Nearly 80 percent of Rwandans, and billions of people globally, live in homes with dirt floors, which are a major cause of health problems such as infectious diseases and respiratory illness.
Replacing dirt floors with concrete has been shown to reduce the incidence of diarrhea in children by 49 percent and parasitic infestations by 78 percent. However, the high cost of materials and the distribution challenges in Rwanda drive up the price of a concrete floor to $500 for a 20-square-meter home, putting this “solution” out of reach for the majority of the population. As a result, most people in Rwanda have no option but to live, cook, and sleep on dirt floors.
EarthEnable’s mission is to provide healthy and affordable floors to Rwandans. The organization’s floors are composed of compressed earth-based materials that are locally sourced and sealed with a layer of proprietary oil, making the floors impermeable, easy to clean, smooth, and beautiful. EarthEnable’s floors cost only a tenth as much as concrete alternatives, enabling the majority of Rwandans to affordably enjoy healthier homes.
In Rwanda, nearly 80 percent of the population lives in mud or mud brick huts with dirt floors, and typically inadequate roofing, as well. During the dry season, dust kicked up from dirt floors carries pathogens that, when inhaled, can cause respiratory illness and diarrhea. In the wet season, moisture coming in from leaky roofs can pool on the floors, creating muddy breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other insects that carry infectious diseases. Makeshift solutions, such as floor mats, only lead to other sanitary problems, including mold and decay.
Research has shown that installing concrete floors can reduce illness. However, given the high cost of materials and distribution, this kind of flooring solution can cost $300 to $500 for a 20-square-meter home in Rwanda — a prohibitively expensive proposition. This problem is not limited to Rwanda; a substantial unmet demand for clean, durable, and affordable floors exists globally across developing countries.
The discomfort and disease caused by substandard housing materials also present an emotional burden, as Gayatri Datar, MBA ’14, has discovered in her research.
“Our key insight from interviews was that while poverty is the cause of poor-quality homes, such homes lead people to feel poor and not upwardly mobile,” she says. “This further contributes to productivity and motivation losses.”
The Novel Idea
Through her new social venture, EarthEnable, Datar is working to provide an affordable alternative to dirt floors at roughly 10 percent of the cost of concrete: locally sourced “earthen” floors, costing less than $30 for a small Rwandan home.
Typically, earthen floors are made without industrial machinery from a mixture of packed, locally sourced materials — gravel, sand, clay, and fibrous substances (such as corn husks or dung) — and then sealed with a drying oil (usually linseed oil). A proven technology in the United States, and gaining popularity among environmentally conscious homeowners, earthen floors have been refined over the past few decades to become very easy to clean, abrasion-resistant, and attractive in even the most modern and stylish of settings.
Earthen floors have not reached Rwanda or other emerging markets due to two fundamental challenges: Linseed oil is extremely expensive and difficult to source, and masons are not aware of and trained in the technique for constructing such floors.
EarthEnable has already developed a cost-effective chemical process to convert a locally available vegetable oil into a suitable drying oil costing a mere $2 per liter, thereby eliminating the need to import linseed oil priced 10 times higher.
The enterprise has also developed a training workshop to equip Rwandan masons with the skills they need to market, construct, and install high-quality earthen floors. After the training, masons will be granted rights to purchase the EarthEnable drying oil and serve as part of the network for distribution, installation, and maintenance of EarthEnable floors, in partnership with homeowners. The organization is working directly with housing-focused nongovernmental organizations in Rwanda as marketing channels for earthen floors and a means of directing business to trained masons.
In addition to receiving GSB’s Social Innovation Fellowship, EarthEnable has raised money through other business plan competitions, grants, and an Indiegogo campaign to fund startup costs.
“We expect to be sustainable in a few years,” says Datar. Eventually, fees collected will help the nonprofit to expand into new markets. “There are dirt floors all over the world, causing people to get sick, so we see this as a way to address a major health concern while also providing economic stimulation to local communities,” she says.
Datar was born in the Boston area and raised there by her Indian parents.
“We went back to India nearly every year, and I was disturbed by the poverty and suffering I witnessed there,” she says. A semester in college spent doing tsunami relief work led her to conclude that “there was a lot I could do about it.”
Datar decided to take several semesters off to work with NGOs in developing countries. After earning an undergraduate degree in 2009, she worked for the World Bank and then Dalberg Global Development Advisors, helping social-sector organizations address development issues by integrating private-sector solutions.
“I was attracted to the idea of treating people in need of services and solutions as clients,” she says.
She came to Stanford GSB to further enhance her understanding of how business could be harnessed to generate positive social outcomes.
The idea for EarthEnable was born out of a class that Datar took at Stanford’s d.school, Design for Extreme Affordability. For that class, her team — paired with MASS Design, an architecture firm focused on optimizing health and sustainability — aimed to design a product or service for low-income Rwandans that would improve health within the home or community. This entailed traveling to Rwanda for two weeks over spring break to use the tools learned in the class, such as empathy building, human-centered design, and rapid prototyping.
“People would constantly mention roofing and flooring as something they would want to change in their home,” Datar says. “This issue was especially pronounced as we were visiting in the rainy season, which meant that many of the floors were muddy, with puddles breeding insects.”
Datar returned to Stanford determined to find a solution. After many iterations (from plastic tiles to waterproof mats), her team discovered earthen flooring.
“After seeing how easy it was to make this type of flooring ourselves — and after realizing that it was a much more sustainable solution than concrete — we knew this needed to be scaled across Rwanda and across the world,” she says. “My hope is that it will take off and spread quickly.”
Gayatri Datar received an MBA from Stanford GSB in 2014. She was awarded Stanford GSB’s Social Innovation Fellowship, which provides up to $180,000 in funding, along with advising and support, to graduating students who want to start a nonprofit venture that addresses a pressing social or environmental need during the year after graduation.