With the Hippo Roller, a revolution in fetching water rolls on

Design: Didier Kassaï for Heidi.news

Carrying 60 litres of water over your head or under your arms, every day, in three round trips: this is the daily routine of three out of ten people. To lighten this burden, Pettie Petzer and Johan Jonker, two South African engineers, invented the Hippo Roller, a huge plastic drum that brings all the water back in one trip by rolling it.

This article was originally published in French on Heidi.news. It is the seventh episode of an exploration entitled "11 African Solutions for the Future World".

The machine is of utmost simplicity: a plastic can is placed on its side for it to roll, held by two steel arms that join together to form a handle. Called "Hippo Roller", this large blue drum is capable of taking in 90 litres of water. In Taweni, a small village in the southeast of South Africa, it has revolutionised the daily life of Khaya Mposula.

Previously, this 51-year-old woman had to walk six kilometres each day in three round trips to fetch water from the unhealthy stream bordering her village. She tells her story:

"Now I can bring much more water home, effortlessly and in a single trip. It used to be a 20-litre bucket on my head!"

Fetching water took up her time with more than three hours a day. With her Hippo Roller, she got two of them back.

In Africa, it is often women and children who are responsible for fetching water. "Having more water more quickly improves their quality of life: children can go to school without being late, hygiene is better, and parents have more time to irrigate their crops. The time freed up gives people the opportunity to become self-sufficient and break out of the cycle of poverty," says Grant Gibbs, Hippo Roller's managing director.

Read the article in French: Avec l'Hippo Roller, la révolution de la corvée de l'eau est en marche

Only a quarter of Sub-Saharan Africa have access to safe drinking water

The challenge of access to water remains immense worldwide. In 2015, three out of ten people still did not have access to safe drinking water services, according to the United Nations. Sub-Saharan Africa is the worst-off region, with barely a quarter of the population having access to safely managed drinking water.

Around the world, like Khaya Mposula, 263 million earthlings are still forced to walk more than 30 minutes each day to fetch water, whether clean or dirty. The most vulnerable are rural people.

In the 1980s, Pettie Petzer and Johan Jonker had seen this with dismay when the two South African military engineers were transferred to the bush. During their mission, the two men watched the local women farmers go back and forth, sometimes with their spines bent under the weight of their buckets of water. "They wanted to find a solution to help them. They started by designing a wheelbarrow with a low centre of gravity, to be able to carry larger quantities of water. When they saw that the wheel was the most complicated and expensive element to develop, they had their Eureka moment with the idea of putting water inside it," says Grant Gibbs, who has since taken over the reins of the company. In 1991, the Hippo Roller was born.

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Time is money

According to the boss, carrying 90 litres of water in the Hippo Roller is like towing a ten-kilo load on flat ground. That's the weight of half a bucket! Its creators define their drum as big and robust as a hippopotamus. So much for the marketing pitch. In the field, the machine is indeed solid: five to seven years of service life, "even ten," adds Grant Gibbs. In a crash test, the canister was dragged in the bush behind a 4X4 launched at over 50 km/h. It survived.

However, it is not very well suited to steep terrain. Khaya Mposula:

"Next to the stream, there is a valley. It is difficult to push the Hippo Roller all the way up. I leave it halfway up and empty it a little with buckets, all the way home."

The rolling still saved her precious time, which she used to expand her crops and earn a better living.

Rainbow carrots, maize, sunflowers, beans, cauliflower and kale: Khaya Mposula now has five hectares of well-stocked land and a lot of plans. "I'm going to set up a seed bank to keep growing more crops without having to spend money," she enthuses. Irrigation of her fields is also no longer a burden. She can now walk through them effortlessly with her Hippo Roller.

Nelson Mandela and the Hippo Roller

Since its creation, the blue drum has had its hour of glory. In 2000, Nelson Mandela himself posed in front of the cameras with a Hippo Roller, during a meeting with Grant Gibbs. Thrilled by this innovation, the former South African president appealed to corporations and foundations to fund this "national project" which, in Madiba's words, "will positively change the lives of millions of people." Even today, foundations, companies and administrations are Hippo Roller's main clients. They then provide them to the rural population, for whom the price of the jerrycan is a major obstacle: $125 per unit.

"The Hippo Roller is too expensive for these people, who live below the poverty line," says Grant Gibbs. But the boss has come up with an idea to bring down the selling price: decentralise production to the countries that make the largest orders and thus bring down delivery costs. Since its creation, the South African roller can has come a long way. 60,000 Hippo Rollers have been shipped to 51 countries in Africa, but also to Papua New Guinea, Romania and the Marshall Islands.

Didier Kassaï is a self-taught illustrator, watercolorist and cartoonist, born in 1974 in the Central African Republic. His first comic book, L'Odyssée de Mongou, was published by l'Harmattan BD in 2014. The following year he published Tempête sur Bangui, in two volumes La Boîte à Bulles. For this series on African solutions, he created eleven original illustrations for Heidi.news.