Local enterprise wages war on dirty floors with an alternative to cement

When Gayatri Datar started social enterprise, EarthEnable, to provide locally sourced 'healthy' clay floors as alternative to cement, she did not expect it to catch global attention.
Datar after winning the Green Challenge 2017 for her healthy, eco-friendly and affordable floor. / Courtesy
Datar after winning the Green Challenge 2017 for her healthy, eco-friendly and affordable floor. / Courtesy

When Gayatri Datar started social enterprise, EarthEnable, to provide locally sourced ‘healthy’ clay floors as alternative to cement, she did not expect it to catch global attention.

The floors are 75 per cent less expensive, and produce 90 per cent fewer emissions, than cement. The floors are sealed using a plant-based oil.

Fastforward and that invention recently won the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge 2017 that came with €500,000 (about Rwf500 million) in prize money.

The floors are credited for making homes or communities healthier through eliminating health problems caused by dirt floors, such as childhood asthma, diarrhea, malnutrition, and parasitic infestations.

The award ceremony took place in the Dutch city of Amsterdam on September 14.

Postcode Lottery Green Challenge, one of the world’s largest competitions in the field of sustainable entrepreneurship, reported that “during the finale, co-founder Gayatri Datar impressed the international jury with her sustainable alternative for cement to replace dirt floors.”

It beat a total of 515 entries from all over the world, including countries like France, Denmark and The Netherlands.

The competing companies include those engaged in innovations for solar powered car, clean energy, and waste recycling.

More than a billion people still live on sandy floors, which are often a breeding ground for parasites and germs, according to the Challenge.

Datar, the EarthEnable chief executive and co-founder, told The New Times about the enterprise’s activities, how they are impacting lives and what it envisions in the future.

Below are the excerpts:

EarthEnable has won €500,000 in Postcode Lottery Green Challenge 2017; what made you stand out among all the contestants and scoop such a prize?

The finalists for the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge were an incredibly impressive group, so it was a great honour to be chosen as the 2017 winner. We believe that EarthEnable stood out for two reasons.

First, the problem of dirt floors globally is enormous. There is tremendous potential for our healthy and sustainable flooring to make a difference in the health of people across the world, and in the health of our planet. Second, we have a deeply passionate and hardworking team who have already sold over 2,000 floors in just a few years, with ambitions to eliminate dirt floors globally. We believe the jury saw our impact potential and our team’s passion to execute this potential.

What does such award mean to your activities?

This award will catapult our impact. The Green Challenge is on a global platform, which means that EarthEnable’s work in Rwanda has been seen across the world. Given that EarthEnable is committed to eliminating dirt floors everywhere, we have been thrilled to receive interest from potential partners in other countries who will be able to replicate our success in Rwanda.

The award will also enable us to invest in innovation to make our floors even more affordable and durable. The result will be that more families will have access to healthy and affordable floors.

What is the rationale for starting activities in Rwanda; what problem did it want to solve?

We started in Rwanda largely due to its strong investment climate and ease of doing business. We have been grateful for the support of local and national government in supporting our company’s development, and were able to grow quickly as a result.

We are trying to solve a serious problem: according to the 2014 Demographic and Health Survey in Rwanda, 74.7 per cent of Rwandans live on dirt floors. Dirt floors are a major cause of diarrhoea, parasitic infection, respiratory disease, and anemia. Therefore, EarthEnable’s mission is to improve health and wellbeing by offering affordable and quality floors.

Concrete flooring – the cheapest alternative – is not affordable to over two million families. Concrete floors are not only too expensive, but also environmentally unsustainable. Cement is responsible for over 5 per cent of global carbon emissions.

EarthEnable provides an alternative to dirt floors and concrete: They are made by hand with a mixture of compressed earthen materials – laterite, sand, clay – and are then sealed with proprietary oil that turns to a plastic-like resin when it dries.

EarthEnable floors cost Rwf50,000 for a 20 square metre home, and our floors have an estimated 90 per cent less embedded energy than concrete floors. Our business enables Rwanda to shift to proven, affordable, and green construction technologies while improving health. This innovation could eliminate dirt floors in Rwanda and beyond.

What does EarthEnable’s work in Rwanda entail and how is it impacting lives of communities?

EarthEnable started in Rwanda a little over three years ago. Currently we work in four districts – Bugesera, Rwamagana, Kayonza, and Kamonyi – where we educate communities about our floors, train local masons in the building technique, source materials, and produce our proprietary varnish.

Since our founding, we have built about 65,000 square metres of flooring for over 2,000 households, improving health of nearly 10,000 people.

Replacing dirt floors with a clean floor leads to significant health improvements for the families living on these floors.

Improved health not only improves quality of life, but also can have long-term impacts on learning and income. Reduced illness means that children miss less school, and adults miss work less often. Additionally, better health means less money spent on healthcare and medicine, so families are able to save money for other purposes.

Considering the size of the company, how big is it now (how many workers does it employ, the investment so far made, the equipment used …)?

Across Rwanda and Uganda, EarthEnable employs roughly 140 people, and also works with an additional 100 masons whom we have trained in our building technique. Of these, approximately 125 employees and 95 masons are based in Rwanda. EarthEnable has headquarters in Nyamata, as well as offices in Rwamagana, Kayonza, and Kamonyi.

What are the future plans?

EarthEnable envisions a world where no child has to grow up on a dirt floor, allowing everyone to lead a healthier life, and in a home they are proud of. We hope to extend our services across Rwanda, and then globally. We believe in continuous innovation and learning from others, and our team is always working to make our products and service better. As we expand, we plan to build our team to take on the ever greater opportunities and exciting challenges that come with expansion.