on lid, and steel handle – the design is strikingly simple. But its simplicity is really its genius: every particularity of the form works together for optimal function, from the big size of the lid to the rounded bottom with a flat surface. The Hippo is easy to pour into without wasting precious water, easy to clean, easy to stand up or tip on its side when full if desired, but sturdy and stable on its own.

To keep the product maintenance-free they’ve done away with the rubber o-ring that provided the airtight seal on earlier models. Now there is a rounded edge on the screw-on lid, which presses against a 45-degree angle on the container, engaging a very deep thread to accommodate wear caused by sand and dirt. So the cap “wears in” to a tight seal without requiring spare parts. It makes a hygienic container for all sorts of things and has been used to float dry goods down rivers and dropped from helicopters to distribute supplies and food in disaster relief situations.

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The polyethylene plastic it’s made from is so durable that even after years of daily use in rural areas, the product shows very little wear and tear. The bearings between the handle and the barrel are red and flexible for ease of use, but their resistance to abrasion is 14 times greater than steel.

Compared to that typical five-gallon bucket, the Hippo Roller actually weighs less to the person using it because the weight is born on the ground. For going up steep hills, the large handle is easily pulled by two people.

For all its simplicity, the Hippo Roller is still not affordable for those who need it most. Corporate donors, international NGOs and other sponsors fund what are called “Community Roll Outs” to deliver the rollers to the recipient communities. The locals gather, along with dignitaries and government officials, to celebrate and express gratitude through song and dance before the rollers are received.

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At one such event in August of this year, school children performed a play about the hardships of life before the Hippo, called, “No Water Today.” Some 250 rollers were handed out to their village and as a result, all those kids will have more time and energy to devote to learning. Video of this performance is one of several available to watch on the website and share through social media.

Another challenge of the project is transportation – the round shape makes for inefficient shipping. Naturally the smart people behind the Hippo Roller are turning this setback into another design opportunity. They’re currently testing a mobile manufacturing unit in Tanzania, with plans to send one to Sudan, and import the raw materials to make the rollers there. The Hippo Roller blog says shipping containers could be converted into workshops, storage, and staff quarters so the site can grow as more containers arrive.

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The current goal is to reduce the one billion people in the world without access to clean water by one percent, or 10 million. Numbers like those bring the great need for social design into sharp relief: so much good is happening, but there is much, much more to be done.

The Hippo Roller is evidence that simple ideas can have tremendous impact. Promoting projects is easier than ever before and key to any design’s success. There are so many roles to play, everyone can participate. How do you want contribute?

Posted December 21, 2012