Stories from Innovations Housing

Kenyan Brick-Making Enterprises Featured In Record Searchlight

Kenyan Brick-Making Enterprises Featured In Record Searchlight: The newspaper's article chronicled Innovations Housing's expansion into East Africa.

Redding group helps building projects in Kenya

Record Searchlight
By Scott Mobley
Sunday, January 4, 2009

Forced to sit out a flat-lined market in Redding, the nonprofit affordable home-builder Innovations Housing is helping repair strife-ravaged villages in east Africa - brick by brick.

Jim Koenigsaecker, Innovations Housing CEO, spent part of November and much of December in rural Kenya, visiting a village hit hard by the post-election violence that swept the country in late 2007 through spring 2008.

Innovations lent a village organization equipment and seed money to start brick-making businesses. The firm also lent equipment to an entrepreneur in another village. Innovations' total investment in the two businesses totaled roughly $6,400.

Koenigsaecker said he expects each of these enterprises to generate enough income from brick making to repay the loans in two years, allowing Innovations to lend the money again.

"It did not seem like building one school, orphanage or house was a good use of our investment," Koenigsaecker said. "But helping a group that could build all those things provides a leverage point."

Koenigsaecker traveled with Chris Gaido, a California Department of Transportation engineer and hydrologist who served in the Peace Corps in Kenya in the early 1990s. Gaido has returned to east Africa several times to help improve water supplies and crop irrigation in villages, and this time went as an Innovations Housing volunteer.

"It was a surprisingly productive trip," Gaido said. "We had very little time, and we got a lot done."

Innovations has been planning the Kenya trip for at least 18 months, Koenigsaecker said. He regarded the trip as a monthlong camp-out, but it wasn't all fun.

About halfway through the trip, Koenigsaecker suffered three broken ribs from driving rough roads. He and Gaido fended off a gang of a half-dozen roadway bandits during an evening drive into Nairobi's city center.

Jim Warnemuende, a Chico State University professor who sits on the Innovations Housing board, has been involved in aid projects to Africa along with his wife, Carolyn, over the past 4 1/2 years. Warnemuende sponsored the Innovations trip to Kenya and said it will be the first of many for the home builder.

Innovations considers international aid work part of its charter, much like its affiliate organization Habitat for Humanity. But rather than give 10 percent of its income to Habitat, Innovations wanted to put its international money directly to work, Warnemuende said.

"We can't move a lot in this economy," Warnemuende said. "We are not generating income and not selling houses as quickly.

"On the other hand, there is a lot of need in Africa for homes and buildings," he said. "A little bit of money which we have from our Innovations program goes a long way in meeting a huge need over there."

Rural Kenyans have traditionally built homes, schools and other buildings using compressed-mud bricks leavened with cement, mortared together and dried in a wood-fired kiln.

The brick kilns have contributed to massive deforestation in Kenya, Koenigsacker said. The bricks themselves are often irregular and poorly made, he said. Cement and mortar can make these traditional blocks expensive, especially in remote villages where supplies of these products are often short, he said.

Koenigsaecker and Gaido went to Kenya hoping to introduce a less expensive, more environmentally sustainable block-making method using technology that's already been developed locally. Innovations bought a pair of Ground Breaker Soil Block Press machines manufactured by Makiga Engineering Services, a Nairobi-based firm.

Makiga's hand-operated press produces solid, uniform dirt blocks with distinctive chamfered edges. The blocks require only a little cement to hold them together, while their Lego-like interlocking surfaces eliminate the need for expensive mortar, according to the firm's Web site.

The blocks are also air-dried, doing away with the environmentally destructive kilns.

Koenigsaecker and Gaido took one of the presses to Oyani, a village in the sugar cane and tobacco-growing region of Kenya near Lake Victoria. They reached Oyani after two days of almost constant driving over disintegrating roads from Nairobi.

Innovations tapped the Oyani Community Women Intergrated Development Group for its pilot brick-making project after the organization responded to a request for proposal the firm sent out in 2007. The Oyani group was already rebuilding damaged schools, orphanages and homes while making extra mud bricks to sell for cash.

Koenigsaecker and Gaido taught members of this group how to use the block press machine, how to sift impurities from the dirt and how to organize an enterprise able to crank out 500 blocks a day.

"I thought it (the block-making) was well received by the community," Gaido said. "They were motivated. It was encouraging to see that kind of organization. Development work can be taxing and time consuming."

Koenigsaecker and Gaido helped the group build a shed to protect the drying blocks from rain. They also built an enclosure for the machine and the shovels, wheelbarrows, wire brushes, cement and other tools needed for the business.

Innovations lent a second block press to Noah Birech, an entrepreneur in Nanyuki, a village in a more affluent part of Kenya about a day or so north of Nairobi. Gaido and Birech had met in the Peace Corps.

Pressed soil blocks sell for 10 to 15 schillings apiece, compared to 20 schillings for the traditional kiln-dried brick, Koenigsaecker said. A schilling is worth just over a penny.

Birech and the Oyani group could conceivably undersell their competitors with a superior product.

Innovations is working with the Good Earth Trust and CarbonAided, a pair of British NGOs, for the right to sell carbon offset credits in the European Union for each soil-press block press-produced brick made in east Africa. Cash from those offsets could fund a major expansion of the block-making program, Koenigsaecker said.

As a next step in Kenya, Innovations this year plans to send a construction superintendent to the Kibera slum outside Nairobi. The nonprofit would help SIDAREC - a widely-acclaimed community organization based in the slum - expand its building using the soil block press technology.

Warnemuende, one of the Innovations directors, compared the firm to a family that can take care of its own children yet still has capacity to help with others.

"We're still reaching out to meet the local need as best as we possibly can," Warnemuende said. "We believe we live in a world that has no boundaries. Whatever happens anywhere else in the world affects us here in Redding."

Reporter Scott Mobley can be reached at 225-8220 or at smobley@redding.com.

About Us

Innovations Housing is a California nonprofit corporation with exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. The organization's charitable purpose is to protect and foster natural and human habitats for living, working and playing, with a special focus on the needs of the economically disadvantaged.