We had the chance to connect with our Third Millennium African for the month of February 2015, in the person of Thobile Mushwana, a dental health enthusiast and founder of Dental Marathon as he talks about his passion for dental health in Africa.
Below are excerpts of our interview with him.
Please tell us about yourself and the idea behind Dental Marathon
I am the founder of Uncommon Business. Uncommon Business is the holding company which is linked to Dental Marathon and the idea behind it is that there’s been a lot of health challenges in Africa, which we started tackling from the young kids. We mainly focus on kids from grade R to grade 3. Quintile 1, Quintile 2 and Quintile 3. These are the schools that do not pay school fees in South Africa. These are the disadvantaged kids. We read recently that in Africa we have more smart phones than toothbrushes and that’s bad; we want to change that. That statistic is increasing every day. And we’re not hating the smart phones, but we need to refocus on the health challenges that is at hand. We are neglecting the health challenges that we’re having. We are doing about 185, 059 kids and 868 schools in the Free State. We’ll be working in Limpopo, we’re just waiting for the final meeting of the project––we’ll be doing 50 schools. For now, we’re just finalizing everything in the Free State and we’re hoping to do something like the provinces in the Eastern Cape, because there’s a huge health challenge. And Northern Cape, and obviously Limpopo. Last year we had a chat with a presidential candidate of Mali. We’re looking to going into Africa as well. I was invited to the African Leaders Conference where I also did a presentation. Switzerland was also looking into the project, but it would be best to start in Africa, because that’s where the need is.
Where did the name Dental Marathon come from?
It’s just something that I thought of. It’s a marathon, it doesn’t stop. We are running through the schools and running through the rural community that is without resources or without information and we go and feed them with information and resources.
Tell us a little bit more about Dental Marathon. How does the project work?
There are different things that are involved in Dental Marathon. The support team does the media, graphic designing, the interviews, and the data of where we are going. We also have the sponsors; the dentists and local business guys that are interested in and have invested money in the project. And we have also a couple of agents, when you travel to the schools that are in touch with the kids. Obviously, the dentists are the ones who are doing the checkups, the repairs, the cleaning, the screening of the teeth; just to check up on how the teeth of the kids are, and the need. When we go out, we give every child a tooth paste and a tooth brush.
So, take us back to when you got started. What got you interested on this topic around dental health care and how did you get started?
It was just a burning desire that had been there for years. But I actually wanted to be an entrepreneur from the start. As far as the teeth part, I would think that there’s no one who is born with a bad breadth and teeth that are not straight and you can fix that.
You see a lot of people who are born with teeth that are not straight. And you look at young people who don’t have straight teeth and they grow up to be parents who do not have straight teeth and that can easily be fixed with braces or something that can support the teeth to be straighter in the long run and some people don’t have this kind of information. Even if they do have the information, sometimes they don’t really have the resources to go to a dentist for their teeth to be fixed. So, that has been a challenge for me that such a small thing can turn out to be a generational challenge. If a parent grows up with teeth that are not straight, they become parents who do not have straight teeth. We find that the kids will have the same challenges because the parents couldn’t solve the same challenges, so we want to stop that and build a new generation. Obviously there is a lot of sickness that is attached to it. If you do not take care of your teeth, there is a lot of diseases that you can catch. Last year we did a few tests on teeth, where we found that there was a lot of rotten food from their teeth that was no clean for months. We found that these people are getting sick because of the food that they’re eating. The food is fresh but when it’s mixed with the dirty stuff on the inside, it becomes poison. We have to solve those issues and we’re willing to go out. There’s a lot of guys, obviously without parents, who cannot afford basic health when it comes do their teeth.
Is there some form of education about Dental Marathon and if so, what does that look like?
There’s a small mini booklet that we give people to educate them. One thing that we’ve realized is that not everyone that is out there needs a tooth brush or tooth paste, some of them need the education. They are learning on how to take care of their teeth. You find that older people, as well, are not able to take care of their teeth. They don’t know that they need to brush for two minutes, small circles, floss, and rinse after eating and things like that. We still get old people that still struggle with those basic habits. If all the people and the parents are struggling with those habits, you find that the kids also have those habits, because they are learning from their parents.
