UNESCO Social and Human Sciences
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Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge MOST/NUFFIC (IK-Unit)


The use of locally produced clay pots modified for safe storage of drinking water in the home–a component of CARE Kenya’s Nyanza Healthy Water Project


Community health, drinking water, health, pottery, water storage


Introducing the practice

This practice has been developed in three districts of Nyanza Province in Kenya: Homa Bay, Rachuonyo, and Suba. The major ethnic group are the Luos, who live on the shores of Lake Victoria, one of the largest fresh water lakes in Africa. The climate is hot and the population density very high. The main water sources are lakes, rivers and earth-pans, which are normally heavily polluted.

The main livelihood systems are subsistence farming, petty trading, agricultural wage labour, and small-scale commercial fishing. Local infrastructure and access to services is poor. CARE’s 1996 and 1999 assessments found that only 34% of the population has access to safe drinking water and the incidence of diarrhoea among children is 47%. Poor sanitation, poor nutritional standards, high prevalence of STDs/HIV/AIDS, low food production, and lack of access to credit are all common in this area.

Traditionally, as in many parts of the developing world, people in these communities have stored drinking water in locally produced wide-mouth clay pots. The baseline survey indicated that over 90% of the residents use these pots, which have an evaporative cooling effect on the water, thus the high preference.

Water is drawn from the pots using a calabash or a cup. Often the cups, or the hands holding them, are contaminated. As a result, the water is contaminated and those who drink it become infected. Water contamination during storage and handling has resulted in diarrhoeal diseases, a problem that is further aggravated by poor water sources. Because the people were not willing to change to plastic vessels designed to reduce or eliminate post-contamination, local potters, with technical assistance from the Nyanza Healthy Project team, began to produce modified clay pots. They fitted the conventional pots with a narrow mouth, a spigot, a lid and a flat base for easy water extraction. There is a space to retain sediment and the water is treated, stored and accessed through the spigot.

The technology to produce the pots relies on the indigenous skills of local potters. The modification is not a major deviation from the conventional pot; its original colour, form and function are maintained. Up to 90% of the raw materials are natural and available locally, while the others are available in local shops and markets. The modified pots are very popular with the local people. They can still store their water in the traditional way, which keeps the water cool and improves its palatability, while the modified design prevents the transmission of disease. 

The practice of mounting taps on clay pots originated in the community and is nothing new. Potters throughout the region do it, although the practice is not widespread. Most pots with spigots were made in response to special orders from customers. The potters fix taps on the traditional, wide-mouthed pots for the same reason taps are mounted on the new pots: to make it easier to extract water. The only technical aspects that did not originate locally are the modified features, such as the narrow mouth with a lid, and the sedimentation pouch. These suggestions were made by the project team to make the pots technologically effective in preventing post contamination, while remaining acceptable to the local people.

This practice is ongoing. It started in February 2001 as an alternative component of the CARE Kenya Nyanza Healthy Water Project.


Content and approach

The purpose of the modified clay pots is to minimize the re-contamination of treated water during storage, and thus to reduce the incidence of waterborne disease transmission, which usually takes the form of diarrhoea in children under five years old. This purpose is served whilst retaining an aspect of traditional culture–the storage of drinking water in clay pots.

The modified pots are produced by a local women’s pottery group. During the testing period, the improved pots were produced for distribution by the project, but more recently the women have been allowed to produce and sell directly to consumers (households) in the surrounding local markets, along with their other clay products. Ultimately, it is up to households themselves to buy and use the pots. In most cases, the mother of the household is responsible for the practice. All members of the household benefit from drinking safe water but the largest impact is expected in children under five years of age, as this group suffers most from diarrhoeal disease.

The pots are manufactured and sold to the community at an affordable price. This is an income-generating activity. At the household level, the water is treated with a sodium hypo-chlorite solution and stored in the pots. When the pots are empty they are cleaned with sisal or twine and sand and refilled. The project helps the producers to reach the consumers through hygiene education, social marketing and a community mobilization approach.

CARE uses social marketing techniques to promote the use of modified clay pots for the safe storage of water. These consist of football tournaments, puppet shows, posters, brochures and participatory educational theatre. After disseminating information about the pots, CARE uses a community-based distribution network to make them accessible and affordable to rural residents in the target area.


The role of indigenous knowledge

The community’s indigenous knowledge was the primary factor in the design and production of the modified clay pots. Because the pots were produced locally, they are widely accepted by the population. The long experience of the potters helped them learn how to place a spigot in the pots.

The modification of the pots does not affect the long tradition in the community of using clay pots as storage vessels for drinking water, which has been passed on from generation to generation, since the pots maintain their original form and function. They still keep the water cool and improve its taste, as they always have. Clay pots are valued assets in households. This is evident in the careful way they are handled and maintained. Once a pot is bought it is used for as long 20-30 years without replacement.

The transfer of knowledge

The knowledge needed to make the modified clay pots resides primarily with the specialists, in this case the potters. The potters are paid for the pots they sell.

Young girls develop an early interest in making pots; they play with clay while their mothers mould pots, and they gradually learn to mould pots themselves. In every village there is at least one specialist who is able to transmit the skills to young, newly married women in the area who are interested in becoming potters. The potters do not record or document their knowledge at all, but pass it on informally from generation to generation.


