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.
Frequently Asked Questions
An earthen floor is an ancient flooring technique that has been revived and modernized in recent years, and which is especially popular in the western United States. Earthen floors are made of natural materials that can be sourced locally (laterite, sand, clay and water). Earthen floors utilize layers to make them 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 is applied on top, made of sand and clay which is 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, given that boiled linseed oil is expensive, not locally available in Rwanda, and slightly noxious, co-founder Rick Zuzow formulated an alternative oil that converts flax seed oil into a similarly performing drying oil.
Our oil is green and healthy, free of the noxious fumes found in boiled linseed oil, and we produce it at a fraction of the cost of linseed. In Rwanda, this enables durable and healthy floors that are 70% cheaper than the only alternative, concrete.
We charge about 3 US dollars per square meter for a floor that we estimate will last 10-15 years. A typical home is 25 square meters, costing $80 USD. We are exploring ways for our customers to be able to pay just a few dollars each month. Financing the floors makes them significantly more affordable.
Our varnish is completely safe for people, both for our customers and for our employees who work with the varnish on a day-to-day basis. In contrast to double-boiled linseed oil, which is widely used in the U.S. and other developed countries, our own 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, a for-profit enterprise in Rwanda. 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-profit in Rwanda (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). We also work with local leaders to select families that cannot afford to build a floor, then we partner with community members to build their floors for free. However, other than these innovation floors, customers pay for their floors.
In the US, earthen floors last 20-30 years as long as they are maintained with a fresh coat of oil every 3-5 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 will send someone over for free during the regular warranty period of six month and for a small fee later down the road (based on the few hours it will take a mason or varnish specialist to work through the application).
While the health impact of living on dirt floors is a developing area of research, there are multiple studies which cite dirt floor replacement as a possible health intervention with potential for big impact in the developing world. In Mexico, it has been shown 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 health impact evaluation 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 is our first country, but we plan to scale globally! Rwanda was a great place for us to launch the business for several reasons. First, there is significant demand for floors in Rwanda. Concrete prices are especially high in Rwanda given that it is a landlocked country, resulting in 75% of Rwandans having no option but to live on a dirt floor, and we wanted to give Rwandans an affordable alternative.
Second, 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.
There are two fundamental problems with cement: first, it is very expensive, and second, it is incredibly energy intensive to produce, making it quite harmful to the environment.
Cement is expensive all over the world, but it is especially expensive in Rwanda. This is because most cement is imported, and Rwanda’s landlocked geography raises transportation costs of a heavy material. The high price of cement in Rwanda is a key reason that most floors are made with very little cement and very thin pours, which is a reason that almost all concrete floors in Rwandan villages crack. 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. Even though our price is 70% cheaper than concrete, it can be expensive for them to pay out of pocket. Thus, we incorporate financing options for customers to pay in installments.
A 25 square meter floor will cost roughly $80 USD, which is not affordable to most of our customers up front, but over the course of the floor’s life (10-15 years), is certainly affordable.
We currently offer payment options to pay roughly 25% of the price in 4 installments over 1.5 months, and are looking to finance our floors over the course of several years so that customers are only paying a few dollars each month, which we believe will drastically increase access.
We are a for-profit in Rwanda because we strive to be a financially sustainable business rather than always being grant subsidized. 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.
EarthEnable jumped on the opportunity to scale up and increase our 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 headquarters team to support. Furthermore, because the raw materials are basically the same in both countries, this means that our product won’t have to change. Ugandan expansion was also attractive because of the things that are very different about Uganda from Rwanda: it is much more sparsely populated, people tend to have higher disposable income, house sizes are generally smaller, and individuals invest more in their homes than in Rwanda (e.g. using burned bricks instead of mud bricks). We hope that experimenting with our business model in these new conditions will enable us to begin to understand the parts of our business model that have the potential to work and stay the same, and those that we will likely need to adapt, as we continue to expand and seek to create successful franchising relationships in different contexts. Given all of these promising factors in addition to enthusiastic government support, breaking ground in Uganda was a no-brainer. Already, we have begun operations in Jinja, and expect to scale to one more district within the next year, with a goal of serving 1,000 households.