Kampot, Cambodia. Families of this town are poor; children don’t have access to education and lack of healthcare services. The cheapest food is lollies and sweets, damaging the teeth of children and adults. The toothbrush project is all about educating and giving access to essential hygiene. The story of two girls that are truly dedicated to making this work, where every step has been carefully thought on this community-led program.
Amber and Georgie are entrepreneurs in their 20’s that are balancing their full-time jobs with a completely sustainable social venture: The Toothbrush Project. What started as an adventure in Cambodia turned out to be a commitment. The idea was to provide a long-term solution to improve the dental health of the children in this country. Currently located in the Melbourne, the epicentre of social entrepreneurship in Australia.
We have had the opportunity to prepare this interview, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we did!
What was the tipping point of The Toothbrush Project venture?
Georgie and I began The bamboo Toothbrush Project when we travelled to Kampot, Cambodia at 18 years old, to teach English at a small school. It only was a matter of days before we noticed the poor condition of the students’ teeth- the mouth aches were awful, most had black teeth, some completely rotted through the gums. When we began investigating with staff, how often the students’ were brushing their teeth, we learned that most would not have ever. At this point it was a HUGE learning curve for Georgie and myself, we understood that we needed to commit to this, that we could not just provide the children with toothbrushes once off, then fly back home to our privileged country.
How did you start to work on this social entrepreneurial project?
We decided to work with a team of local Khmer employees and the director of the school, with countless meetings and late nights trying to ensure this project was viable. We wanted to make lasting change. We started up on Facebook and encouraged family and friends to donate. This was five years ago, and have only recently launched our Bamboo Toothbrushes.
Is The Toothbrush Project already making an impact on the dental hygiene of the Cambodian?
We are so proud of how far the project has come and the results we have achieved with the students. We provide new toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste every three months, support their trips to the dentist and provide fresh water & soap monthly. We had the pleasure of hiring a local Khmer woman, Saophorn, who runs the program in Kampot. We sent her to University to ensure that she was able to support herself and her students. The Toothbrush Project has shown a reduction in the number of toothaches and school absences. It has also shown a huge improvement from the dental point of view, with the preventative work preventing awful tooth extractions.
How is that, you support a local team member in Cambodia with her University studies? And how do you believe this can impact the community on a smaller scale?
We worked closely with the school in developing a plan to ensure The bamboo Toothbrush Project was sustainable throughout all times of the year. Georgie and I believe it is so vitally important to empower and provide opportunities for those who may miss out. We support Saophorn by paying her wages; we are incredibly passionate about our lovely Saophorn as she is doing absolute wonders at the school. She runs health and hygiene sessions multiple times a week. Saophorn also schedules in with the children, rubbish pickups every day! Community-led programs are known to be incredibly successful; therefore no matter the scale, every single individual within community counts and can play a significant role in other community members’ lives.
What is the structure of The Toothbrush Project, how do you make things happen?
Every step of the project has been carefully thought out, and we want it to be a complete community lead program. We don’t send toothbrushes over to Kampot; we provide funds to the School, and Saophorn goes to local markets and supermarkets to purchase the products. This will also result in a better economy for the shopkeepers, therefore will gradually assist in improving Cambodia’s economy.
What are all the benefits of using a bamboo toothbrush, especially your brand?
We have taken the project to a place where the processes are sustainable enough to work organically, which was the most important thing to us when we set the plan up. This means that we are now ready to step up, and launch the good for you, good for others, good for the environment bamboo toothbrushes. They are a recyclable product where 100% of profits go directly towards assisting others.
What is the main issue in Cambodia, why children don’t have access to dental hygiene? Or is this a specific problem in Kampot?
This is a big question… Cambodia is a bursting with corruption and raw grief. Cambodia, as a country lacks access to healthcare and many children, do not attend school, therefore don’t learn the fundamentals of education.
The problems in Cambodia are huge, and at times it has left Georgie and myself feeling helpless. At times, it feels like we are not doing anything however we must remember that small change leads to significant change. There are so many areas that we wish to work on with Cambodia, and The bamboo Toothbrush Project is just the start of this.
The main issue in Cambodia is poverty. Many families have extremely low paying jobs (if they have a job at all), limited access to food and almost no access to health services. The cheapest foods in Cambodia are sweets, such as jellies and lollies, which practically all of the children in Kampot have daily. As the children are unaware of the damage sugar can do to your teeth, they are unaware that the damage can be preventable. We focus on the impact of foods you eat and brush your teeth. We recommend the children to brush their teeth morning, after lunch and after dinner. This way we are preventing those awful, rotten teeth, that the children once had. The school has a huge vegetable garden and grows lots of food. However, it does not produce enough food for all of the children to eat. It is a great initiative that allows the children to understand that the food from the ground, is much better for them to eat, than the lollies!
