EarthEnable started with a dream to improve health outcomes through simple and affordable solutions.
Traveling to Rwanda with the Stanford class “Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability”, in 2013, four Stanford students were tasked with their partner organization – The Mass Design Group - to design a product or a service that would make homes or communities healthier. They first sought to understand how sub-optimal homes affected physical and emotional health outcomes and were shocked to discover the significant health problems that dirt floors cause. Eliminating a dirt floor from the home results in dramatic reductions in childhood asthma, diarrhea, malnutrition, and parasitic infestations.
They realized that they could change lives if they found a way to floor Rwanda.
Take pride in our impact on health. Work passionately to change the way people live.
Set the bar for customer care. Exceed their expectations every step of the way.
Work hard and work together to achieve our most ambitious goals and dreams.
Be resourceful and responsible with money; our impact depends on it.
Treat everyone with the fairness, empathy, and concern with which we expect to be treated. Celebrate diversity while building a culture of inclusivity.
Trust each other to have the humility to support and the vulnerability to be supported.
Frequently Asked Questions
An earthen floor is an ancient flooring technique that has been revived and modernized in recent years and is especially popular in the western United States. Earthen floors are made from natural materials that can be sourced locally (laterite, sand, clay and water) and layered to make a surface that is as strong and resilient as possible.
First, a laterite layer is applied on a flat, compacted foundation, with manual compaction helping keep the laterite layer level and strong. Next, a screed layer, which is made of sand and clay is applied and trowelled flat. The floor is then sealed by a layer of drying oil that polymerizes (plasticizes) as it dries to form a plastic-like resin on the floor.
In the US, boiled linseed oil is traditionally used. However, boiled linseed oil is expensive and is not locally available in Rwanda and slightly noxious. So our co-founder Rick Zuzow formulated an alternative oil that converts flaxseed oil into a similarly performing varnish/drying oil. Our varnish is green and healthy, free of the noxious fumes found in boiled linseed oil is produced at a fraction of the cost of linseed-based varnish. As a result, we are able to provide durable and healthy floors that are 70% cheaper than the only alternative, concrete.
We charge about $2.50 US dollars per square meter for a floor that we estimate will last 10-15 years. A typical home is 25 square meters, costing 63 USD. Customers pay in three installments, and often build one room at a time, which self-finances the floor.
Our varnish is completely safe for people including our customers and employees who work with it on a day-to-day basis. Our varnish is free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and poses no health risks.
EarthEnable has a hybrid organizational structure. EarthEnable, Incorporated is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization in the United States that 100% owns EarthEnable Rwanda and EarthEnable Uganda, both of which are for-profit enterprises in Rwanda and Uganda. This structure reflects our deep commitment to our social mission of improving health for the world’s poor as well as our belief in market-based solutions. Any profits generated by the for-profits in Rwanda and Uganda (and any future for-profit subsidiaries in other countries) will be directly donated to the nonprofit umbrella organization to fund start-up costs in new markets and further R&D.
Roughly 10% of our clients get free floors, but this is exclusively for new technique testing. For example, we install free “innovation floors” for our masons to test a new technique a few times each year (e.g. a new material, method, or embellishment such as color and tiles). We also build free floors for some customers during monthly community service days (Umuganda). Additionally, we work with local leaders to select families that cannot afford to build a floor and partner with community members to build their floors for free.
In the US, earthen floors last 20-30 years as long as they are maintained with a fresh coat of varnish every few years. In Rwanda, given that floors are typically washed every day, we anticipate that the floor will last 10-15 years and that revarnishing will be required every few years.
Revarnishing is easy and can be done by customers themselves. They can simply purchase a bottle of varnish and re-apply according to our floor maintenance manual and as they see fit. If customers would rather have one of our trained employees re-apply the varnish, we send someone over for free during the regular warranty period of six month and for a small fee.
There are multiple studies which cite dirt floor replacement as a possible health intervention with potential for big impact in the developing world. A study conducted in Mexico showed that replacing a dirt floor with a concrete floor has the potential to reduce diarrhea by 49%, parasitic infections by 78%, and anemia by 81% while leading to a 36-96% improvement in cognitive development among young children. (Reference: Cattaneo, Matias D.; Galiano, Sebastian; Gertler, Paul J.; Martinez, Sebastian; Titiunik, Rocio. Housing, health, and happiness. In American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 2009, 1:1, 75–105.)
To show the positive impact from using earthen floors as opposed to cement-based floors, we are in the process of completing a biological plausibility study that compares the health of our customers before and after receiving the floors to similar control households in geographic areas where we have not yet scaled. By creating a hard and impermeable barrier between the bacteria and bugs in the floor and the humans that live on top of it, we eliminate dust, bugs, and other harmful human pathogens from the home environment to support clean, hygienic, and healthy living conditions.
Rwanda was our first country and a great place for us to launch the business for several reasons. First, there is significant demand for floors in Rwanda because concrete prices are especially high in Rwanda given that it is a landlocked country. This leaves about 70% of Rwandans with no option but to live on a dirt floor and we wanted to give Rwandans an affordable alternative. Additionally, Rwanda is the second most densely populated country in Africa, so distributing our floors to lots of people quickly was relatively easy. Rwanda has also been a great place to figure out our logistical efficiency to be able to serve communities that are more spread out.
EarthEnable also jumped on the opportunity to scale up and increase its impact by expanding into Uganda when the government requested our support to combat the issue of jiggers facing the Busoga region. We have always seen Uganda as the perfect nation in which to begin scaling internationally. Given its proximity to Rwanda, Uganda was attractive as a second country because it is manageable for a Rwanda-based team to support.
Cement is expensive all over the world but it is especially expensive in Rwanda and Uganda. Most cement is imported and these countries’ landlocked geography raises transportation costs of a heavy material. The high price of cement is why many floors are made with very little cement and thin pours which result in cracking and waste. While a cracked floor with cement is nearly impossible to repair, an earthen floor without cement can easily be repaired and re-sealed.
Cement and concrete are also responsible for 5% of global carbon emissions. Cement is the second most used material in the world, after water and requires significant energy to produce. Meanwhile, earthen floors have 90% less embedded energy and are structurally strong, waterproof, and abrasion resistant. There are significantly more environmentally sustainable building materials than cement and part of our mission is to put the developing world on a more sustainable development path.
Our customers are generally poor, living in rural Rwanda and Uganda. Even though our price is 70% cheaper than concrete, it can be expensive for them to pay out of pocket. Thus, we give customers the option to pay in installments and they often install one room at a time to spread out payments further. A 25 square meter floor will cost roughly 63 USD, so paying for the whole home over 6 months would cost the family about 10 dollars per month.
We are a for-profit in Rwanda and Uganda because we strive to be a financially sustainable organization rather than remaining subsidized by grants indefinitely. Having customers pay for their floor ensures that EarthEnable is accountable to customers and that customers feel ownership and pride in their floor.
After learning and understanding our product, people are thrilled to see a product that looks like concrete (and sometimes looks even better)! Additionally, people are used to seeing cracks in concrete, and are therefore ecstatic to see a floor that does not crack. Initial skepticism about a new technique that nobody in Rwanda had ever seen before quickly faded away after seeing a demo installation of our product.
We train apprentices for 1-3 months alongside an already trained mason. While they work with the trained mason, they learn not only about the technique of mixing the correct proportions, recognizing sufficient compaction, and troweling, but also about how to handle common issues such as leaky roofs and uneven house foundations.