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Breaking new ground

Student helps to bring a life-saving home improvement to African families

Maria Burzillo

Applied math concentrator Maria Burzillo, A.B. '20, in Kampala, Uganda's capital. (Photo provided by Maria Burzillo)

A dirt floor can be deadly.

In Rwanda, 75 percent of the population lives in homes with dirt floors, which often harbor parasites and diarrhea-causing bacteria that kill more than 3 million people—mostly children—each year. For most, installing a concrete floor is financially out of reach.

One student at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences worked to bring a potentially life-saving solution to these families. As an innovations associate at the social enterprise EarthEnable, applied math concentrator Maria Burzillo, A.B. ’20, helped the firm identify and research new markets for its innovative earthen floors.

“Many interventions typically require a lot of behavior change from people, but the great thing about EarthEnable is that the product is something the people actually want,” she said. “They don’t necessarily think about the floor as improving their health, that is just an added benefit. To them, it is more about improving their house and it makes them feel proud about their home.”

The social enterprise, co-founded by a Harvard graduate, installs flooring made of all natural materials that is topped by a proprietary varnish, creating a waterproof seal. The process is about 75 percent cheaper, and more environmentally friendly, than installing a concrete floor.

EarthEnable Floor

An EarthEnable floor is about 75 percent cheaper, and more environmentally friendly, than installing a concrete floor. (Photo provided by Maria Burzillo)

At the EarthEnable headquarters in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, Burzillo spent the summer of 2018 conducting a massive literature review of potential health impacts of living on dirt floors. She also produced maps of health statistics, plotting the prevalence of diarrhea and intestinal worms throughout the central African nation.

Working with the global director of sales and marketing, Burzillo helped rollout an app that enabled employees to collect data in the field. She used that information to create a detailed online map of all the company’s sales locations.

“Because EarthEnable was founded in 2014, it still has a startup culture. I really got thrown into it and was given a lot of responsibility,” she said. “I was definitely being pushed to manage a lot of different things and try new things at the same time.”

The experience was so rewarding that, after returning to Harvard for the fall term, Burzillo took the spring semester of 2019 off so she could go back to work in Africa. In the company’s new office in Uganda, she conducted research about the rural market in Africa’s eighth most populous nation.

EarthEnable Mason

An EarthEnable mason in front of a typical home in Rwanda. (Photo provided by Maria Burzillo)

In this role, Burzillo visited customers in their homes and collected data about socioeconomic factors and the types of home improvements they might be interested in purchasing. She used this information, coupled with government economic and demographic statistics, to create a function that identifies Ugandan districts that could be ripe for expansion.

“When you are working in the office of a company, a lot of times you hear only about the things that are going wrong. But when you get to go see the customer, you see that a lot of them really appreciate the product and were happy that someone was there to help them,” she said. “It was neat to meet people who were so different from me and living in such different situations, yet everyone was so friendly and welcoming.”

The biggest challenge Burzillo faced in Uganda came from her rural surroundings—she could not speak the region’s primary language, Lusoga, and sometimes felt lonely and out of place. But she persevered, and said that meeting so many different people and living so far out of her comfort zone turned out to be a rewarding experience.

EarthEnable neighbors

Burzillo (left) speaks with neighbors about style preferences for floors. (Photo provided by Maria Burzillo)

Working at EarthEnable inspired her to consider a career at a social enterprise.

“I’ve always been really passionate about having my work be about something that is greater than myself,” she said. “I don’t feel like I’m living a fulfilled life if I’m not doing something that is impactful to someone or making a positive change in some way.”

Topics: Applied Mathematics

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