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AFRICAN DISRUPTORS

EarthEnable

Okendo Lewis-Gayle, Harvard Kennedy School '17
Efosa Ojomo, Harvard Business School '15

September 28, 2016

From April 7th to mid July in 1994, the world watched as the Rwandan genocide devastated one of the smallest and poorest countries in the world. Rwanda was poor before the genocide, but after that horrendous event, it became poorer, with fewer prospects for long-term and sustainable development. While immense progress has been made since the genocide in 1994, with a per capita income of $720 in 2015 (up from $126 in 1994), Rwanda remains one of the poorest countries in the world. 31 percent of Rwanda’s 11 million citizens live in extreme poverty and less than 20 percent of Rwandans have access to electricity. And many in the country still struggle with poor housing, with 80 percent living on dirt floors. That is where this month’s African Disruptor, EarthEnable, comes in.

Housing is typically the most expensive purchase people make, and as such, for the poor, decent and comfortable housing is almost always out of reach. Many poor people live in small, congested, and unsanitary homes, which are breeding grounds for many illnesses. EarthEnable is trying to change that with its proprietary “earthen floor” product. EarthEnable’s business model is designed especially for people who cannot afford expensive concrete floors. In Rwanda, where more than 80 percent of households have dusty and insect-infested dirt floors that can lead to many serious illnesses, such as childhood asthma, diarrhea, and parasitic infections, EarthEnable’s floors are an ideal and welcome solution. Before EarthEnable’s innovative product and business model, there was primarily one way poor people could upgrade their floors: concrete.

Typical mud floor. Source: Jason Edwards / National Geographic Creative

EarthEnable flooring. Source: EarthEnable

A family living in a typical 200 square-foot house would need to spend approximately $250 for concrete flooring. Because many of these households earn less than $3 a day, that amounts to a significant percentage of their yearly earnings. So, before EarthEnable’s innovation, these families had to wait to increase their incomes in order to graduate from mud floors to concrete floors. EarthEnable is changing that. EarthEnable allows a household to floor their 200 square-foot home with a proprietary solution which comprises of clay, sand, fiber, and plant oils for approximately $75, representing about a 70 percent reduction in cost. EarthEnable’s low-cost solution targeted at people who have never had a hard floor represents a perfect example of a market-creating innovation that is having outsized economic and health impacts in Rwanda.

Source: earthenable.org

Much like how Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin led to unexpected health impacts while creating significant economic prosperity for the United States, EarthEnable’s floors could do the same. Whitney’s cotton gin was partly responsible for the reduction in the price of cotton from 38 shillings in 1786 to less than 10 shillings in 1810. The price reduction led to an increase in production that people could now afford to purchase many more items of clothing. And since many of the illnesses that plagued people at the time were spread by fecal oral contamination, the ability to alternate clothing was not trivial.

But in addition to the health benefits of EarthEnable’s floors, the exponential economic impact of their innovation cannot be overlooked. In two short years, EarthEnable has installed more than 237,000 square feet of sanitary floors; the company has employed 104 people; and is on track to triple its customer base in 2016 from 2015, after tripling in 2015 from 2014. The most important thing an economically disadvantaged person requires is employment. And so, as EarthEnable grows by targeting those without a floor at all, the company will continue to provide employment for many more Rwandans.

But Rwanda is not the only country in the world where the poor struggle with dangerous parasite infested mud dirt floors; India, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and citizens in many other poor countries are victims of these harsh floors. Their daily struggles at nighttime or nap-time; their maneuverings when it rains; and their discomfort when they fall sick not only represents significant opportunity for EarthEnable, but also for their fellow country men and women to find employment. It is innovations such as these that will create the sort of exponential development impact that Africa needs in order to create prosperity.