How many people are part of your team that are part of this entire project?
We have eight professionals who are qualified dentists. We have eight guys who are dental assistants, also studying to be dental assistants with the Central University of Technology who we partnered with. The school give us eight students whenever we go out, so we take them in groups. We have local business guys who are investors into the project. There is no commitment, when they want to bring anything, they come in and they sponsor with cash and also with time including strategy, and vision where we sit with all the advisors of Dental Marathon. Also, we have another partner who handles all of our media, graphics, content, and everything online. So we also have support from a company in the United States, shipping toothbrushes to us that we’re taking to the schools.
When did you start Dental Marathon?
It started two years back in 2013, in July.
So, when you started Dental Marathon what challenges would you say you had with starting and getting things moving?
The main challenges were finance. We all know that dental healthcare is very expensive. To go out there and actually help someone. With dental health you have to make sure that you don’t lower the quality of the dental health. Another thing is that when we go out there, we find out that we have toothpaste and toothbrushes, but the area where we are going don’t have water to drink before they can brush their teeth with the water. So, that still remains the challenge. Sometimes, we have to go buy a lot of water for them, but that is not sustainable, we need finances to unlock certain doors. There’s still a lot of challenges when it comes to finances. The people are mostly the volunteers who work with dental marathon, they don’t really get a salary. It’s only a stipend that says, “thanks for being with us” and obviously the doctors that are with us on a voluntary basis, and the professionals that are also with us on a voluntary basis. A sponsor is sponsoring all of our stuff, which is also on a voluntary basis.
What would a sustainable model look like for you?
The area that we go to, we have a few partners with the government. It would be best if we could have the Department of Water in that state be involved as well so that they can begin to identify certain rural areas that still need basic water. Really, the idea of buying water is not really sustainable. They could use that water to brush their teeth in a day, but when we left, they would use it to cook and other basic stuff, which remains a challenge in certain areas.
Where would you see yourself 5 years from now and are there any changes that you’re expecting in the future?
Yes, we need to obviously grow it. My passion is Africa and I have a plan for Africa. There are a lot of activities that are happening in Africa. Every company has a plan for Africa. Every continent has a plan for Africa, you get China coming and investing a lot of money, and you have Brazil they have their own thoughts about Africa. But as Dental Marathon, we would love to see Dental Marathon go to all the 54 countries within Africa because that’s where the biggest need is. We recently got another invite to be in Australia and Switzerland, and I spoke to the team before I could accept the invite. I want to do it at home before I can go do it out there because the need is here. If we do any outreach in terms of Dental Marathon we will start right here in Africa. There’s a lot of challenges that we still have here. I think we have 111 million kids just from grade R to grade 3 in Africa and that number is increasing every day. I would be happy if I could roll it out in all 54 countries.
Can you share with us your dream of a Third Millennium Africa, your ideal Africa?
Basically, in terms of health we need to invest in projects that are giving back to young people, and empowering young people to become a better generation. Because, it’s like we are always waiting on the world to do something and we do it later. We would love to see more young people, especially the guys that are hands on, on Dental Marathon. Most of the guys that are working and volunteering also have their own companies, which is good. I would love to see more projects like this that are tackling the most challenges in rural communities. It’s easy to wear a suit and put on a tie in a board room, however, we need young people that are ready to get dirty and ready to solve problems because that’s where the need is. We need more problem solvers in the third millennium.
Are there any words of encouragement for young Africans to get involved and to become more active?
You need people that are going to sharpen you, people that are always going to challenge you every day; people that will always ask you the questions that are uncomfortable. My take would be obviously, we need more quality people that will help the need and impart and model a good quality of leadership and entrepreneurship. Currently, we are just under 3 percent of entrepreneurs that are doing very well in our country, so we need role models that will model good qualities of leadership and entrepreneurship.