In 2017, Rwanda-based EarthEnable scooped the top prize of the Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge. Providers of hygienic, affordable, not to mention beautiful earthen floors, the organisation aims to solve the problem of dirt floors in rural Africa, which have been linked to issues spanning everything from respiratory problems and diarrhea, to malnutrition. An affordable and environmentally friendly alternative to concrete, EarthEnable's floors are quite simply making homes better. We caught up with co-founder and CEO, Gayatri Datar, to discuss how their business model is changing as a result of EarthEnable’s big win.

What's been happening at EarthEnable since 2017?

The competition really put us on the map. We've now signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the government of Rwanda that sets the framework for EarthEnable to build floors across the entire country, including the very poor population who are not able to afford our product despite it being so much cheaper than concrete. It also means mobilisation of marketing support by local governments to encourage take up of our flooring. It will really speed up adoption throughout Rwanda. Our activities in Uganda were also catapulted by the Green Challenge win; that huge injection of capital helped us go a lot faster, and grow and scale the team to have a proper presence there. Before, it was more of a pilot project and moving very slowly - maybe two-dozen floors total. Now, we’re gearing up to do between 1,500 and 2,000 over next 12 months. Overall, we’ve doubled in size: we now have around 300 masons and sales reps, and in the region of 50 full time office staff.

Prize money aside, how else did EarthEnable benefit?

Meeting other finalists was a highlight! Ginger Dosier of bioMASON [Winner, 2013] has inspired us since the very beginning, so to get to know her at the competition was really exciting. Another is pond [Runner-up, 2017]: we’re still in touch and good friends - we’re actively considering how we could work together. You also get mentorship from the ecosystem in the Netherlands, and we developed several partnerships through that experience, including a research and development opportunity with AkzoNobel. Beyond that, it was a huge lift for the team in Rwanda to know that we were recognised on an international scale - Sir Richard Branson even tweeted about us after the competition! It was such a good PR boost, it shifted the dynamic.

And the €500,000 prize must also have been a huge boost…

Yes, and even more so because we’re based in rural Africa and price points are lower here. It means that €500,000 goes maybe three or four times as far. It kinds of feels like we really got a €1.5 million grant in terms of value. For a set-up like ours, a big infusion of free money can really boost innovation very fast. The Green Challenge prize is a grant - as opposed to an equity investment - to catalyse risk-taking behaviour, and have faith in companies to figure out a way to make things profitable. And of course, if you're structured as a for-profit, you have to be driven to make this really sustainable.

What's next for EarthEnable?

The initial plan was to scale rapidly in other African countries. But we realised that by prioritising scale and testing a few business models in existing markets, we could learn a lot more and therefore be much better equipped for international scale via other partnerships. Our motto has always been that one company alone can't solve this problem; there has to be others involved helping us. So in Rwanda right now we’re testing micro-franchising directly to masons, versus have us run everything through our traditional corporate structure. It means masons take the revenue and become small business owners who basically run their own EarthEnable. Because we supply our proprietary varnish and ensure the quality of the final product, we still deliver quality assurance. It leans down the entire business model and removes most of our overhead structures: now, to provide floors for a district of between 60,000 to 70,000 households costs us roughly a couple thousand dollars per month. With this model, it would cost a couple of hundred.

And in Uganda?

In Uganda, we’re increasing affordability by starting a lending organisation alongside EarthEnable that’s financing these assets. So far it’s been a dramatic success. Finally, and across both of our current markets, we’re looking at additional eco-friendly, environmentally sustainable housing products that our customers really need. Obvious ones are things like plaster, ceilings and roof sheets. But others are less obvious, like various types of retrofits, pest control without fumigation services, and crop storage to enable people to increase their harvest gains. This is a market that’s been deeply neglected: every rural household has some kind of home improvement need, and no professional company that has that covered. EarthEnable wants to be the provider and partner of choice for every rural household who is trying to live in a beautiful and healthy place, and doesn’t have the means to do so. Geographic expansion will happen for sure, but at this point we’re very excited about going a bit deeper into our markets.

CEO and Co-Founder, Gayatri Datar participates in the construction of an earthen floor with a child whose family owns the home. Photo credit: EarthEnable

Children play on an EarthEnable floor. The floor keeps them free from getting diseases like diarrhea so they can go to school healthy. Photo credit: EarthEnable

A finished floor being sealed with an oil-based varnish that will make it strong and waterproof. Photo credit: Jacques Nkinzingabo