Catherine Nabutsale is a force to be reckoned with. A primary school teacher in the Sironko district of Eastern Uganda on the slopes of Mount Elgon, Catherine manages a classroom with 150 5-8 year olds.
She is also the Chairperson of the Sangaasana Women’s Collective.
Established in 2003, the Sangaasana Women‘s Collective has 40 members (25 women, 5 men, and 10 youth).The group started by making crafts and rearing poultry as a source of income to enable their children to go to school. “It is women who work hard around here to make sure that children can go to school and that we can improve ourselves,” notes Catherine.
The group is similar to many rural women’s associations throughout Africa, but what sets it apart is its innovative way of reducing deforestation through the utilisation of unfired bricks that do not require a wood-fuelled kiln.
Preventing deforestation of the slopes of Mount Elgon is important in a changing climate, in which scientists predict more intense rains with longer dry spells in between.
By actively preventing deforestation, slopes with healthy forest cover allow water to infiltrate the ground, maintaining soil fertility, preserving groundwater supplies, and preventing erosion, thereby helping the region’s communities adapt to climate change.
Partnering, Not Providing
In 2012, with support from UNDP and the Ministry of Water and Environment in Uganda, via the Ecosystem-Based Adaptation (EbA) in Mountain Ecosystems Programme, funds were provided to enable this women’s group to implement the new brick technology, which uses compression rather than heat to form the bricks, thereby avoiding the need for fuel wood.
“We made a proposal for making unbaked bricks and submitted this to UNDP, and we were fortunate to be selected and provided with funds to buy machinery and materials to make these bricks.” says Catherine.
The technology helps reduce the consumption of wood and other biomass fuels, most of which would otherwise be extracted from the Mount Elgon National Park.
The bricks’ interlocking design means they also have the additional advantage of requiring less cement for mortaring, with a greater proportion of materials available locally. This means less pressure on the surrounding forests, and therefore preservation of these crucial ecosystems and the livelihoods dependent on them.
Architects of Their Own Destiny
“With this new technology, our forests in the region will be conserved, since these bricks dry without the aid of baking compared to the ordinary ones which need firewood for baking before they can be used,” notes Catherine. She adds that the group wanted a technology which did not require them to choose between nature and livelihood.
The group’s 40 members took up the idea of using the technology after many of its members were displaced from Mount Elgon National Park (created in 1992), where they had previously harvested forest products for daily needs and livelihoods.
After the creation of the park, residents of surrounding areas needed to look elsewhere for the services previously provided by the forest ecosystem. The group has progressed from planning to implementation, and is currently using the technology to build houses for its group members.
Joanita Gumonye, a farmer and member of the Sangasana Women’s collective, is one of the first three members of the group to build an entire home using the new bricks. She is overjoyed by the opportunity; for fifteen years, she had been living in a one-bedroom mud house with her husband and seven children.
In a few months’ time however, she’ll be moving into her new four-bedroom brick house.
Using less than 5,000 bricks and 10 bags of cement for building the foundation and the ring beam, Joanita calculates that she has spent less than two million Ugandan Shillings (≈550.00 USD) to put up the four bedroom house. Labour for the construction was free of charge, as group members take turns working on each other’s homes.
“I am happy because this is a dream come true for us, since it would have taken us a lifetime to save and construct such a modern and spacious house. I am so grateful to the group and project for helping us achieve this dream,” Joanita says.
Revolutionary Legos: Interlocking Bricks
A special interlocking process in the making of the bricks is improving building practices.
Interlocking bricks are like two Lego pieces fitting together. With a projection on the top side of the brick and a depression on the bottom, the bricks align together perfectly. This simple construction offers structural stability and dramatically decreases the amount of cement needed for mortaring.
Additionally, the simplicity of construction means that members of the group, with little previous training, can build energy-efficient and durable houses.
“For our bricks we just get soil and lime, and put them in the machine. Our bricks are larger than other bricks. A small number of bricks can make a very big house,” says Catherine.
Interlocking bricks offer numerous advantages to other building materials. The materials required for production are widely available so they do not have to be shipped in from long distances. The average house in the area using traditional bricks requires 10,000 bricks, 2 trucks of wood to burn the bricks and 40 bags of cement to build the house.
Joanita’s house needs only 4,000 bricks, 3 bags of cement and no wood. Making the bricks and construction takes less time, requires less cement, and therefore represents a cost savings as well. The impact on conserving forest is evident: two full truckloads of wood are saved with every house built using the new technology.
© Article courtesy of UNDP, exposure program