To date, Design Outreach has installed about 35 pumps in countries including Malawi, Zambia, Kenya and Ethiopia. Credit: Courtesy of Design Outreach

For years, Vickness Nyirede spent 12 hours a day walking from her village in rural Malawi to a well, where she collected rust-colored water for her family.

Around the world, there are more than 783 million people like Nyirede, who don’t have access to clean drinking water, according to a report by the United Nations.

Design Outreach, a nonprofit humanitarian engineering organization founded by Ohio State professor Greg Bixler, has addressed this problem by creating LifePump, a water pump that can provide clean drinking water to poverty-stricken villages around the world.

“Some problems in the world are not solvable, but some problems are very solvable,” said Bixler, a lecturer with the Department of Engineering Education. “And I think access to safe water that’s reliable — that’s a solvable problem. It doesn’t have to be a struggle for hundreds of millions of people.”

Bixler said he was inspired to create Design Outreach 10 years ago after traveling to Kyrgyzstan on a mission trip.

“I saw the need — the problems with poverty — people who were really suffering and who didn’t have the basics that they needed,” Bixler said. “But I also saw people who used really creative solutions to solve their problems, and I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be neat if we could come alongside those creative people, but as engineers and maybe solve problems in other areas too?’”

When he returned to the United States, Bixler began to collaborate with a small group which now has grown to 74 local engineers and 12 non-governmental organizations to address the problem of water insecurity.

“If you’re going to help a poor community, the first thing they need is water,” Bixler said. “They can have all the food in the world, they can have all the clothes, they can have the best houses, but if they don’t have water, it doesn’t matter.”

While many organizations work to provide people in developing countries with access to clean water, a significant number of the pumps distributed are low quality, Bixler said, so they break after about six months and require frequent repairs.

LifePump, however, can survive for at least five years and requires only preventive maintenance, like changing the oil in a car, Bixler said.

To date, Design Outreach has installed about 35 pumps in countries including Malawi, Zambia, Kenya and Ethiopia, although it plans to install about 40 more in the near future as part of a government pilot program in Zambia.

If the pilot program is successful, LifePump could become Zambia’s new national standard, making it the second water pump in the country to become standardized, and allowing other NGOs to install the pumps throughout the country.

“It’s essentially changing the status quo and the way things are done,” Bixler said. “And this is all happening right here in Columbus.”

While this is a major step for Design Outreach, members of the team said their ultimate goal is to make a difference in the lives of the people they touch.

“We’re not just another water organization,” said Amelia Messamore, a development coordinator for Design Outreach. “We are a group of engineers that really look for sustainable solutions for poverty.”

For Nyirede, the LifePump has been life changing. Having reliable access to water — and 12 extra hours a day — has allowed her to grow a garden with fresh vegetables and to build a new, four-room house, using the water to make clay bricks.

Next Nyirede said she plans to build a school.

“This water pump is literally giving hope and a future to thousands of kids right now,” Bixler said.

By 2030, Design Outreach hopes to reach 2.5 million people.

The Engaged Scholars logo accompanies stories that feature and examine research and teaching partnerships formed between the Ohio State University and the community (local, state, national and global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources. These stories spring from a partnership with OSU’s Office of Outreach and Engagement. The Lantern retains sole editorial control over the selection, writing and editing of these stories.