Changing lives in refugee communities through access to clean water

As winners of the 2021 President’s Engagement Prize, May graduates Martin Leet and Leah Voytovich co-founded Maji, a nonprofit organization dedicated to projects that support refugee initiatives in Uganda.

Martin Leet and Leah Voytich standing in front of College Hall.
(Homepage image) After building a solar powered water tank for the Olua I community in Uganda, 2021 President’s Engagement Prize winners and May graduates Martin Leet (left) and Leah Voytovich hope their work can provide a starting point for additional self-sustaining initiatives designed to improve the lives of refugees around the world.

As winners of the 2021 President’s Engagement Prize, May graduates Martin Leet and Leah Voytovich have been working over the past 10 months as co-founders of Maji, a nonprofit organization dedicated to projects that support refugee initiatives in Uganda.

This past year, the Maji team successfully navigated numerous challenges, including pandemic-related supply chain issues to establishing community trust, and recently saw the completion of the construction of a solar-powered water tank for the Olua I community. Moving forward, Leet and Voytovich hope that the success of this project can serve as a starting point for additional self-sustaining initiatives designed to improve the lives of refugees around the world.

“Martin and Leah are thoughtful innovators whose resiliency and adaptability have been in full effect this year,” says Penn Interim President Wendell Pritchett. “No matter the challenge placed on their path, they persevered, successfully bringing their impactful project Maji to life in close collaboration with the Olua I community. I’m confident that Maji will be successful in helping refugees in consequential ways for many years to come.”

The ability to access clean water in Ugandan refugee camps currently depends on impractical, low-yield methods, which makes obtaining the essential resource unpredictable and time-consuming. To address this, the goal of Maji, which means “water” in Swahili, is to construct solar-powered water tanks that can provide water for both household and agricultural use. Reliable access to clean water can empower refugee communities in many ways, from reducing reliance on UN-dispatched water trucks and boreholes, having the ability to grow their own food, and providing more time for essential activities such as work and school.

“It's a truly remarkable project to change people's lives in a very positive way,” says Ocek Eke, director for graduate students academic programming in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and Maji’s adviser. “Because people don’t have to spend half of the day going back and forth to find water, it gives them more time to do the things they need to do.”

Navigating challenges to provide life-changing access to clean water

Before the start of their Penn Engagement Prize award, Leet and Voytovich began laying the groundwork for a successful project. They connected with local non-governmental organizations and formed an on-the-ground team of refugees from the Olua I community, which currently includes six employees and more than a dozen volunteers. Along with supporting work on-site during the construction phase, Leet says that having leaders from the Olua I community involved from the beginning was essential for addressing one of Maji’s biggest challenges: establishing community trust.

“The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees contracts small organizations to work with refugees who have gone through a lot of organizations that will promise a lot, but nothing will come through,” explains Leet. “It was important that the community knows that we’re going to do what we say we’re going to do, and we want them to understand that they can hold our organization accountable and that we answer to them.”

To do this, Maji’s on-site team hosted eight meetings with the Olua I community before construction began to ensure that community members were engaged with and invested in the project. Their goal was demonstrating how this project was going to be different from others.

We want [the community] to understand that they can hold our organization accountable and that we answer to them. Martin Leet, co-founder of Maji

The project experienced logistical challenges during the past few months, including supply chain constraints and travel restrictions due to COVID-19, procuring and shipping equipment to the refugee camp, ensuring the solar panels were compatible with their water tank, and getting all of the tank’s components to work together. Yet despite these hurdles, the results of Maji’s perseverance, flexibility, and community engagement are now apparent.

On-the-ground success as a starting point for future projects

The Olua I community’s water tank is installed and fully operational. There are 10 filling stations where people can access water, including accessible taps for those with special needs. In addition, the solar-powered tank, made of environmentally friendly materials, is designed to be easy to maintain so that it can continue to be used with minimal maintenance costs.

Voytovich, who has been supporting Maji’s efforts in the U.S. through work that includes applying for 501(c)(3) status and setting up the website, says that viewing the first images of the water tank was an “incredible” feeling. “Seeing pictures of people actually filling up containers with water coming from the tap was very exciting,” she says. “It's such a simple thing, but it was so exciting and rewarding because it took us so long to make that happen.”

Leet says that working with the community has been “very rewarding” and adds that he has seen first-hand how people in the Olua I community are “really hungry to do work.” When the team was recruiting community members for paid work to dig trenches for the water pipes, work that they expected to take two full days, Leet says that the entire community showed up and finished the work in three hours. He adds that having the community’s involvement and support in this project “makes the work even more satisfying despite the challenges.”

Seeing pictures of people actually filling up containers with water coming from the tap was very exciting. … It was so exciting and rewarding because it took us so long to make that happen. Leah Voytovich, co-founder of Maji

In the coming weeks, Leet and Maji’s on-the-ground staff and volunteers will finish fencing the area around the tank and installing additional irrigation equipment. The Maji team will also be working on fundraising, registering as a non-profit in Uganda, applying for grants, and hosting an opening event for the UN and partner organizations. There are also plans being developed for agricultural and first aid medical training to be conducted on site this spring. Leet will lead the agricultural training and Voytovich will direct the first aid course.

Their work has also attracted the attention of other organizations that would like to adopt these strategies for similar projects, and Leet and Voytovich both hope that Maji’s success can serve as a framework for future efforts that directly support the needs of refugees.

Beyond the tenure of their Penn Engagement Prize, Leet and Voytovich look to expand this work into other refugee communities. “I hope that we can build more taps and have more water tanks, not just within the Olua I community but in other communities that are in a similar situation,” says Voytovich. “We're hoping that we can expand as much as possible and help other similar nonprofits expand the same way. That would be really rewarding to see.”

Eke adds that he is thankful to the Penn Engagement Prize program, launched in 2014, for enabling this and other projects and how these awards are able to connect students to the world “in a very profound way.”

“These projects allow students to see the world very differently, to go outside and see and experience another culture, and to become global citizens who can adapt to different environments,” says Eke. “I think that is the greater lesson these projects can teach our students.”

The President’s Engagement and Innovation Prizes are annual awards that empower Penn students to design and undertake post-graduation projects that make a positive and lasting difference in the world. Each project receives $100,000, as well as a $50,000 living stipend for each team member.