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Local man works to make life easier for South African women with the hippo roller

In some parts of the world, getting water is a multi-hour task.
A South African woman takes her new hippo roller and gardening supplies home with her. (Photo submitted)


In North America, getting it is as simple as turning a tap. Whether you need it for cleaning, cooking or drinking, it’s there.

In some parts of the world like South Africa, however, getting water is a multi-hour task. Women and young girls will trek to wells, sometimes for hours, to fill up 10-litre buckets they carry on their heads back to their homes. Often, they need to make the trip multiple times a day.

It’s a dynamic that 108 Mile Ranch resident Luke Vorstermans is looking to change by promoting the South African innovation, the hippo roller.

“This little innovation was developed in 1991 by two South African engineers who had a government grant. The grant money ran out and they left the project to Grant Gibbs, who has been nursing this little innovation along for 30 years,” Vorstermans said. “It’s been sitting in obscurity and I saw it and said ‘I’m going to bring this to the market.’”

Vorstermans, who worked as the publisher for the 100 Mile Free Press in the 1980s, has visited South Africa many times over the last few decades. While there, he gained an understanding of the struggle rural and underserved South African women go through every day to get water. That’s why, when he discovered the hippo roller online, he was shocked it was not a widely used tool.

A hippo roller has a simple design with no moving parts. The primary body is made up of a 24-gallon drum with a metal handle attached and a single large cap that’s big enough to fit your hand in but not big enough for a baby to climb into. Vorstermans explained the drum is designed to be easy to push and pull, even when filled with water.

“It’s one piece with no welds or seams so it’s very durable and doesn’t crack,” he said, adding it gets the hippo name for being big, fat and durable.

Vorstermans said that since the hippo roller was developed, only 65,000 have been manufactured. While that may sound like a lot that works out to only around 2,000 a year. Vorstermans estimates there are at least 750,000 women in underserved South African communities whose lives could be dramatically improved with access to a hippo roller, not to mention people in other countries.

“When you get over there and see the amount of time being spent getting something that North Americans get with the flip of a tap (its insane). They can spend six or seven hours a day just walking, carrying water back and forth,” Vorstermans said. “With one of these, we could increase the amount of water they’re moving to their homes by a factor of five and they can do it easier, faster and more efficiently.”

After befriending the manufacturer, who is based in Johannesburg, Vorstermans and his partner Linda Ryan decided to make promoting and distributing hippo rollers their full-time job. The two founded the Roll a Hippo Foundation in 2014, first as a non-profit and later as a charity and began to raise money for the effort, receiving a quarter of a million dollars from the Canadian Government to get them off the ground.

The first time they distributed 600 hippo rollers, which usually cost $125 each, Vorstermans said they just put out flyers and were amazed by the response they got. Hundreds of people turned up which he said illustrated the need.

“The moment people see it they say ‘I want one’ and that’s what happened to us in South Africa when we got our project going.”

Over the last five years, Vorstermans said they’ve refined the distribution process. Now they select women who will receive a hippo roller in advance and provide them with garden tools, wash cloths and soap. The idea behind the gardening tools, Vorstermans added, is to encourage sustainability and give women ideas about what they can do with their newfound free time.

To help promote the roller and educate people, Vorstermans helped edit a storybook put together by Iris Canham, one of the South African team members. Called Thokozile Had a Dream, the book is targeted at little girls and their grandmothers. It tells the story of Thokozile receiving a hippo roller and how the device improves her life.

In marginalized South African communities, he said it’s common for mothers to take jobs in the cities, leaving their daughters to be raised by their grandmothers or gogos. As a result, young girls are often the ones collecting water so the hippo roller stands to directly benefit them.

“We see it as a way to introduce the hippo roller to the generation where the whole cycle starts, particularly for girls. The little kids will take these booklets home and get it into the hands of the gogo,” Vorstermans explained. “They’ll be the one doing the gardening while the little girl gets (all the water they need for a day) and still make it to school on time.”

Vorstermans said the Roll A Hippo Foundation is focused primarily on Ladysmith, South Africa a city of 80,000. Surrounding it is around 20 underserved satellite communities that his organization is hoping to reach. They’re already on track to distribute 2,000 rollers by the end of the year, and he welcomes people to check out the Roll A Hippo website for information on how to donate.

“I want to be the guy, the Canadian, that basically took this little innovation that was developed in South Africa and put it into the global spotlight.”

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Several women celebrate picking up their new hippo roller and gardening kit in South Africa. (Photo submitted)
Women with hippo rollers make their way home. (Photo submitted)
South African school children play with some hippo rollers. (Photo submitted)
Luke Vorstermans (left) poses for a photo with Khaya Mposula and her hippo roller along with his partner Linda Ryan while visiting South Africa. (Photo submitted)
A dozen hippo rollers sit on the ground waiting to be delivered to their new owners. (Photo submitted)

Patrick Davies

About the Author: Patrick Davies

An avid lover of theatre, media, and the arts in all its forms, I've enjoyed building my professional reputation in 100 Mile House.
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