Smileawi: Fixing Dental Care in Malawi
Malawi, a nation in southeast Africa, faces a severe shortage of health care professionals with less than one working physician per 1,000 Malawians. Dental care in Malawi is similarly underdeveloped, with only 43 practicing dentists in the country in 2021, with most located in private clinics in cities despite less than 20% of the population living in urban areas.
On the bright side, dental care in Malawi is improving as dental associations and charities from the United Kingdom (U.K.) increasingly fund dental programs in the country. One of these organizations is Smileawi, a Scottish charity founded by two dentists, Vicky and Nigel Milne, in 2012 after witnessing the nation’s lack of dental resources during a visit.
Smileawi runs a portable dental clinic in rural areas of Malawi, providing dental care to those who are less likely to have access to dentists. The charity also funds Malawian dental students and conducts dental conferences to empower and support local dentists in improving dental care in Malawi.
Although Smileawi prefers to send qualified dental practitioners to Malawi, many volunteers have no background in dental care and receive training from the organization. These volunteers self-fund a 16-day trip to Malawi to work in the charity’s “pain clinics,” which provide free tooth extraction services for diseased teeth. The clinics have also helped thousands of individuals suffering from toothache in the nation.
Smileawi’s services are available to vast numbers of people due to their portable clinics that are set up in public spaces such as classrooms and churches. Using money from donations, Smileawi invested in an eight-chair portable clinic that has served patients all over the rural areas of Malawi. Furthermore, Smileawi is developing a dental van that will help them travel around the entire nation and continue providing dental care to those in remote locations.
Smileawi Funding: Empowering Malawian Health Professionals
Smileawi aims to improve oral health in Malawi by directly providing dental services and empowering local health professionals. In 2017, Smileawi founders, the Milne family, assessed the equipment and facilities of dental therapists in Malawi and spent several months in the U.K. purchasing high-quality, second-hand dental chairs and equipment to send to Malawi. The charity was able to provide eight working dental chairs in six locations, and staff received training on how to maintain new equipment.
Since 2017, Smileawi has funded 21 dental therapy students, including Lusekero Kyumba, who studied at the College of Health Sciences in Malawi. The charity covers tuition fees, accommodation and general maintenance, which is vital because many academically gifted students cannot afford tuition fees and drop out as a result. Smileawi enables prospective Malawian dentists to focus on their studies and graduates are offered jobs at pain clinics following the completion of their studies.
Smileawi Conferences: Connecting Malawian Dentists
To ensure Malawian dentists are at the forefront of improving dental care, Smileawi hosts conferences twice a year in Mzuzu, where dental professionals can exchange information and discuss how to improve their practices. The conferences regularly see the attendance of international speakers, representatives of the Malawian government and medical professionals. Smileawi volunteers, partners and Malawian dental therapists agree that the conferences are highly beneficial because they create a space for dentists to build connections and share ideas on how to make accessible dental care in Malawi a reality.
Although there is still a long way to go before quality dental care is accessible to everyone in Malawi, Smileawi is making significant progress in improving oral health among the rural population. The charity’s work directly helps the Malawian people and encourages the improvement of dental care nationally.
– Mohsina Alam