Mama Maji

Mama Maji: Women are the Changemakers

New Orleans, United StatesKisumu, Kenya
Year Founded:
Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
Project Stage:
$10,000 - $50,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Water is a women's issue. A lack of clean water access poses one of the biggest limitations on the lives of women throughout the world, but it also poses the biggest opportunity. Mama Maji empowers women through water, utilizing water projects as a platform for training and empowerment.

WHAT IF - Inspiration: Write one sentence that describes a way that your project dares to ask, "WHAT IF?"

What if water is no longer the biggest burden to women worldwide, but instead their biggest asset?
About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

The water crisis has left 783mil without clean water primarily in the developing world where 60% of projects fail due to lack of stakeholder involvement. This has a deep economic impact with an estimated $24bil lost globally each year just to the time spent collecting water. Water serves as the single biggest barrier to the development of a community preventing business growth, education, and the overall health of the community.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

While a lack of water access poses the biggest barrier for women worldwide, it also poses the biggest opportunity. In the development of water infrastructure, we partner with the entire community. The entry point has always been a single woman who serves as the connection to the local government, organizations, and self-help groups with whom we work to develop a sustainable plan that best suits their needs and resources of the community. In addition to community organization and business development, our specialty is in the training we integrate into the projects. We train in storytelling, public speaking, business, negotiation, and crowdfunding. These trainings act as a tool for community mobilization and empowerment.


Ashoka-American Express Emerging Innovator
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Sarah was one of 30 volunteers we trained to be health advocates in their village last April and within 3 months she had managed to train over 300 people. But in July she found herself in a different position. At a local health fair Sarah spoke to a woman about a man who had died the night before. The woman described the symptoms and Sarah recognized it instantly: cholera. Sarah began asking everyone she could find if anyone else in the community was sick. And she found them. Four more people were sick, one of which was a child only 8 years old. Sarah mobilized the Department of Public Health which sent ambulances out to Obino. One woman. Four lives saved. One outbreak halted before it could truly begin, saving at least a dozen more lives.

Impact: What is the impact of the work to date? Also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Our water projects bring water to 6,100 people. Through this project, we have trained 180 women in Kenya and 660 in the US in leadership, business development, storytelling and community outreach. We have 60 health advocate volunteers certified by the Kenyan government who have in turn trained over 2,000 in water, health, and sanitation issues. Within 5 years we will directly ensure sustainable water access to over 150,000 through 10 communities, reducing disease rates in these communities by 50% and the number of hours women collect water by 15million annually. We expect women to make up a minimum of 25% of community leadership and over 75% of water leadership. And most importantly, we will serve as the 'proof point' necessary to shift how the industry approaches water access, shifting away from a technology-centric approach and fully integrating women at every stage, as leaders.

Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling impact?

Our strategy for expansion is the scaling of our Catalyst program. In partnership with professors, we integrate our training into their curriculum to provide students skills in public speaking, marketing, leadership, etc. Putting these skills to action, students raise $500 through a crowdfunding campaign directly connecting to women. Scaling this program, we expand our impact and classes raise up to $10,000 each for water. Building our pipeline, we will spread through the hosting of pitch competitions that identify and support women entrepreneurs working in water and amplifying our message.

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Water infrastructure is costly. We have developed a deep partnership with a key funder in water, Rotary International. We have also developed a scaleable program that not only has deep impact, but generates revenue. We project that if we can bring this program to scale, it has the potential to bring in $750,000 after cost over the next three years. To ensure sustainability, we will be working with foundations and corporations to cover operations.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches? has shifted to ‘empowering the world’s poor with access to small loans’. Microcredit allows single households to build a latrine or water catchment system, improving the health of one household but not building sustainable community-wide solutions. Only one household benefits and, they must often take another loan for repairs. Living Water builds one-size-fits-all drilling projects for churches with no community training or long term support. By putting the whole community first, we ensure engagement and sustainability. By placing women at the forefront, we ensure systemic change.

Founding Story

The idea for Mama Maji was born during a single workshop. In a room of 20 women and 10 men, not one woman spoke despite the facilitator deliberately engaging them. But during the following seminars, the women dominated the conversation, bringing forth brilliant ideas to transform their community. The workshop was on water and water was something that was theirs. We knew we needed to integrate water, women, and training. It was from this transformation that Mama Maji was born. It was when we returned to the US and spoke about the potential we had seen, that the women here began to ask for the same training being provided to the women in Kenya. That was when we knew we had a movement.


