“I can sell that!”

Trevor Field, founder of Roundabout Outdoor

“I can sell that,” were the first words of Trevor Field when he struck eyes on an ingenious water pump solution which he now uses to bring fresh water to thousands of communities across Africa. Never more animated than when his pitter-patter is in full swing, Trevor is a thoroughbred salesman who has proven that a sales mentality can accelerate social change.

A born-Brummie with a thick South African twang, Trevor fondly recalls coming to South Africa in his “headbanger years” when he was concerned with little more than “having a bloody good time and earning damn good money.” Building on his experience selling hi-fi’s and washing machines as a teenager, Trevor picked up a job in South Africa selling advertising space and thirty years later, even though he’s now a charity man, he still calls himself “an advertising boy.”

Ever the die-hard lad, it’s no surprise that Trevor’s first revelation about the plight of water shortages in Africa came when on a boys’ fishing trip to the bush. Trevor told us how, “in a car loaded with 300 beers and a loaf of bread,” he and his mates drove past a windmill which pumped water into a concrete reservoir. Trevor was struck by the eight African women standing in line with their water containers waiting for the wind to blow. But it was on his way back from the bush, when the same eight women were still stood waiting that he really got thinking about how ridiculous this was.

Then, by absolute chance, a few weeks later Trevor met Ronny, a borehole driller with an innovative vision for changing the way that rural communities access water. The two met at a convention which Trevor was reluctantly dragged along to in order to keep his father-in-law amused. However, Ronny was there with a definite purpose, to showcase his ‘Play Pump System’ – an invention he had dreamt up after years of working on drilling projects in the bush.

The Play Pump does what it says on the tin. Kids razz around on a playground-style roundabout which doubles up as a pump, retrieving water from a 50 metre-deep borehole below them. The water then passes through a filtering system and flows into a giant container mounted on a tower.  A hand-operated tap is plumbed in below the tower and, hey presto, the kids’ energy gets converted into a free, clean water source for the whole community. To put in context how important this is, the United Nations estimate that 40% of people in Africa live in water-deprived areas.[1]

When Trevor saw Ronny’s mock up model of the Play Pump, he was infatuated by its brilliance. But he wasn’t just excited by the idea of helping the women he’d seen stood waiting for the wind. Trevor’s sales sensor pictured billboards on every water tower advertising Colgate, Vodacom, Sunlight Soap and other consumer products to communities who didn’t yet have exposure to mass-marketing campaigns.

He persuaded Ronny to sell him the exclusive rights to the Play Pump solution and set about trying to prove his concept. He convinced the Government Department of Water Affairs to drill him a couple of holes and set up a two pump trial in Kwa Zulu Natal, a rural area eight hours drive out of Johannesburg. Although Trevor was willing to take whatever opportunity he could get, he chose this location because it had all the contributing factors for success: water was scarce but kids and potential consumers were not.

To his delight, Trevor proved that not only were the pumps hugely popular, but that advertising Sasco (a new brand of bread) on the tower billboard brought the sales figures of Blue Ribband (a competitor bread brand with no advertising) down by 78%. This gave him the confidence that he could attract enough advertising revenue to pay for the installation and maintenance of these life-saving water pumps, whilst hopefully turning a little profit on top.

So at the tender age of 45, Trevor took the leap. He quit his conventional lifestyle and set up a company called Roundabout Outdoor with a business partner. Together they quickly attracted serious interest. When they presented their business plan to a forward-thinking outdoor advertising agency, the agency offered to buy half the company, convinced that their own clients would snap up this opportunity to get access to new audiences. True to Trevor’s original vision, the sale of advertising space on the water towers has been a success.

A bright yellow billboard advertising Sunlight Soap shone out like a beacon above the trees at the Play Pump we visited. However, when we tell you that the majority of Play Pumps are installed in school playgrounds, an ethical advertising debate kicks off. Like it or not, this is one of the most logical places for Play Pumps to be fitted; a place where kids and communities convene. Most of the advertising is not aimed at children but at their parents. However Trevor hasn’t ruled out advertising products which appeal to a young audience. He candidly admitted, for example, that he would advertise Coca Cola if only he could convince them to get involved.

