Nonprofit Spotlight: EarthEnable

A healthier $30 alternative to dirt floors.

Two termite nests—each about six inches across. That’s part of what a team of workers found when they excavated the dirt floor inside Martha’s home. The Rwandan woman living about a two-hour drive from Kigali has been sleeping, cooking, and living with insects scurrying around her.

And that’s the least of it. Dirt floors—which is what 80 percent of Rwandans (and more than a billion people worldwide) have in their homes—are, by definition, dirty. Puddles form during rainy seasons. The air is dusty when it’s dry. If someone spills food or gets sick or a baby soils its bed, germs soak in. The floor becomes a breeding ground for parasites and bacteria. The results are predictable: diarrhea, infections, respiratory issues, and insect-borne diseases.

Concrete is the obvious solution, but the cost puts it out of reach for most Rwandans, 40 percent of whom live on well under a dollar a day. Enter an old California solution: adobe floors. Layers of gravel, sand, and fine clay are packed with pounders and then soaked with an evaporating oil that leaves the surface hard, washable, and inhospitable to most vermin. In the U.S., adobe floors are sealed with linseed oil, but that is too expensive in Rwanda. So Rick Zuzow, a Stanford-trained biochemist, and others have found local-oil alternatives that do the job affordably.

The result is a floor nearly as durable as concrete yet 40 to 80 percent less expensive. And sealed earthen floors reduce the incidence of childhood diarrhea by 49 percent and parasitic infections by 78 percent. It’s a simple, practical, economic solution to a widespread problem.

The idea came out of an “extreme affordability” class that Gayatri Datar took while getting her MBA at Stanford. She co-founded EarthEnable in 2014 with a simple mission: “No more dirt floors.”

In an interesting example of the way “venture philanthropists” are using market disciplines to improve charitable work, the organization is fully owned by an American 501c3 but set up as a for-profit business in Rwanda, with an intention to be “financially sustainable.” The effort was launched with and continues to receive significant support from donors large and small, including the Mulago Foundation. “If she is successful building her business,” states Mulago’s Laura Hattendorf, “millions of people currently living with dirt floors will be able to lead much healthier lives.”

EarthEnable has so far installed about 1,500 floors. It has eight full-time and nine part-time Rwandan staff working as masons, laborers, oil producers, marketers, and administrators. It is hiring a director of operations as this is written, and has plans to upgrade millions of homes in the years ahead. The floors cost about $30 each, which EarthEnable finances over several payments. It is looking for ways to make the floors even less expensive, including testing a do-it-yourself product.

The new floors affect more than health. “The floors change the way people view their houses,” says Clovis Shyaka, a Rwandan manager at EarthEnable. For many families, they transform the “mindset on the way they see hygiene.” The house becomes “a place of pride.”