Our Executive Director, Sydney, is part-time. She has an uncanny ability to tell compelling stories and has attracted $1.5mm in institutional funding (including corporate, foundational, and government sources) for two initiatives in the last year. She has also honed her ability to leverage these funding relationships to recruit high-quality volunteers and Board members to serve our cause and manage the relationship to ensure a long-lasting, productive partnership. Our Director of Programs, Brian is a people-magnet. Three years ago he worked for an environmental nonprofit solely reliant on volunteers for their programming and grew their volunteer base from 300 to over 3,000 annually. In working for Mama Maji, Brian has been solely responsible for attracting a solid core of repeat interns, volunteers, and crowdfunders. He works on Mama Maji full-time. With a serial entrepreneur, a CPA/Corporate wealth manager, a former-Director of an int'l nonprofit, and a former Vice President of the largest university in the region on the Board, we have a diverse team with a strong set of skills and connections. As the organization grows, we will be shifting the team to be primarily focused on our two core programs. We anticipate hiring on 3-4 staff members in East Africa with strong experience in project management and training, 3 in the US with strong experience in training and crowdfunding, and an additional 5 Fellows a year from each region for leadership exchange, we will provide a strong foundation for the deepening of our impact and achievement of our goals.
Please confirm how you heard about the Unilever Awards:

Ashoka Office | ThienVinh Nguyen

Please confirm your role in the initiative (eg Founder/co-Founder) and your organisational title:

Co-Founder | Executive Director

Which of the 8 UN Global Goals (Sustainable Development Goals) pre-selected for this competition does your solution relate most closely to? [select all that apply]

Gender Equality, Clean Water and Sanitation.

Leadership and the Unilever Awards
Please provide examples of any previous entrepreneurial initiatives you have pioneered.

My most recent entrepreneurial initiative was the New Orleans Volunteer Orchestra. While not originally my concept, I was enamored with the idea and joined the founders from their first rehearsal to build a strong volunteer corps, robust programming, and solid programming. What was a hodgepodge of community members and students has grown into a solid and competitive core of 60 volunteers making NOVO the largest community orchestra in the region. While originally under the umbrella of a local university, NOVO is now an independent nonprofit and has since raised thousands of dollars for local charities. While I have since stepped down in order to focus on my work with Mama Maji, I still remain active as an adviser.

While many years after its founding, my initiative as an intrapreneur within Louisiana Green Corps was vital from moving the organization from diminishing survival capacity to a growing organization. Brought on to work in fundraising, a week after I began, the Executive Director informed me she was quitting and there was nobody to replace her. With a disengaged Board, a program staff of two people and no experience in fundraising, I rebuilt the development department, renewing and expanding our existing funders, repackaging our programming, and bringing in over $600,000 in funding. A year and three months later, a new Executive Director was hired, new staff was brought on, and we doubled our programming.

Beyond your existing team, who else are you working with to achieve your objectives, eg partners, advisors, mentors?

Collaboration has become a foundational value for Mama Maji. In developing a plan, the first question we ask is who among our partners would have resources that could expand our impact. The second question we ask is who else works within this sphere with whom we can partner. We believe in the power of collective impact and strive to embed it as the foundation of every fundraiser and every program. Since our launch, we have developed partnerships with 40+ organizations including Rotary, Acumen, Tulane University, and the Kenyan Ministry of Public Health. These partnerships are in different stages. The synergy between Tulane University and Mama Maji allows for a deep partnership. Tulane contracts with Mama Maji to provide trainings in public speaking, community mobilization, and storytelling with the knowledge that our trainings receive 96% approval ratings from their students (the highest they have for any community partner on record) and the fees they pay go directly into supporting similar trainings in the developing world. In addition, we partner directly with the professors to integrate our curriculum into their courses, creating a growing synergy in our interests and impacts. Project Lazarus is an HIV/AIDS focused nonprofit in New Orleans that has provided considerable advisement, support, and event space for Mama Maji while BloomingLily Foundation recruited Mama Maji to partner on the distribution of water filtration systems and specialized training in business development and crowdfunding at their health fair held in Kochia, Kenya.

Our Board of Directors also serves as key advisers and mentors for our work. One of our Board Members saw the potential in the crowdfunding campaigns we were putting together and was the adviser and connector that brought our programming into the classrooms at Tulane University. We have a number of advisers in fundraising that have helped us cultivate relationships with key foundations, including Rotary International. Our Board of Directors is also actively cultivating new advisers and mentors for us as we expand outside their expertise into new territories, including an introduction to a renown entrepreneur experienced in scaling social enterprises.