Seminar: From Technological Fixes for Water Supply to the Relationality of “Automatic Water Dispensers” – 16th March, 11:00 am by Christiane Tristl

In 2008 a multinational pump manufacturer decided to enter a new market by developing “automatic water dispensers” to be tested and installed in water kiosks in rural areas in Kenya. Problematizing that “worldwide almost 800 Million people lack access to clean water and too many water projects fail soon after the installation”, the company identified lack of ability to collect and manage revenue and lack of transparency and accountability of water service providers as the reason. The company promises to solve these problems by replacing the water kiosk attendant with a dispenser that is equipped with a touch screen, where users have to place smart cards to tap water. Furthermore the units are connected to a Water Management System (WMS) via the internet. Together with prepaid smart cards which can be recharged by mobile money, the goal is to get a cashless, closed system of revenue collection. Soon realizing that the dispensers did not earn enough revenue from the villagers in order to fulfil the vision of a fully commercial product, the company found that the device is attracting interest from other sources, namely organizations pursuing “venture philanthropy” or “philanthrocapitalism”. Here philanthropic organizations are testing “promising” solutions to find out “what works”.

Drawing on literature from Science and Technology Studies (STS) allows questioning such assumptions of technological determinism and overcoming simple narratives of “failure” and “success” of a certain technology. Instead one may argue that objects are always technical and social at the same time, and thus they are tremendously relational. By realizing that “nothing means outside of it relations (…) it makes no more sense to talk of ‘a machine’ in general than to talk about ‘a human’ in general.” (Bingham 1996, p. 644)

Drawing on fieldwork from a “slum-area” in Nairobi and villages in the Kenyan country side, the presentation will demonstrate how the outcome of the water dispenser is not determined by the (assumed) functionality of the technology itself. Instead it will demonstrate how the same technology leads to very different arrangements of people and things (Akrich 1992) in the two respective cases. It will also demonstrate how the dispensers define the relationships between all kinds of actors – be it consumers, political actors, other water sources like illegal connections or dams, electricity, money, the state, or Safaricom boosters – and how they are themselves being defined by these assemblages.


Akrich, Madeleine (1992): The De-Scription of Technical Objects. In Wiebe E. Bijker, John Law (Eds.): Shaping technology/building society. Studies in sociotechnical change. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press (Inside technology), pp. 205–224.

Bingham, Nick (1996): Object-ions: from technological determinism towards geographies of relations. In Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (14), pp. 635–657.

Christiane is a PhD candidate at Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Germany

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