Before you make your judgements, there’s more to know about other areas of Roundabout Outdoor’s approach. The organisation put concerted efforts into planning the best place for the pumps and work hand-in-hand with local communities to help them understand what’s coming.  Trevor is also very mindful about maintenance, something which some organisations building water pumps and wells fall down on. If a pump needs repair anyone can report the issue by following the simple instructions mounted on a sign next to the water tower. They just text the pump number to Roundabout Outdoor HQ who will in turn send out a local self-employed engineer to inspect the issue and make repairs. This not only means that pumps are kept in working order but helps to keep costs low by utilising local labour.

On top of the provision of safe drinking water, Trevor also gives away 50% of the advertising space on every tower to socially responsible messaging. As we approached another  of Trevor’s pumps, the HIV prevention signs were the very first thing we spotted. The ingenuity of this two-in-one solution (clean accessible water and relevant health messaging) has captured the interest of international donors ever since it was launched and Trevor has none other than Nelson Mandela to thank for that. Trevor tactically installed a Play Pump at a new school due to be opened by Mandela, and then used this as a magnificent PR opportunity. He rallied camera crews from around the world and secured himself 13 hours of international TV coverage.

Trevor had no idea that this PR drive would grab quite this much attention around the globe. Still a novice in the charity world, until then he had failed to grasp that if you have an awesome project, people will be willing to give you money for free. “People started sending money to pay for the things,” Trevor told us with amusement.  He let out a snort of laughter and added, “Nelson touched the pump and turned it to gold!”

With relative ease Play Pumps attracted the kind of funders most organisations would lose a leg for. And what’s more, the funders came to him. He received a personal call from one US foundation offering him £500,000 and was offered an exclusive deal with One Water[2] (a UK-based social enterprise) where profits from their sales of bottled water would pay for more Play Pumps. With a never-say-never attitude, Trevor didn’t even think to negotiate. “Give me some money and I’ll do anything they like,” he joked.  Two pumps quickly multiplied into 200, which has since multiplied into 2000 across South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi, Swaziland, Lesotho and Zambia.

These donations have been crucial because Trevor’s original business model, whereby the advertising revenue paid for all operating costs, has turned out to be unsustainable. This is partly because there are two disconnected demands at play – the need to provide a clean water supply and the need to sell desirable advertising space. When you map these two requirements on top of one another, the locations don’t always marry up. Trevor maintained that providing water to those most in need was always the priority of Roundabout Outdoor and, as such, there are many pumps where advertising boards don’t feature.

However, we did visit one pump which made us wonder whether the priorities always fall in this order. It was right next to a major cross road on a busy highway – clearly a prime location for advertising space but definitely not a place where communities would come to collect water. Trevor insisted this was a one-off, a pump they placed in the early days. Whatever way you look at it, income from this tower will pay for others in a more worthy location, but marrying business imperatives with social concerns is clearly not always a straightforward game.

Like most social enterprises with a commercial angle, Trevor has now set us his organisation following a hybrid model. He has a charity which receives donor funds and pays all the costs of installing the Play Pumps. Running alongside it, he has a Public Benefit Organisation[3] which looks after all the advertising revenue and ring fences some of the profits to pay for the ongoing maintenance of the pumps. Despite using his operation being above board, Trevor still attracts controversy. A handful of international NGOs just can’t get their heads around the Play Pump approach claiming that the model promotes child labour and profiteering from poverty.

But Trevor isn’t phased by this criticism and nor were we. Play Pumps has achieved something that others in the sector should find enviable and it’s no wonder that Trevor fought off 1500 contenders to win the prestigious World Bank Development Market Place Competition[4] in 2000. Many in the social sector find ‘sales’ a dirty word but Trevor’s sales-focused philosophy is undoubtedly the key contributing factor in Play Pumps’ unstoppable success. “They want us to go everywhere,” Trevor told us.

After a day with Trevor we were left feeling pretty convinced that his love affair with selling advertising outweighed his passion for fighting global issues.  But we were also left wondering whether it matters if the cause doesn’t come first. For some people interested in charity work, their ‘calling’ isn’t clear and there isn’t an immediate cause which stands out. This might feel significant but believe us, it’s not. Great skills, be it sales or something else, are always in demand and whilst it’s important to be able to identify with your cause, too much emotion can be blinding. If you’re able to be an objective voice in an emotionally charged sector, you’re likely to bring clear cut thinking which might just save the day.

For more info visit:

Roundabout Outdoor: www.roundabout.co.za or www.playpumps.co.za

[1] United Nations, The Millennium Development Goals Report (2010)

Copyright © Nikki and Rob Wilson 2011