The broad grin, honest gaze, energy and vitality of this Galician pharmacist born in 1982… this is the best possible presentation of Beyond Suncare, the NGO she founded in 2017. Since 2008 Mafalda has been deeply involved in improving the quality of life of people with albinism, the most marginalized population on the African continent. Together with her team, she has produced a sunscreen product suited to their needs and skin type.
TEXT: CRISTINA BISBAL IMAGES: MAFALDA SOTO
What first drew you to Africa?
Although it seems contradictory, a trip to Iceland. When I graduated, I was awarded a scholarship for scientific studies in Reykjavik. At that time, just before the crisis, it topped the world human development index ranking; the richest nation, offering most possibilities… everything was easy. There was a huge level of consumerism and that made me think.
Was that when you decided to go to Africa?
I took charge of my grandmother’s pharmacy in Santiago de Compostela while I trained to be an aid worker and tried to save money. I wanted to get involved, but from the inside, knowing how things worked. A year later I went to Barcelona to do an MSc in Tropical Medicine and International Health. It was an environment of Africanist teachers and students and I got hooked. I decided to try my luck and I headed off with the África Directo NGO for nine months, which turned into nine years (laughs). Right now, this is a life project in which it’s hard to draw the line between the personal and professional spheres.
Because you got caught up in the situation of those with albinism. How did that love story start?
I was working in Malawi on a sociomedical community project with groups at risk of exclusion. One of these groups was the population with albinism. That was where I suddenly discovered it… it really impacted me. In the project, I monitored their skin health, but there was also an education and awareness aspect… After two years in Malawi, I moved to a dermatological hospital in northern Tanzania to work with people with albinism.
What is special about people with albinism?
First of all, their major threat – cancer. In Africa, skin cancer is the leading cause of death among people with albinism, ending their lives in a dramatic fashion: 90 percent die before they reach 30. Prevention is essential. In Africa, sunscreen saves lives. They are also discriminated against for their appearance, persecuted and killed due to the influence of violent superstitions: their bones are used to make potions that bring good fortune. It’s horrible!
While you were there, you came up with the idea of creating a sun blocker.
Yes, and I came back to Spain to learn how to do it. We started a tiny production run in a ship container (laughs). It was then that a Canadian NGO learned of our project and decided to support it, help it grow and maximize its impact. And so, with more financial resources and people involved in these productions, the years went by and the project progressively expanded.
Why make sunscreen there if you could import it from Europe?
Two reasons. Firstly, the goal was to develop a formula adapted to their needs, to their skin type, and get them to try it. They had to accept it, because they won’t use what they don’t like. In fact, the formula has improved a lot, as we have added better filters, with better adherence and cosmetic elegance. And secondly, we wanted to go for local production and, therefore, the ingredients and manufacturing processes had to be simple.
But the project goes beyond photoprotection?
Yes, indeed. Hand in hand with the National Albinism Association and United Nations, we conducted a study in 2017 to identify the challenges faced by people with albinism as regards accessing dermatological or educational services, among others. We currently offer a package of services that includes the product adapted specifically for them – easy to produce locally so that people with albinism are hired; the distribution is accompanied by education and a primary care dermatological checkup so that, in the future, this may be included within Malawi’s national health system. We also carry out projects to normalize albinism, demystifying everything that surrounds it. The idea is to achieve social inclusion.
What are the challenges for the future?
In the short term, our objective in Malawi is to bring all these services to 1,000 people with albinism and, in the medium term, to create another production unit and get the government to purchase the product, so as to reach all those with albinism in the country. And everything is going quite well.