Imagine having to clean a dirt floor. I ask myself, is that even possible? Dirt is inherently dirty, so how can it be cleaned? Well, 80% of Rwandans face this challenge every day. To tackle this issue, Gayatri (Gaya) Datar is providing clean, durable, earthen floors to low-income Rwandans through her social enterprise start-up, EarthEnable.
The Backstory – Why floors?
Gaya graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor’s degree in Economics, and then worked in international development consulting. After a few years, she left to pursue her MBA at Stanford University. Gaya had the vision of starting a socially focused business in an emerging market. While at Stanford, she aligned her courses and extracurriculars to make this goal possible. Design for Extreme Affordability was one of the most influential courses she took. As part of the course, Gaya and her fellow classmates went on a two-week trip to Rwanda. Their mission was to prototype ideas for more affordable and sustainable housing.
While in Rwanda, Gaya and her team examined many different components of housing design. So what made them choose to focus on floors? Gaya explained their rationale simply, “No one touches floors–it’s the least sexy thing ever–but it’s such a ubiquitous problem when you have 80% of Rwandans in rural areas living in homes with dirt floors.”
Dirt floors are the cause of numerous living difficulties, particularly related to health and sanitation. Gaya cited a study that showed a 50% reduction in diarrhea and a 78% reduction in parasitic infection just from having a clean floor. The difference can save lives: According to the World Health Organization, diarrheal disease is the second leading cause of death in children under five years old.¹
In addition to the health implications, Gaya learned that the majority of Rwandans view cement floors as a luxury. They aspire to have them but they simply can’t afford them. Gaya therefore knew that market demand for better flooring existed. All she had to do was figure out the right product at the right price point.
Earthen floors in action
Following the trip to Rwanda, Gaya worked with a few other students to research and test various low-cost flooring options, including a plastic tile floor and a floor constructed from shipping pallets. Through their research the team discovered “earthen floors.” Earthen floors are made from tightly compressed layers of natural materials such as sand, clay, finely chopped straw, and/or other fibers. Once the layers are packed down and dry, they are coated with treatments of a drying oil to make the floor waterproof. This proven technology was easy to install, would create jobs, and was very environmentally sustainable. It was an all around win.
Gaya moved to Rwanda in April 2014 and worked with her team to thoroughly test the earthen flooring method. Her co-founder, Rick Zuzow, also found a way to create the finishing varnish out of locally sourced Rwandan oil, which made the varnish cheaper to produce and also supported the local economy. In November 2014 EarthEnable launched its first product. Since then, the company has installed floors for over 1600 Rwandans, and they recently launched a new do-it-yourself (DIY) product that they offer to customers at half the cost.
A sustainable business model targeting the poorest of the poor
Right now, the company’s biggest focus is affordability and how to make their product attainable for the lowest income Rwandans. EarthEnable charges USD 4 per square meter, which is 70% less than the traditional cement floor. For a typical Rwandan home, this will amount to about USD 80-100, and the DIY floors only cost USD 40-50. Although this is much cheaper than cement, most low-income Rwandans cannot make this payment all at once. They simply don’t have that much money at one time.
EarthEnable therefore offers its customers a payment plan in installments: 10% at down payment, 65% for laying the floor, and 25% for varnish. Even if the customer can’t afford the varnish, the compressed earthen floor is still a much healthier option than a dirt floor. EarthEnable’s longer term vision is to figure out how to charge 5000 Rwandan Francs (about USD 6) per month over the course of the year. To do this, Gaya will need to be creative in reconfiguring the company’s allocation of resources and savings methods.
EarthEnable is a registered for-profit in Rwanda, but also a 501c3 non-profit organization in the United States. This allows them to continue to receive grants to help cover their overhead costs. Meanwhile, they can figure out their model and begin to scale. EarthEnable is not yet financially sustainable, and may not be for another few years. Gaya is perfectly ok with this. It allowed the team to focus on social impact.
“The short-term obvious solution for money making is to target richer people, but I think the long-term better solution is to be the person that’s really figuring out the business model that works, and that’s ethical, for the poorest of the poor. And once you figure that out then the market is massive,” Gaya explained with enthusiasm.
Once they have solidified the right model, Gaya knows they will be able to scale, both in Rwanda and elsewhere. “I think there is a huge amount of potential in the housing market generally in rural Africa and that goes well beyond Rwanda.” Her plan is to encourage the development of copycat EarthEnables in other countries. Gaya believes that many small for-profits, rather than NGOs, will be the solution that eliminates unhealthy dirt floors.
Words for the World
EarthEnable prides itself on its customer service. Gaya firmly believes in treating all customers with the utmost respect no matter their income level.
For new social entrepreneurs, Gaya advises to “Never underestimate the power of presence and of being close to your customers. Really understanding your customers requires you to be relentlessly focused on it and relentlessly dedicated to being held totally accountable to them. To the extent that the development community is able to view these people, who happen to have been born into poor environments, not as beneficiaries, but as customers that you’re accountable to, I think the better we’ll all be. I think we’ll see so many decisions changing just by changing that frame of mind.”
¹World Health Organization. Diarrheal Disease Fact Sheet. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs330/en/