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Overcoming poverty, one brick at a time

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"Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.” 

Nelson Mandela

Being there

Place yourself in the little community of Bergnek, Limpopo in South Africa. Create a picture in your mind as I describe your new circumstance. Feel it. You are six years old. There are 3,500 people in this community who arrived here in 1997 after being evicted from farms under the Land Reform Act. You are now out in the dry bush 40 kilometres from the nearest major city, Polokwane. There is a hospital to the North just 45 kilometres away or another 40 kilometres to the south. Try going to the hospital, chances are you’ll get sent to the other one. Children die here. Water has been a real challenge for the past two years with the community getting a sparse water 'supply' once a week and sometimes only once a month. To add to that most of the people in Bergnek are unemployed and the community is short of about 350 houses. Food consists of one meal a day, two if you happen to be really lucky.

The water supply has been solved to a certain extent, since we installed a new pump and reactivated an old well, but must still be carried from water points. Now the community is looking to take control of their lives and create economic activity to create reliable and healthy food sources, create jobs and somehow build houses. There have been some houses promised and about 100 have been built. The community is still short of over 250.

What to do?

During October 2011 My Arms Wide Open facilitated its Iziko Labahlali program in the community with about 25 people in attendance.


Through discussions with the community, its headman and council, we learned that the community actually has a significant clay resource on their property that is suitable for brick-making. The clay is replenished each year through perennial rains flooding the river and bringing silt from the high country. As we all talked and drilled down into needs we as a group started to realize we could solve a number of problems by simply making bricks.

The idea to create a brick making facility to support building homes in the community as well as surrounding communities is significant. Why? Well, the establishment of a brick-making facility will address a number of items identified by the community as real needs during our ongoing discussions and programs:

  • The need for a reliable water source (Completed Feb 2011);
  • Development of sustainable business activities within and in the surrounding communities
  • The need for sustainable and affordable food sources. Particularly fresh fruit and vegetables (Underway with our My World In a Garden Vertical Food Garden program)
  • The need for a local healthcare centre that can provide for the needs of children, expectant mothers and mothers in Bergnek itself as well as surrounding communities
  • The need for suitable and affordable housing. The community needs a total of about 350 family homes
  • Support for the local school
  • Support for girls to be able to stay in school.

With the well being reactivated the community has the water they desperately needed and enough to support brickmaking. As we noted above we have one of the needed ingredients, clay from a natural source. As for space, the community has officially set aside land for the brickmaking business.

What will the bricks provide?

The making of these bricks will provide much needed employment. From the income the business will also produce bricks to build the houses the community needs at a significantly lower cost than what has been proposed by the regional government for the houses to be built. The community could build over 200 for the same budget the regional government has for 100. Not only that, but the houses will be built using clay bricks which provide better insulation and weather resistance addressing a number of sustainability challenges with the current houses. The income from “One Brick at a Time” will also go to support building more Vertical Good Gardens and build the space for a permanent clinic.

What next?

We have now prepared a full business plan for the business and been in discussions with builders and building supply companies in the region. We have commitments to purchase up to 1 million bricks a month from our business. What we need are the funds to set the business up and get it running. The budget calls for $250,000 to purchase equipment and raw materials and will employ 10-15 people full time and another 10 on a part time basis. This does not include the employment that will be created by the building of the Vertical Food Gardens, house building and building a clinic. The kilns 
we will use have been developed and proven in India and are vertical kilns that are environmentally friendly.

Get involved

  • Provide expertise
  • Make a donation
  • Get to South Africa - help build the project from the ground up

The  My Arms Wide Open® Charitable Foundation, was established to provide support and collaboration with mothers, children, and youth in South Africa, enabling them to build sustainable communities and responsible businesses. With stronger families, communities emerge as a solid foundation for society.  

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