What are the other problems you have found in this beautiful country that still needs to be solved?
As above! Access to education, more jobs need to be created, more infrastructure, access to healthcare, more educated personals such as nurses, doctors and dentists. Cambodia as a country is reactive and doesn’t have many preventative ideas.
How is the school educating and providing toothbrushes, soap and fresh water, as well as the actual dentist service to the kids?
The school provides lessons twice a week on health and hygiene. These sessions vary, they may include colouring sheets, questions and answers, guest visitors and basic health education sessions. The soap and water are available for children daily, and Saophorn ensures that they do not run out. The provision of the toothbrushes and toothpaste are provided every three months, Saoporn hands out the products to the whole school at once. The dental service to the kids occurs between 6 – 12 months, it depends on the child and the need to visit the dentist. We utilise a free Australian Dental Clinic which is called the Buddhist Library. The Toothbrush Project pays for the petrol for the School van to transport the children to the clinic, as this was identified as a barrier.
How many Cambodian children do you estimate you have impacted already through The Toothbrush Project?
We support 100 children at one time. The children are only at the school for four years, so we have supported 200 children.
What were their reactions when they were provided with all these goodies? Did they have any knowledge around hygiene?
When Georgie and myself first provided the toothbrushes and toothpaste to the children, we didn’t know how the children were going to take it. We thought that they would hate brushing their teeth as we knew a majority of the children had never brushed their teeth before. We purchased fun containers for the toothbrushes to live in, to help make it interesting for the children. We also thought it would encourage them to bring them to school, and keep them clean while they were not using them.
As we were in Cambodia for a few months, we were able to introduce the toothbrushes gradually; we taught the children about dental hygiene. We explained how to brush their teeth, and then when we supplied all of the toothbrushes and toothpaste, we worked one on one with the children to ensure that they were brushing correctly and not missing any spots. Georgie and I made sure we were good role models and brushed our teeth with all of the children to help normalise it.
To be honest the first few times, we taught the children how to brush their teeth it was very confronting. The first few times there was lots of blood and grimacing faces, however, they understood that they needed to do it.
We both felt so proud when we returned to Cambodia a few months later, and the children were at the sink brushing their teeth after lunch!
The brand is also impacting good to the environment, as you are saving the planet of more plastic. How many plastic toothbrushes to you estimate you have saved to end in the landfill?
We have saved over 500 so far in three months, so we cannot wait to keep saving!!
Do you sell worldwide? Or are you focused on the Australian market?
Yes, we most definitely sell worldwide! We are happy to ship worldwide, just require customers to contact us so we can work out the shipping prices!
Where can we find The Toothbrush Project bamboo toothbrushes?
Currently, the stockists are listed on our website! They are growing fast, and we have lots of interest from a variety of shops.
How does social entrepreneurship look like for such young ladies?
Extremely busy. Both Georgie and I work in entirely different fields. Georgie works in Marketing, and I work as a Youth Worker. Our jobs are demanding. However, every night we find ourselves organising and working on The bamboo Toothbrush Project. It works well, Georgie does our social marketing side whereas I do all of the packagings of the products. We are a great team. We are so fortunate that both of us are incredibly motivated and passionate people. We thrive off one another. We have grown so much in the last five years in expanding The Toothbrush Project, and we are so thankful for our local community, family and friends for helping us when we need!
If you could turn back, what advice would you have given to the 18-year-old self?
To be honest, I am not sure I would change a thing. I am extremely proud of the person I was, not many 18-year-olds experiences what I did. Georgie and I were brave and full of enthusiasm. We had many people telling us that it wouldn’t happen, one man who was working for a few months at the School sat Georgie and I down and said to us that the idea of us continuing this project while not being in the country was not possible. I remember getting really upset at him, knowing that one day I would prove him wrong. I am proud of an 18- year old I was so extraordinarily confident and passionate, I knew what I wanted to achieve, and I was going to do whatever I could to follow my goals.
What is your vision, how do you see the Toothbrush project to evolving in the next 10 years?
Wow. This is a big question. Georgie and I have no idea what the future brings us. We had no idea our toothbrushes would be such a success, so let’s just say, we are ready for whatever comes our way. We will continue to grow and expand our project; we are excited to see how many more lives we can improve.
If you could write a message for other social entrepreneurs on a big wall, what would it say?
Do what you love.
Do your work for the right reasons.
Don’t aim to make money out of others misfortunes. Make money for them.
Don’t belittle or dehumanise anyone, aim to empower and educate.
Sorry I would say a lot of things!!!
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