EP89 Beauty, Femicide, and Social Innovation Through The South African Lens with Mulanga Muofhe

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I AM GPH EP89 Beauty, Femicide, and Social Innovation Through The South African Lens with Mulanga Muofhe
EP89 Beauty, Femicide, and Social Innovation Through The South African Lens with Mulanga Muofhe

Maureen: Hello. My name is Maureen Zeufack and you're listening to the "I AM GPH'' podcast. In this episode, I get a chance to speak with Mulanga Muofhe. She's an alumna of NYU's School of Global Public Health getting her MPH in 2009 and a member of NYU GPH's inaugural alumni board. Much of Muofhe's past work and passions lie within health and social innovation and she has interest in promoting community-based health solutions and wellness for all. Mulanga, a South African native who is now based in Cape Town, is the founder of Mulanga Muofhe Natural Beauty. A natural, organic skincare brand, which aims to target specific Black skin concerns. In this episode, we get into the importance of skincare and skin health and subverting existing standards of beauty, the present issue of femicide in South Africa, as well as social innovation in health. If you would like to hear more about these topics and the Mulanga's insightful take on them, you're going to want to listen to this episode.

Maureen: I'm here today with Mulanga Muofhe. So Mulanga, can you tell me a bit about your background and how you got into public health?

Mulanga: Actually, my whole goal was really to become a medical doctor and sometime around my junior year in undergrad is when I first got introduced to public health. And I really was attracted to this whole notion of being able to help communities at once or initiatives that help communities at once, rather than a doctor who kind of does this one-on-one impact by patient on a one-on-one patient basis. And so after I graduated from undergrad, then I applied to get my MPH at NYU, and that's how I ended up there.

Maureen: So now you're working with your natural beauty's brand, so how did your public health background influence the creation of your skincare brand?

Mulanga: So for me I feel like, well, we all know that public health is the art and prevention of disease and your skin is your largest organ of the body and the most visible, right? And it is a protective shield from many different elements. So really the lack of taking proper care of your skin can directly affect your overall health. And then when I think about words that resonate with me in terms of public health, I think about access, quality and innovation and how I relate those words into my skincare brand. Access means creating skincare solutions that cater to problematic skin and are easily accessible to everyday people. Quality means the use of clean and safe, high performance ingredients. And innovation demonstrates our company's approach on challenging and changing European standards of beauty for Black people through our marketing and educational content.

Maureen: That's fantastic. And so where would you say the seeds of inspiration for this endeavor came from?

Mulanga: So interestingly enough, it was sparked by a personal event that happened to me, which then made me recognize there was a gap in the market. After returning home to South Africa, I was diagnosed with eczema for the very first time in my life. I mean, I was itchy and covered in bumps all over and all I wanted to do was just find some natural remedies with coconut oil, shea butter, et cetera. And to my surprise, those ingredients were actually very hard to find. So fast forward. I applied to business school just because I've always also had an interest for owning my own company, but literally didn't know anything about how to start a business, how to run a business. So by the time I finished that one year program, I knew I wanted to use my knowledge of public health and business to go into beauty.

Maureen: You've mentioned before that there are specific Black skin concerns that you're hoping to address with your brand. So what are those skin concerns that you hope to do that with?

Mulanga: Well, I can't disclose all our sweet areas, but I can share one or two. We are targeting hyperpigmentation and dry skin as those tend to be severe and appear more frequently amongst darker skin individuals. But in no way, are we saying that only Black people have these challenges, we're just interested in giving this group of people solutions that can better their skin health.

Maureen: Right. And so your brand lives at the intersection of health and skincare. What do you feel that the gap in the market this company is filling?

Mulanga: The biggest gap that we're filling is providing customers with high quality skincare that is made with certified organic and 100% natural ingredients. We really do care about what goes on your skin and how that interacts with your health and the kinds of implications that can have. So that's why clean beauty is our ultimate standard. Clean beauty is a philosophy, or ethos, that all ingredients are safe and healthy as well as sustainable. And when we talk about sustainability and beauty, what we're really talking about is making sure that the way that ingredients are sourced protects and respects not only the environment, but the people and the communities who cultivate and nurture those trees that bear these superfood ingredients.

Maureen: I think that's so important having that sustainability in all aspects of the endeavor. That's amazing. Being from South Africa, I'm sure that you're familiar with the extent that skin bleaching is quite a major multimillion dollar industry across the continent of Africa. As you know, it has harmful effects on user's skin and dermal health. So how can skincare brands such as yours and other endeavors subvert or combat this? And why is that so important?

