On a cool May morning in eastern Rwanda, in the early days of harvest season, an American businesswoman named Gayatri Datar is driving out to meet some of her customers, almost all of whom are farmers of the poorest sort.
Datar and a few passengers bounce along a rutted road in a truck tattooed with the logo Tube Heza, which in the region’s Kinyarwanda language means “live beautifully.” The pickup rumbles through quiet villages into even quieter farmland beyond. Children rush from tiny adobe houses to wave as it passes. Beside the road, teenage boys use long poles to thwack piles of bean vines and loosen the pods. Beans are both a staple and a cash crop in this sector. Women sit on the ground shucking beans, while others spread them out to dry: red with red, yellow with yellow.
Now and then the truck slows for pedestrians hauling crops: women with vines bundled high atop their heads, men pushing bikes saddled with bananas. Datar, 31, finds this foot traffic both exciting and worrisome. As the rainy season gives way to harvest, many of these farmers soon will have money to spend. Last year, Tube Heza’s parent company, EarthEnable, was inadequately prepared for this seasonal spike and thus missed potential sales. Datar is determined not to let that happen again.
“Everything you see is our market,” she says.
The truck stops before a cluster of homes. On some, the stucco façade has flaked away like sunburned skin, exposing straw in the walls beneath. At first glance, the decaying structures make for a depressing tableau, but the backdrop is lush with greenery, and the air smells like freshly mowed grass.
Datar wants to have a look at the floor that masons from her company recently installed in one of these homes. That’s what EarthEnable does: It sells floors to poor people. Specifically, the social enterprise, which she cofounded and runs, makes paved flooring from compressed earthen materials that are sealed with a proprietary oil. Both the product and the business were incubated four years earlier when Datar was a student at Stanford Graduate School of Business and took a course there called Design for Extreme Affordability
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