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These ATMs In Kenya Dispense Clean Water Instead Of Cash

A Danish engineering firm has developed a clever way to distribute water in developing countries while collecting revenue for the community.

When Danish engineering firm Grundfos started researching the best ways to distribute water in Nairobi, Kenya, they found that access to clean water wasn’t the problem. In most communities, people could go to central spigots and pay a fee for access to groundwater that’s both drinkable and readily available.

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The real issue, it turned out, was collecting the money to put it back into the water purification process. “The man opening and closing the valve does it for a price,” says Grundfos’s Jesper Ravn Lorenazen, “And his motivation to pass on the money to water utility is limited.”

To solve the problem of dispensing water while also creating revenue for the local community, the company developed AQtap. It’s a machine that essentially functions like an ATM for water: users get a “water card” where they can collect points, either by making a purchase from a vendor or making a payment on their phone. When they swipe their card at the machine, a simple interface will allow them to select the amount of water they want and then deduct the points from their card. A hose below the screen dispenses the selected amount of clean water.

That way, Lorenazen explains, “the money that they invested can be collected and reinvested into supplying water. And at the same time [the local government] is incentivized to keep them operational, because if it’s not operating, there’s no income.”

The project is still in its pilot stage, but being tested in Kenya, Uganda, Thailand and Nigeria. In the slums of Nairobi, where the company has worked with the local government to set up four ATMs, community members pay 3 Kenyan shillings ($0.20 USD) for a 20-liter jerry can of water.

The AQtap machines look just like a typical ATM, with a steel cabinet and a touch interface. “The physical design is characterized by robustments—we know that these will be in tough environments,” says Lorenazen. A blue water drop indicates where to slide in the blue water card, making it very intuitive for users who might not read or haven’t used an ATM before.

Besides collecting revenue, the machines can also collect data about how often they are used and how much money is being dispensed. “Most water projects in Africa are funded by water development programs or NGOs, and they need to be able to document the impact and effect on the developing world. The machines make sure we capture all data so that the funders can see the it documented,” says Lorenazen.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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