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Maji Mamas: Women using environmentally sustainable technology to bridge Planet and Prosperity for their community.

Maasai women building microfranchises providing affordable water solutions, protecting the environment while generating sustainable income.

Photo of Sydney Gray
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Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

Innovations in earth architecture have made the construction of rain tanks extremely affordable for rural communities with plentiful rainfall but limited surface water. By connecting this technology into a for profit direct-to-consumer distribution model, we can scale this innovation throughout the Maasai community of Southern Kenya for a fraction of the cost of comparable solutions. Historically pastoral, the Maasai have received considerable pressure from the governments to give up their nomadic ways and settle down into permanent homes. But the land they have received is rural, arid, and absent access to any stable water source. The lack of water access has the typical downstream health impacts, but for the Maasai, it also means that their primary source of wealth, their herd, is dying. Coupled with a need for building materials for new permanent homes, Maasai are being forced to turn to charcoal burning to generate income which is illegal and causes deforestation. Rain tanks provide an opportunity to capture the prolific rains in the region and ensure the Maasai have access to the water they need to live healthy, productive lives. Interlocking Stabilized Soil Blocks (ISSBs) are produced using a press manufactured in Kenya. This press is manual and highly portable, ensuring ISSBs can be produced on site without electricity and ISSBs are fully cured without the need for firewood, providing an environmentally sustainable alternative to traditional, fired bricks, which contribute to deforestation and air pollution. By utilizing ISSB tech, we can provide rain tanks and pit latrines at half the cost of the competitors on the market. By engaging women as shareholders, they own a piece of an important business, allowing them to increase their income and gain standing in the community. With women engaged in construction, we see a change in the narrative about a woman’s ability to earn and build, and the power structures in the community shift to accommodate.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

Our primary beneficiaries are Maasai women (16-45) forced to settle in Southern Kenya. This idea works with women’s groups to develop a microfranchise selling environmentally sustainable water tanks and construction materials to their community. As shareholders, the women are paid for their labor and receive profit sharing from their business. In addition to masonry and construction, we provide the women with training in leadership, business, and sales. The shareholders also co-create the policies and procedures for their pilot business. We also provide marketing materials, source collaborative contracts, and support supply chain development. Engaged in important leadership roles building their community, the narrative and power structures in the community shift to accommodate. The secondary beneficiaries are the Maasai communities. This idea will ensure they have access to extremely affordable & environmentally sustainable water and sanitation solutions and construction materials

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

The Interlocking Stabilized Soil Block (ISSB) technology has been pioneered by leaders in the development industry, including the United Nations, USAID, and DFID. This means that the majority of ISSB technology and training has been distributed through charity models. In the development of this initiative we interviewed a women’s group in Kakamega who received a donated ISSB press from an INGO. Despite a strong community need for water, they told us they could only work when they had spare money. This meant that in four years, they built only five tanks and they were saving up to build a tank for a local school. But in Uganda, when a community-based organization paired ISSBs with a subsidy for purchase, they were able to construct 600+ tanks. Leveraging our highly entrepreneurial staff with 30+ collective years uplifting women through business, this idea moves ISSB tech into a participatory forprofit model that provides the women with the support they need to build and scale.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Pilot: I have started to implement the idea as a whole with a first set of real users.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

Mama Maji empowers women to change their world through water.

Expertise in sector

  • 3-5 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.
  • Yes, we are a registered social enterprise.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

Over the last five years I have seen the women from our programs organize, arrest cholera outbreaks, open health clinics, and support the electrification of their neighborhoods. One village selected their first female village elder from the women we trained. I know that the solution to Prosperity and Planet lies in the hands of engaged & empowered women. This idea was inspired by the Maasai women, the traditional home builders looking to gain an income and a voice in their changing communities.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

The Prosperity of the Maasai has been deeply impacted by the arid land on which they are being forced to settle by the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments. While rain has been plentiful, the long periods of drought (Planet) between the rains have killed many cows, the primary income and wealth for the Maasai (Prosperity). The enforced settlement has also restricted their ability to earn an income and many Maasai are turning to environmentally destructive charcoal burning, which is deeply impacting Planet. While this idea primarily impacts the intersection of Prosperity and Planet, this is also beginning to impact Peace. Because the forced settlement is on such arid lands, the Maasai are still trying to take the cattle they have left into areas with water and fodder. This has led to strife between the Maasai and the government, who have killed off a number of cattle for illegal trespass. The Maasai have started driving their cattle into city centers in protest, increasing tensions.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

We are working deeply in partnership with the Maasai community to develop this idea. We are co-developing this idea with two women’s groups based in Eremit who are the shareholders in the local social enterprise. The women have informed: idea structure, business model, shareholder agreement, wages and profits, methods of local engagement and marketing, development of a demonstration tank, and market location. These women have also provided guidance on land rights, historical use of microfinance and ideal structure, and workplan development. The Matonyok Nomads Development Organization (MANDO) is our primary partner and idea co-founder. Community based, MANDO coordinates with the local leadership and grassroots groups. They provide input on ideas and how they can be altered to make them more effective within the local context. They also serve as the lead in engagement with local leadership, including local tribal Elders, the county government, and the Kenyan Ministry of Health.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

The Maasai in Kajiado have a number of competitive advantages: 1) Surplus of women ready and able to work, many of whom already have some small business training 2) Cultural history of women as home builders 3) Deep community engagement providing rapid product feedback and market insight 4) Communal culture, ensuring that many women can be engaged 5) Community shift to permanent structures creating exponential market opportunity for affordable and sustainable construction materials

Geographic Focus

The initial phase of this project focuses on the Maasai women in Kajiado county.

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

We anticipate 24 months in our timeline. The first six months will focus on continuing to work with the Enkoireroi Maji Mamas to identify and fulfill contracts and connect the community with microfinance options. The next six months will focus on working with women’s groups in nearby market centers to build two additional microfranchises. The last 12 months will be focused on working with these three groups to strengthen their business and identify and secure larger, collaborative contracts.

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No


Join the conversation:

Photo of Dusti Becker

Hi Sydney Gray ! I am definitely inspired by your project to re-empower and support women in their role as entrepreneur water stewards. I am curious, is there a way to construct a rain tank using the same process the Maasai use to build their mud homes? - Carrie (part of Dusti Becker 's team)

Photo of Sydney Gray

The problem with the old style of earthen construction is that it's not super water tight or sufficiently strong to handle the weight of water. Also, water is the single most effective solvent known in the world - and it has everything to do with its molecular structure.

This technology is actually a modern version of the traditional earthen homes. It uses the same basic foundation, mud, and incorporates stabilizers and a small amount of cement to make a construction material with a comparable strength to cement blocks. Cured ISSBs weigh about 2/3 as much as a cement block and have comparable compressive strength.

It's this mixture that makes these modern earthen tanks strong enough to hold up to 20,000L of water above ground and up to 200,000L in a submerged tank. And a thin lining of waterproof cement on the inside of the tank ensures that the tank retains all the water it collects.

Photo of Dusti Becker

Fascinating, and yes, had envisioned there would need to be some sort of waterproof lining!

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