Gayatri Datar is the co-founder and CEO of EarthEnable. Prior to founding EarthEnable, her experience in international development has spanned the private, public, and NGO sectors with a focus on monitoring and evaluation, impact investing/social entrepreneurship, energy access, and agriculture.
Gayatri has served as a Senior Consultant at Dalberg Global Development Advisors and held roles with the World Bank, the Government of Liberia’s Department of Revenue, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the International Finance Corporation, and grassroots NGOs in India, Namibia, Nicaragua, Albania, and the United States. She holds a BA in Economics from Harvard College, an MPA/ID from the Harvard Kennedy School, and an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where she was an Arjay Miller Scholar.
Rick Zuzow holds an M.S. in biochemistry from Stanford University and a dual B.A. in Molecular and Cellular Biology and Integrative Biology from the University of California Berkeley. Over his 15+ year career in science he has worked on biological questions including: the origin of multicellularity, how bacteria know what time it is, and why some bacteria make petroleum-like compounds. Rick’s overarching goal is to unite science and design to solve problems facing the base of the economic pyramid. He has worked in multiple university laboratories and has experience both in human-centered design and numerous fabrication methods.
Rick co-founded EarthEnable and utilized his chemistry background to develop the varnish production process used by the company, including designing and fabricating the low cost and safe reactor used to produce the varnish. He currently manages much of EarthEnable’s research and development, particularly related to improvements in the floor and varnish production processes.
EarthEnable actively promotes equal hiring practices and values representation. We prioritize developing leadership from across our teams and investments in professional development.
Rwanda Regional Manager North and east
Rwanda Regional Manager North and east
Rwanda Regional Manager North and east
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 building materials that can be sourced locally (gravel, laterite, sand, clay and water). Earthen floors utilize layers to make them as strong and resilient as possible. The gravel layer is applied first, followed by the laterite layer, and then a clay/sand/laterite mix. All of these layers are compacted manually. Finally, the top layer is 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, linseed oil is traditionally used. However, given that linseed oil is expensive, not locally available in Rwanda, and slightly noxious, co-founder Rick Zuzow formulated an alternative oil that converts soya bean oil into a similarly performing drying oil. Our oil is green and healthy, free of the noxious fumes found in 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 4 US dollars per square meter for a floor that we estimate will last 10-15 years. A typical home is 20 square meters, costing $80 USD. We are exploring ways for our customers to be able to pay just a few dollars each month to make payment easier for them.
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 customers get free floors. We install free “innovation floors” for our masons to test a new technique once a quarter (e.g. a new material, method, or embellishment such as color and tiles). 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 1-2 years.
In Mexico, it has been shown that replacing a dirt floor with a concrete floor reduces diarrhea by 49% and parasitic infections by 78%.
While there is not yet a scientific study demonstrating the health impact of earthen floors, we strongly believe that the causes of diseases for dirt floors are equally reduced with our floors and a concrete floor. 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 and bugs from the floor, both of which cause health issues.
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.
Rwanda and Uganda were our first countries, but we are scaling globally! We decided to use Rwanda and Uganda as our launching ground to begin for several reasons. First, concrete prices are incredibly high in Rwanda given that it is a landlocked country, resulting in 80% of the market having no option but to live on a dirt floor. Second, Rwanda is densely populated making distribution easier. Finally, Rwanda is a very easy place to do business and to start a business, and government officials across all levels – from Ministers to local village leaders – have been supportive and encouraging of our efforts.
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 20 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 of in their floor.
People are thrilled to see a product that looks like concrete (and sometimes looks even better, with color and patterns), which is so much cheaper. Additionally, people are used to seeing cracks in concrete, and are therefore ecstatic to see a floor that does not crack.
For a 20 square meter floor, the initial labor involved takes 3-4 days. This involves digging out the top layer (often filled with bacteria), leveling the floor, compacting gravel, compacting laterite (small pebbles with clay), compacting our earthen mix of clay, sand, and laterite, and finally smoothening the floor by trowelling and pressing a top layer of fine clay and sand onto the floor. The floor then requires between 5 and 10 days to dry completely, depending on the humidity and ventilation of the home. After this, if there are cracks, we repair them and wait another few days for them to dry. If there are no cracks, we apply 4 coats of our own manufactured varnish over 2 days. A few days after this, the floor is ready for use. In all, the floor takes 2-3 weeks to complete.
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, trowelling, but also about how to handle common issues such as leaky roofs and uneven house foundations