Stopping Disease With A Simple Innovation: New Floors

A Stanford University student re-invents an ancient earthen material–adobe–to work well in a country where dirt floors can cause death.

Replacing dirt floors in developing world homes has proven health benefits. Putting down a hard, impermeable substance like concrete reduces parasites and bacteria that build up in open soil. One UC Berkeley and World Bank study looking at a cheap concrete flooring program in Mexico reported large reductions in parasitic infestations, diarrhea incidents, and anemia–all from putting down a material that’s plentiful in most places.


When Gayatri Datar went to Rwanda as part of a Stanford University Design School field trip and saw that 80% of homes had earth floors, she naturally thought concrete was the simple solution. But concrete is expensive in this landlocked East African nation. To cover an entire space could cost up to $500–roughly two months salary for the average person. So, when she got back to California, she worked on cheaper alternatives.

What she and her colleagues came up with is an earthen adobe floor–the type that’s been used for centuries in the western U.S. and has even lately become fashionable again. Adobe is a compacted natural soil, like clay, covered in multiple layers of linseed oil, which gives it a plastic-like finish. Datar thought it might be ideal for Rwandan homes because it’s both natural and cheap.

Once again, she hit a snag. Linseed oil isn’t available in Rwanda, at least not without importing it. So, she again looked for an alternative. She hooked up with Rick Zuzow, a PhD-candidate biochemist at Stanford who developed a new process to polymerize soy bean oil. The substance–while not perfect–works well as a floor sealant, and most importantly is much cheaper than linseed.

“Now we have an oil that is calculated at $2 a liter instead of $12.50 per liter,” Datar says. “We are targeting a $50 floor.”

EarthEnable, Datar’s company, has completed 19 floors so far, and it’s just getting started. Here’s its Indiegogo video, from a campaign this January.

The $10,000-plus raised went towards paying an engineer from the Kigali Institute of Science, Technology and Management, running a pilot study, and forming focus groups. The team has also developed a cheap lab to manufacture the oil, which includes an old oil drum, a supply of pure oxygen, and Zuzow’s proprietary metal catalyst.


EarthEnable plans to “micro-franchise” its technology by training local masons to install the floors and buy oil from the company. The floors themselves have a base layer of gravel, followed by clay, followed by the special coating, which is the real innovation.

“The dream is to have this copied all over the world and have more sustainable development,” Datar says. “Concrete is responsible for 5% of carbon emissions.”

One drawback is that the oil currently takes up to two weeks to fully set. Datar would like to get that down to less than one week, if possible, though customers haven’t complained so far. “It seems to be much less of a concern for the people here than it was for me,” she says.

Datar likes living in Rwanda, which has a reputation for being business friendly (you can start a company online) and being open to innovation. “You can get a lot done quickly,” she says. “And there are really, really lovely people. So far, we’ve been really impressed with the talent we’ve found here. I think I can be happy here for several years.”


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.