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Maasai women make cleanliness their business

While working on a sustainable housing project in Africa, real estate developer Mark Steele saw firsthand how many people faced problems getting clean water to drink. “How can there be 1.2 billion people without access to clean water?” he asked himself. “It just didn’t make any sense to me. I wanted to understand why, and whether this problem could be solved.”

In 2012, Steele spent a month traveling around Kenya, learning all he could about the situation. He met with community leaders and members of Parliament. He also met with groups of village women. “Women are at the core of the solution to any problem in Kenya, because they’re the force that binds the fabric of the community together,” Steele says.

Installing a water storage tank is a community effort.

Courtesy of Mark Steele

Steele, who joined the Rotary Club of Evanston, Illinois, in 2013, launched Maji Masafi (which means “clean water” in Swahili), a nonprofit dedicated to creating community programs in Kenya that provide sustainable resources. During that first research trip, he had visited the region near Lake Magadi in southern Kenya, where access to clean water was a serious problem for the Maasai population.

On that visit, he also met the person who would become one of his key partners in the project. Euginia Konya, the daughter of a business acquaintance, had been working part time in the Canadian Embassy in Nairobi and was one of Steele’s guides. She became Maji Masafi’s operations manager; with Steele living in the United States, she is responsible for on-the-ground project management, in close cooperation with the Maasai women.

Steele stresses that, from the beginning, getting ideas and feedback from the women of the community has been central to Maji Masafi’s work. “All these programs have come from the women,” he says. “They tell us what the problems are, and then we help them organize a framework to solve their problems. They tell us what will and won’t work in their community.”

At first, the organization focused on delivering and storing clean water and providing hygiene and sanitation education. But in the early days of the program, things did not always run smoothly.

In 2013, Maji Masafi installed water tanks in five villages where women previously had to walk miles each day to retrieve water. Steele’s organization worked out an agreement with a local company to deliver water every week to the new tanks. But the company started missing deliveries. Steele was trying to resolve the problem, but the company was not responsive.

Tired of waiting, the women in the five villages organized a protest. They set up roadblocks along a stretch of road, stopping traffic. The regional governor intervened, and the water deliveries resumed.

Impressed by the women’s resolve, Steele and Konya expanded Maji Masafi’s mission to include an entrepreneurial microfinance program. “We had organized women’s groups in each village to manage the water resources that we were creating,” Steele says. “Once we had that system established, we worked with the groups to develop a program that would help them earn some income.” Konya and Steele met with the women to discuss ideas.

Women in the Soap for Water project demonstrate the soap-making process. Through Maji Masafi’s microfinance program, the women save some of the profits from selling soap and offer small loans in communities without traditional financial services.

Alyce Henson / Rotary International

As part of the water tank project, the women had received instruction in health and hygiene and in the risks of spreading germs and bacteria. They knew that hand washing was important, but people in their villages did not always have soap.

“It just seemed to be a natural fit,” Steele says. “The women saw this as a need and a possible business opportunity.”

The microfinance project led to a new initiative, called Soap for Water, funded by a $5,000 district grant through the Evanston club in 2014. Women in the five villages established a small business making and marketing liquid soap.

That project also incorporated a two-day training program for the women in each of the five villages. The training began with health and hygiene education, stressing the importance of washing with soap. Then the women received tips on organizing a business, and at the end of the first day they learned the soap-making process. The second day of training focused on marketing and sales.

The grant also funded the initial materials. The liquid soap, which is packaged in repurposed water and soda bottles, can be used for cleaning clothes and utensils as well as for hand washing.

In 2015, a second district grant funded Soap for Water in six more villages. The two projects have reached 275 women, who sell soap to schools and shopping centers. With the profits, they purchase clean water for their villages, buy more soap-making materials, and invest in goats and sheep to generate more income for their families.

Diane Krier-Morrow, secretary of District 6440’s grants committee and a member of the Rotary Club of Evanston, says the program’s success is the result of listening to the women involved.

“Mark got to know the culture and met with the community, so they trusted him,” she says. “He was able to make things happen very quickly.”

“Most women in this part of Kenya live on less than $2 a day,” says Steele. “When women have access to clean water, that solves a lot of health issues. When they have access to financing, it starts to solve other problems like health care. With funds from the soap business, they are able to go see the doctor or get prenatal care.”

Steele says the Soap for Water program is rooted in the water tank project, when Maji Masafi helped the women organize. “They started to understand that as a group they have the ability and the power to change their environment. A lot of the initial parts of the program were about building these networks and building their confidence that they could make a difference.

“The various programs wrap around one another to create stability that is sustainable after we are no longer involved,” he says. “It’s a Soap for Water program, but the crux of it is educating the women that, working collectively, they can solve their own problems.”

— Nikki Kallio