When 19-year-old student Gayatri Datar went to bed on Christmas, in 2004, she did not know that the earth was going to shift, and with it, her plans for the rest of her life. Early in the morning, an underwater earthquake sent a massive tsunami along the countries bordering the Indian Ocean, killing 230,000 people in 14 countries. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. Gayatri happened to be in India visiting relatives.
She made her way to the coast and sought ways to help. When she arrived, she was moved by the suffering of the people and by the daunting work of the relief agencies. She used her skills in English and writing to improve grant proposals and to report the impact of relief efforts. She was surprised at how readily her skills made a profound impact on the ground. She knew that she wanted to spend the rest of her life making a difference.
When she returned to Harvard University the next semester, she focused on Economics because as she told me “Econ is the language of development.” She interned with the World Bank and spent some time consulting before signing up for an advanced degree that combined an MBA from Stanford with an MPA in International Development from Harvard.
While at Stanford, she signed up for a class from the famous D School, Design for Extreme Affordability. There she was exposed to the D School’s Human-Centered Design process. Together with her team, they were tasked with a general problem such as “how might you improve health outcomes in the developing world?” The team knew that one key to their success would be to develop user empathy by spending time with their target customers. So, they took a trip to Rwanda. There they stayed in local homes. They did what the residents did. They worked with them, cooked with them and cared for their children with them.
The team was immediately struck by the presence of the dirt floors. They knew that dirt floors were a source, not only of dust but also of pathogens and parasites. One study in Mexico indicated that replacing dirt floors with cement floors reduced the incidents of diarrhea by 49% and reduced parasites by 78%. But this was Rwanda, not Mexico and cement is expensive when compared to the income of these residents. They also knew that cement accounts for 5% of all global carbon emissions. They would have to find another solution.
The team returned to their classroom laboratory where they came up with lots of really bad solutions. They knew that they needed to fail now, in the early design phase, rather than later when failure would be more expensive. Eventually, the team came upon the idea of earthen flooring. Although this is an ancient technique to seal floors, in the US, earthen floors were making a comeback.
In modern earthen floors, a subfloor of aggregate is laid down, followed by layers of clay, which is sealed with flaxseed oil. Rwanda has all of the elements in abundance, but there was one more hurdle to cross. Industrial flaxseed oil is expensive and toxic. Gayatri met a fellow student, Rick Zuzow and told him about their challenge. Rick managed to create an innovative material that is safer and cheaper than flaxseed oil.
Today, EarthEnable is selling and installing earthen floors across Rwanda. They work through the local village hierarchy. They train local masons who benefit from consistent employment and income. In the last year, EarthEnable has installed over 81,000 square feet. Today, they employ 63 people. And they are undergoing an extensive study to measure their full impact.
In this episode of the Social Entrepreneur podcast, we discuss:
- The Boxing Day tsunami that changed the direction of Gayatri’s life.
- Their hybrid business model that is both for-profit and non-profit.
- The importance of human-centered design, empathy and becoming clear on design criteria.
- New innovations that EarthEnable is using to reach more low-income people.
- Micro-volunteering as empathy in action.
- Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation: http://amzn.to/1SWLJhR
- Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All: http://amzn.to/210tzks
- EarthEnable on the web: http://earthenable.org/
- EarthEnable on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/EarthEnable/
- EarthEnable on Twitter: https://twitter.com/EarthEnable