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Presentation for World Water Week


I am Elizabeth Ntukai Lesale, born 25 years ago in the southern rift valley in Kenya in a small village called Eremit. If you have trouble remembering my name, just call me Maji Mama. Maji is Swahili for water, and Mama is woman.

There are many lofty quotes about “building blocks of society.” Below is a real one. This handmade brick is changing lives. How? Let me explain.

During our dry season people and animals have to go long distances to a water source. It falls on Maasai women to spend 5-8 hours a day collecting water – not to mention finding firewood, bear children, build the house and prepare food.

I kept asking myself, How can I change this? Well, together with other women we are making the impossible possible.

Since Maasai women traditionally do not own herds, we have little voice in the community. But if we run small businesses and have income, our standing changes dramatically. This little brick is key to making this happen.

Tanks are needed to capture the heavy rains that usually happen in our region in March, April and May. There is much less rain during the rest of the year and normally none December through February. That is when the long walks to fetch water take over our lives. There are other repercussions. Livestock are obliged to move closer to any available water; this, in turn, leads to over–grazing in areas with a radius of about 10km. Granted, five catchment dams were built in the 1980s, but stored water in these lasts only three or four months.

Building with compressed earth is an old concept that has received renewed interest. This actually has a more important sounding name than “little brick”. It’s Interlocking Stabilised Soil Blocks or ISSBs. I like “little brick” better, but let's be technically correct.


Once a site for a water tank has been selected, soil is dug from the foundation area and nearby. The sieved, clay-ey soil is then mixed with a small amount of cement and manually pressed into a form. Note that electricity is not needed. Upon removal from the press, each block is checked for texture and quality before being stacked to dry. After 14 days, the bricks are fully cured with no need for firewood, thereby not contributing to deforestation nor resulting mud-slides. No extensive training in masonry is needed. The press is highly portable.

We received a grant to start this initiative from an NGO by the name of – you guessed it – Mama Maji. They were collaborating with a Kenya-based charity partner MANDO, short for Matonyok Nomads Development Organization. Matonyok is a Maasai word meaning working together for success.


Maasai women making bricks.

Maasai women making brickshs


The grant covered initial training and equipment necessary to make the interlocking bricks. Curved ISSBs are used to construct water tanks and pit latrines. Formed with a sort of latch, they reduce the need for mortar while increasing strength. Once a tank is built, a sealant is applied to the inside of the tank for waterproofing. The density and strength of these blocks are comparable to concrete blocks, but they weigh half as much.

We already have three public tanks funded and under construction. Fourteen families are applying for tanks. Within a year our goal is to sell 40 tanks to families in the area and build 5-10 tanks at public locations like schools, markets and health centers. Within a year of being fully operational we expect to impact 5000 people.
Of course I couldn't do this alone.

I mobilized my community – mothers, girls, elders and moran who are young warriors. On market days I would look for women who might participate. First there were just six women. That grew to 12. We started by sharing cups, utensils and tools for agriculture and bead making. Three years ago 28 of us formed the very first group to the address the water challenges in my community. Thus, Maji Mama was born in Eremit. I was chosen as secretary because of how far I had gone in school. I am the only woman who can read and write in English, Swahili, and Maasai.

We empower ourselves by selling bricks, tanks and latrines. Women can access loans to pay for a tank for their own for their homes. For many of these women this is their first-ever loan. With the tank they can see an increase to their families' well being and a decrease in their work collecting water.

By becoming self employed, women gain standing in the community. If we own a business, men listen to what we have to say. Having our own money means we can make changes we want in our homes and community.

I must emphasize, employment is critical at this time. Because of long droughts, many Maasai have lost the bulk of their herds. To generate income they have resorted to charcoal burning, which is illegal, dangerous and causes deforestation. Employment making bricks is safe, better paying and good for the environment.

By the way, our business model has four products that create revenue for us women shareholders – fully constructed 10,000-liter tanks for approximately 50,000KES – that's 430 euros or 500 US Dollars – or 20,000-liter tanks for double that. Thirdly, fully constructed pit latrines for approximately 50,000KES. We also sell individual bricks to build houses.

Women shareholders of Maji Mamas earn revenue in two ways. First, the cost of labor to build tanks or latrines is factored directly into the cost. Also a 10% margin is factored in which is distributed to shareholders. Some of this margin also goes into a contingency and repair fund.

With the help of both the local and international NGOs that provided our initial grant, we have established a number of indicators to evaluate success. In the area of business development, we are instigating standard operating procedures for contracts, labor, quality control and marketing that can be used as a model for other women wanting to start a business like this. In the area of sales, the goal is 50 contracts for tanks at households, schools and churches by the end of the year. We currently have 15 prospective contracts we are working on. We are also connecting community members who cannot afford the full cost of a water tank with microloans. We are beginning to speak to farmers about rain tanks for irrigation.

There are two main risks we face. First, it's rain and climate change. While rains usually bring a lot of water in the spring, that usually lasts only a month. The past four years of drought would have made it difficult to get water to make ISSBs. This year, however, Kenya has been experiencing floods. Not only have hundreds of people perished, the floods washed out roads and bridges, making transportation difficult and slowing the startup of our initiative.

The second risk is land titles. Historically, Maasai land has been communal. Now that the Kenyan government is forcing us to settle, some of our land remains communal, but part of it has been divided into plots. This has caused a lot of confusion. On top of this, the cost for title transfers is so high, many of the titles are in the name of only one or two families. We need to make sure that land titles are clear and provide support for those who need titles cleared.

I want every girl in Kenya to be a woman with a dream. Together, we 28 Maji Mamas are setting the pace. Not only do our tanks provide access to water, they create employment and help the environment. With more water security, there is more time to work on ways to improve our economic situation, improve nutrition and address climate challenges. This is our building block for society.

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