Mulanga: As a sector I think we have to first understand the intersection of social comparison and beauty. What is driving people to make the beauty choices that align with that of the dominant beauty ideal? In this case, that beauty ideal is European standards of beauty, right? And what are the societal pressures that dictate what norms to be followed? So after we've understood that, then I think we can create narratives with messaging, annihilating or positively changing the subjective norms that have plagued Black people for centuries and has for years been informing our behavior, to those of embracing our Black beauty therefore creating our own standards. So one tangible way my company has been thinking about is creating content and stories around this notion of going back to basics. So relearning old rituals that our grandmothers and great-grandmothers used from centuries ago, where they would use natural ingredients from the garden and come up with homemade concoctions that really work. So creating our own standards of beauty is important because it will help us really embrace our true beauty and embracing ourselves is important for both self-care and self-love, which have a direct impact on our overall health.

Maureen: Wow, that's fantastic. Thank you for sharing that. Speaking on sort of more social societal issues. I know that the South African government has declared that gender-based violence is a national crisis and that femicide currently across the continent, but especially in South Africa currently, is a major concern. What is something that you wish those outside of the country knew about this issue?

Mulanga: Yeah. So first let me just give an explanation on how my government of South Africa defines femicide for maybe those that are listening and might not be aware. Femicide is generally understood to involve intentional murder of women because they are simply women. It is usually perpetrated by men, but sometimes female family members may be involved. Most cases of femicide are committed by partners or ex-partners and involve ongoing abuse in the home, threats or intimidation, sexual violence situations where women have less power or fewer resources than their partner. So according to the most recent data from 2017, 2018, a woman is murdered every three hours in South Africa. The murder rate is 58.2 murders for every 100,000 adult women in South Africa.

Maureen: Shocking.

Mulanga: It is shocking. So literally femicide goes against sustainable development goal five, which is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by 2030.

Mulanga: So what I want the outside world and people within South Africa to know is that there is no excuse for femicide. Whether it is due to poverty, substance abuse, COVID-19 lockdowns, any form of controlling behaviors are harmful, gender norms and stereotypes. It is absolutely unacceptable. And everyone, wherever you are and specifically men, everybody needs to get involved in condemning, educating, and eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls. The boy child needs to know that gender based violence is a no-no and the girl child must be educated and empowered not to accept it as a norm.

Maureen: Exactly. I think it's important to note that it's not just a women's issue, it's a societal problem that everybody needs to be a part of solving.

Mulanga: Right. And there's quite a lot of relearning, right, based on gender stereotypes and norms. There's a lot of relearning that needs to happen specifically for the boy child, right? In relation to how they will treat women when they get older or girls around them. So yeah, we have a lot of work to do around this issue for sure.

Maureen: And as you briefly touched on I know that the rates of femicides have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 lockdown and being in quarantine. Can you touch a bit about that or the hashtag "am I next?" that has been trending recently.

Mulanga: Yeah. I mean, there were weeks where literally every single weekend we were waking up, South Africans were waking up to the news that yet another young girl or a young young girl. And I mean, girls, I mean like under 10, or an 18 year old or a 20 year old at the prime of their lives had been just murdered by either an ex or there was a girl who was murdered just for telling her then ex that she wanted to break up with him.

Mulanga: So it was so devastating because you could just imagine we already have such high anxiety around COVID-19. What is COVID-19 and when will life go back to normal? And there are a lot of people out there that are being quarantined or locked down with their abuser, right? So there's been a spike and this is not just happening in South Africa. I mean, I think the latest statistics by the WHO from, I think 2016 have South Africa as the fourth highest country dealing with gender based violence and femicide. And other countries are also in this with us. But really I think the way to even go about trying to prevent this or eliminating this is going to really be through advocacy and legislation and everybody, civil society, private entities, those in the health space, everybody has a role to play because it's not just a political responsibility of the government to fix, it's for all of us to be part of the solution.

Maureen: So in your opinion, how can we ensure justice or resources for survivors of gender based violence? And currently in South Africa, are there any preventative initiatives such as educational curriculum or legislation to address this that are already in place?

Mulanga: Yeah, like I said, I think the way we're going to be able to ensure justice or resources for survivors is through advocacy and legislation and an example of an NGO that's doing this work that people even listening to the podcast may be familiar with is a organization called Sonke S-O-N-K-E Gender Justice. And they've been working in this space for 13 years. They advocate for women and men, girls and boys to work together to resist patriarchy, advocate for gender justice and achieve gender transformation.

