Madagascar Trip 2023

In September 2023, the two team members Nina Zho and Lisa Ballat traveled to Antananarivo for a first exploration. They were looking into how far the  prototype developed by our initiative was actually feasible to be produced in Madagascar with its available infrastructure as well as resources. This included the search for wood and miswak suppliers. Together with Felix Geidel – our project partner and coordinator from Planet Action e.V. – we strengthened the collaboration with SOLTEC, which is a local vocational training center supported by the Deutsch-Madagassischer Verein Esslingen e.V. (DMVE). SOLTEC offers apprenticeships on wood and metal works. 

Ein Bild, das Kleidung, Person, draußen, Schuhwerk enthält.

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denTUM representatives Nina and Lisa in Madagascar (left and right) 1) with Felix Geidel and 2) on site of local partner SOLTEC

In the first couple of days, we got to know the workshop as well as Tsiry, one of the employees working in the wood workshop. Together, we produced the first toothbrush with him out of wood that was available at SOLTEC. The manufacturing worked well.Thinking that buying bamboo would be no problem at all, we wanted to produce further toothbrushes out of the planned material and went out to purchase pieces of bamboo.

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First prototypes manufactured in Madagascar

This proved to be much more complicated than expected. Bamboo does grow in Madagascar, but its wood is not sold at local wood shops. After a long search and many hours of driving around Antananarivo, we bought bamboo in somebody’s backyard and at a bamboo furniture booth on the market. Both purchased bamboo pieces were not dried properly, so processing the wood with our grinding machine proved to be impossible.

To mitigate this issue, we came up with two approaches. First, we tried to dry bamboo pieces using a solar cooker. In the first run the pieces got burnt by the heat focusing directly on the wood’s surface. In a second trial we put the pieces in a container and received an acceptable degree of dryness. The material warps when being dried, so this needs to be considered when cutting pieces. With this technique only a very limited amount of bamboo can be dried simultaneously, so – even though it was a fun and great idea – this technique would not be a feasible approach for the production line.

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Ein Bild, das hölzern, Holz, Gelände, Grill enthält.

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Ein Bild, das Gelände, draußen, Maschine enthält.

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1) First trail with direct heat transfer, 2) Result: burnt bamboo, 3) Second trail using a container

Another solution could be to choose a different, more accessible material. Therefore, we went to one of the local wood shops where they sold “ordinary wood”, – to our understanding this is not a singular type of wood but rather a collective name for many types of wood that grows frequently in the surrounding region – pine and eucalyptus wood. We chose eucalyptus for further experiments, which could be processed – also being not completely dry – much easier than the hard-to-find bamboo.

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1) Size comparison: purchased eucalyptus pieces and toothbrush body, 2) Toothbrush bodies made from eucalyptus wood.

Miswak, being our other challenge supplier-wise, turned out to be just as difficult as we feared it would be. Nobody from SOLTEC nor the wood shops knew miswak (Salvadora persica). We tried to find out more at the ministry of agriculture who transferred us to IMRA, the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research. There we got to know that Miswak as suspected grows in many African countries, but Madagascar is not one of them. There is a related species growing in the west of Madagascar, which could be an alternative and has different names depending on the region.

1) Malagasy names for Salvadora angustifolia, the related species, 2) SOLTEC employees, Nina and Lisa at IMRAä

Apart from advancing the search for possible suppliers and the collaboration with SOLTEC, we tried to expand our network in Madagascar. In doing so, we met a representative from Doctors for Madagascar, who has a longstanding experience in carrying out local development and aid projects, thus having a wide network within the country. Secondly, we had an appointment at the German embassy hoping they could provide us with support for the customs duty in case we wanted to import larger machines. Unfortunately, this process could still result in difficulties as the regulations are not always dealt in the same way. 

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Ein Bild, das Kleidung, Person, Mann, Menschliches Gesicht enthält.

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1) Doctors for Madagascar, 2) German embassy

There are remaining challenges to tackle in the next phase of the toothbrush project. But with this first excursion to Madagascar, we were able to strengthen the relationship with SOLTEC and took the first step towards building a small toothbrush production to improve the local access for affordable dental care.