More than a billion people around the world live in houses that have dirt floors. They deal with dust clouds that form when they sweep the floor. Rain can bring mud and insects. And fecal matter, human and animal, is a huge public health threat to children.
But it’s one of those problems that hasn’t got as much attention as it deserves, even in programs to address poverty – because it’s part of what researchers call multidimensional poverty. “Of the 1.6 billion people living in multidimensional poverty,” says University of Oxford research, “more than 1.2 billion don’t have adequate sanitation, over 1 billion are living on dirt floors, around 900 million don’t have electricity, about 900 million live in a household where someone is malnourished, and more than half a billion live in a home where no one has completed five years of schooling.”
So you can understand why fixing dirt floors might not seem to be at the top of the agenda for addressing this complicated poverty.
But it turns out – as with so many entry points – that dealing with dirt floors can indeed reduce poverty, as well as improving the health of women and children in particular.
Take a Mexican program called Piso Firme or Solid Floor, launched in the state of Coahuila in 2000, which replaced dirt floors with cement ones. By 2005, it had provided cement flooring in more than 34,000 homes.
An independent impact evaluation of the state program, done in 2006, found that the floor upgrades reduced poverty, as well as improving child health. Children under six had nearly 20% fewer parasites, a 13% lower prevalence of diarrhea, and 20% less anemia than children whose households did not participate in Piso Firme. The program reduced mothers’ depression by 12.5% and perceived stress by 10.5%.
This successful program led to a national commitment to eliminate dirt floors in target areas across Mexico which had, by 2012, installed 2.7 million cement floors. In Coahuila State, the total program cost US$5.5 million (US$162 per household). The federal government spent US$1.27 billion from 2007 to 2013 (US$468 per household).
Mexico’s experience shows that simple interventions are worthwhile, especially when they are subjected to an impact evaluation and results are published in peer-reviewed journals, says the Center for Global Development. Mexico’s program provided lessons in targeting, equity, and operational improvements to improve public health, it said.
A cheaper, and more environmentally friendly, solution was developed by four American university students visiting Rwanda in 2013 as part of a course on ‘entrepreneurial design for extreme affordability’. Their partner organization, The Mass Design Group, tasked them with designing a product or service that would make homes or communities healthier.
Shocked to discover the significant health problems caused by dirt floors, they realized that eliminating a dirt floor would dramatically cut childhood asthma, diarrhea, malnutrition, and parasitic infestations.They could change lives if they found a way to floor Rwanda.
Gayatri Datar teamed up with former classmate, biochemist Rick Zuzow, and created EarthEnable with the goal of improving health outcomes through simple and affordable solutions.Their solution?
“An earthen floor is an ancient flooring technique that has been revived and modernized in recent years and is especially popular in the western United States. Earthen floors are made from natural materials that can be sourced locally (laterite, sand, clay and water) and layered to make a surface that is as strong and resilient as possible.
First, a laterite layer is applied on a flat, compacted foundation, with manual compaction helping keep the laterite layer level and strong. Next, a screed layer, which is made of sand and clay is applied and trowelled flat. The floor is then sealed by a layer of drying oil that polymerizes (plasticizes) as it dries to form a plastic-like resin on the floor.
In the US, boiled linseed oil is traditionally used. However, boiled linseed oil is expensive and is not locally available in Rwanda and slightly noxious. So our co-founder Rick Zuzow formulated an alternative oil that converts flaxseed oil into a similarly performing varnish/drying oil. Our varnish is green and healthy, free of the noxious fumes found in boiled linseed oil is produced at a fraction of the cost of linseed-based varnish. As a result, we are able to provide durable and healthy floors that are 70% cheaper than the only alternative, concrete.”
The flaxseed oil dries to form a plastic-like, waterproof and sustainable resin that glues the surface together. The flaxseed is imported from India but EarthEnable is planning to harvest it in Kenya to keep the project more local. The cost ranges from $2 to $5 per square meter or about $50 per house, which is paid by the households, either all at once or in installments spread over six months.
As of May 2021, EarthEnable had installed earthen floors in more than 9,933 homes housing 41,718 people, in more than 1,621 villages. EarthEnable added almost 3,600 new floors in the 12 months through July, bringing its total number of floors built to just shy of 11,000.
It serves customers in 20 districts of Rwanda and nine districts of Uganda, with plans to expand to additional districts in both bRwanda and Uganda in 2022 and to add to the 181 people it employs in its hybrid structure – nonprofit in the U.S. and for-profit local businesses.
Dominic, a 42-year-old farmer and father of six, heard about EarthEnable at a community meeting and, seeing a floor at a friend’s house, decided he wanted one right away. “Everything in the house was always dirty… My last born four year old daughter kept getting sick and the dirty environment was not helping despite doctor’s visits. Since I got the EarthEnable floor she is happy and healthy plus the house looks beautiful. People come to visit me more often and want to sit in the house.” He’s become an EarthEnable advocate for his village, and seven families in his village now have an earthen floor.
Masons who work for the organization also have seen their lives change, learning new skills, earning a consistent salary and benefits including paid leave, health insurance, and a pension.
Mexico’s “Piso Firme” Program. Center for Global Development, n.d.
One Way to Tackle Extreme Poverty: Replace Dirt Floors. Bloomberg CityLab, Aug. 23, 2021