Mulanga: So they offer tools and resources for different stakeholders, such as curriculums, training, and even tools and how to engage men and boys to advocate for elimination of gender based violence. So they also actually have a whistleblower hotline where you can report an incident of sexual harassment, bullying, abuse, and so on. So they are one organization that's been on the ground for a while, but there are a lot. There are plenty more other organizations also fighting against gender based violence.

Mulanga: And then one other thing, on the national level, there is a multi-sectoral strategic policy and framework that's been put in place to respond to the crisis. And it is both victim centered and survivor focused. So there's a lot that is happening and hopefully soon enough, we will see the rates in South Africa really lower and just get eliminated.

Maureen: So another topic and issue that you're super passionate about is social innovation in public health. Can you tell us what that is and what that means to you?

Mulanga: Yeah, so what social innovation means to me is really developing and deploying effective solutions to impact resource constrained communities in support of social progress. So this approach offers new methods to delivering access to health care and using social innovative tools we'll be able to give access to quality health care to over 1 billion people in the global South who need it the most. And it can take the form of using mobile technology to track compliance and adherence to TB care by patients or the use of an Avon business model to empower everyday people to become community health workers that provide door to door health visits.

Mulanga: As a concept, social innovation focuses on creating social value and that is really important to me. With its unique lens and approach, it creates a collaborative engagement between communities and various health actors where solutions can be created thereby bridging the health care delivery gap.

Maureen: It's very expansive, covers a lot.

Mulanga: I know, right?

Maureen: Can you share with us why you're so passionate about social innovation in health, and how does this coincide with the work that you're doing currently or are hoping to do in the future?

Mulanga: So I love discovering grassroots organizations that are working on the ground to bridge the healthcare delivery gap, because like I touched on before, those living in low and middle income countries still don't have access to vaccines, to drugs, to medical equipment that exists for the rest of the world to use. Right?

Mulanga: So the work I've done has really given me exposure to how to go about strengthening health systems, which is essential if we want to achieve universal health coverage and if we want to actually meet sustainable development goals. So I've been fortunate to be a part of an initiative that's working to promote and support social innovation research, building country and organizational capacity, and advocating for embedding of social innovation as an approach in health. And that's really the work that I would like also to continue doing in the future.

Maureen: So in that train of thought, which kind of projects, health systems, and areas of focus of social innovation would you like to see evolve or develop on the continent of Africa or in the country of South Africa specifically?

Mulanga: So in South Africa, and really, I can also relate this to the rest of the continent of Africa, I really would like to see a higher integration of technology within public health interventions. There are so many benefits to adoption of tech and public health, right? Such as you get wider reach, affordability, scalability. So the utilization of tech in public health has already started, and I've had the privilege of seeing it being rolled out in places like Liberia and Kenya.

Mulanga: So I want to see those tech driven innovations go to the next level. I mean, we are in the fourth industrial revolution, right? So we can't really afford to ignore tech anymore. And another thing that I really would like to see is an innovative business model that disrupts the healthcare system just like how Uber disrupted the transportation industry. I'm really eager to see who is going to disrupt the healthcare system as we know it. So I'm waiting and it's probably going to be tech-related.

Maureen: Very true. So closing out, is there any advice you would give to young people or graduates who want to pursue a career in public health or things that are public health-adjacent?

Mulanga: Yeah. The beautiful thing about public health is that it is so broad and it can extend between so many disciplines, but because it's so broad, I feel it can be overwhelming in terms of what you'd like to focus on. So that actually reminds me of when I asked my professor how to go about choosing an area of focus, and she said, first, you should consider the health conditions and or behaviors that interest you, right? Then the community population, country that pulls at your heartstrings. And then once you have that, go out there and contribute. Another tip is to network like your life depends on it. I can't say it more. Don't be afraid to reach out to sector professionals and ask for informational meetings. The advantage of having informational meetings is that you can get very candid advice about the work environment and so forth. And you're also signaling to the sector that you are in the market, you are ready to work, and you are ready to contribute. So there you have it.

Maureen: What motivates you and inspires you to put in the hours and do the work that you are doing?

Mulanga: So I am starting a skincare brand right now, and that's what I am focused on. But my long term mission really is to build a wellness company that promotes overall healthy living. So I want to be a key driving force that is changing the narrative around what it means to be Black, beautiful, and healthy. And so that really keeps me pushing and it keeps me inspired.

Maureen: That's wonderful. I think it's so important to stand out here and redefine what we see as beauty and what it means. Are there any last thoughts or things you'd like to share?

Mulanga: Well I'm just grateful to have been part of this podcast. It's been amazing.

Maureen: Thank you so much for coming on, Mulanga.

Mulanga: Thank you for having me.