Achievements and results

This is considered a Best Practice because it facilitates safe storage and reduces the diarrhoeal disease caused by the re-contamination of drinking water. Because the practice of making modified clay pots is based on indigenous knowledge, it is cost-effective. It is a technology that the community adopts easily because the modifications are compatible with the original product. The changes are minimal but vital for the effectiveness of the practice. There is evidence that this, by itself, would be effective in preventing disease transmission. Treating the water with sodium hypo-chlorite is clearly not indigenous. CARE Kenya is promoting both strategies, safe storage in locally produced clay pots and treatment with locally available sodium hypo-chlorite solution, to maximize the potential for disease prevention in communities with high rates of diarrhoea. This is necessary because the water in this region is highly turbid. The organic material in the water eventually settles in the bottom of the pot, but below the tap. This allows the water to exit through the tap. The promotion of both the sodium hypo-chlorite for water treatment and the design modification to raise the taps to allow for sedimentation are intended to improve local technology and increase the potential for disease prevention.

The 1% sodium hypo-chlorite solution is manufactured by a private Kenyan company and packaged in a bottle with an 8 ml cap that serves as a dosing device. The pots are cleaned with sand and sisal, a locally available fibre used to make ropes and commonly used for scrubbing dishes. The project uses hygiene education, social marketing, and community mobilization techniques to assist the potters in teaching buyers how to clean the pots properly. However, the practice of scrubbing clay pots with sisal is indigenous to these communities.

When modified pots were introduced in the communities, demand for them was overwhelming. So far 180 pots have been sold. A traditional clay pot costs around two dollars while a modified one costs around four dollars. The target groups are poor families and yet the higher price did not stop them from replacing their old pots. This shows the value which the local people attach to the improved pot. They recognise its health benefits, particularly after publicity sensitised them to the issue. This practice facilitates the effective des-infection of water with chlorine over a period of time.

The population was monitored for diarrhoea for eight weeks to determine the health impact of the intervention. This data is still being analysed.

The practice is sustainable, cost-effective and locally manageable. Because the modified clay pots are sold (and not given away) to families, they are a source of revenue for the potters. As long as there is a demand for the pots, the activity is sustainable. Second, the clay pots are affordable for the average rural Kenyan family. For a small amount of money, a family can store water safely and thus prevent disease. The cost of missing work due to illness far exceeds the cost of the pot. Thus, the strategy is cost-effective. Third, the activity is locally manageable because the skill and materials for making the pots come from the community. Nothing external is needed for the production and sale of the pots. Local people benefit from this approach in two ways: first, households are able to access a tool that enables them to store water safely and thus to reduce the incidence of diarrhoea; and second, the approach promotes economic activity in the community as the pots are produced and sold by local pottery groups.

Strengths and weaknesses

This practice offers a safe way to store water in the home without a drastic change from the traditional method. The changes to the pots are small, but important. The opening is narrower, with a lid, and there is a spigot. In addition, the modified pot does not cost significantly more than the traditional pot. It also provides an extra way for local potters to generate income.

One potential weakness of the modified pot is that, for the poorest families, the small increase in price makes it slightly expensive. Often these are the families with the greatest exposure to diarrhoea risks. The pots are also fragile and need to be handled with extra care. Lastly, because the moulding is done manually, the pots are not of a standard size.

Safe water storage is one way of providing households with safe water. When combined with treatment with a disinfectant such as sodium hypo-chlorite the benefits in reducing waterborne disease are greatly enhanced. The practice can be improved further by developing a mould to help standardise sizes, synergising safe storage with water des-infection, and a behaviour change to maximise the health benefits.


Source of inspiration

This practice is applicable anywhere where clay pots are used for storing water in the home. The only local adaptations that would be needed are knowledge of the design modifications to make the pots safer for water storage. The availability of spigots would also have to be ensured.

Replication in terms of usage is very high. People from neighbouring villages have been flocking to the villages where the project is active to purchase the pots and are already using them. This has happened without intervention from CARE.

Replicability in terms of production has not yet picked up momentum. The groups wishing to manufacture the modified pots will need some training on workmanship, e.g. how to fix the taps, get the size right and narrow the mouth. This training is still under way.

If you think that this case could be useful in a different context than the one described here, please get in touch first with the contact person listed below (Administrative data). Intellectual property rights could be an issue.


Additional remarks and information

In the communities where this project is currently being implemented, the geology is such that improved water points, such as wells, are not feasible. Most people get their water from hand-dug earth-pans, ponds, rivers, or Lake Victoria. As a result, the only way the population can have potable water is to store it safely in the home. In communities such as these, where the only water source is contaminated surface water, policy makers should promote household treatment and safe storage. However, even in communities with improved water sources, if water is stored in the home, safe storage and household treatment is necessary.

The project is currently grappling with the problem of producing moulds that potters can use to produce pots with standard volumes. We are interested in pots of 20 litres and 40 litres. So far, it has proved difficult for the potters to consistently mould pots with these exact volumes.


Administrative data

Organization involved

CARE International in Kenya

P.O. Box 88, Kisumu, Kenya

Tel.: +254 35 20010

Fax: +254 35 43820

E-mail: koons@ksm.care.or.ke

Website: www.care.or.ke


Contact person

Philip Makutsa

P.O. Box 526, Homa Bay, Kenya

Tel.: +254 385 22517

Fax: +254 385 22041

E-mail: makutsa@net2000ke.com


Other organization(s) involved in the practice

Foodborne and Diarrhoeal Diseases Branch

Centre for Disease Control and Prevention

1600 Clifton Road NE, MS A-38

Atlanta, GA 30033




The total budget for the period from November 1999 to August 2001 was USD 250,000. This was provided by the Woodruff Foundation, in the USA.


Person(s) who have described this Best Practice

Jon Macy

Centre for Disease Control and Prevention

Tel.: +1 404 6392206

Fax: +1 404 6392205

E-mail: jmacy@cdc.gov


To MOST Clearing House Best Practices on Poverty and Social Exclusion

To MOST/CIRAN Database of Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge

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