Sometimes the original version is better than anything contemporary society can create.
By Joseph Dana | April 30, 2018
The drive to reinvent old technologies reveals a gap in contemporary society. Our technology-infused existence has left many of us with a desire to return to basics. Think about the paper book. In the mid to late 2000s, e-readers threatened humanity’s deep relationship with the written word on paper. Bookstores were closing and critics warned that Amazon would control all book sales going forward. While Amazon does command a massive share of the market, paper books have made a comeback and some independent bookstores are flourishing.
In the Middle East, the tension between old and new takes on a different complexion. Traditional ways of life still dominate society in ways that are not apparent in the West. At the same time, young people in the Middle East are more connected than ever. Cities like Dubai are incorporating the latest technologies into their governance structures. For young people, this tension can actually transform into a fertile marketplace. Lebanese designer Leen Sadder is one such example.
While studying design in New York, Sadder was asked to redesign the first thing she threw away after class. It happened to be a tube of toothpaste. Thinking about oral hygiene, she was surprised to discover the miswak, a natural toothbrush that the prophet Mohammed is said to have used during his lifetime. Since that time, the miswak has been used by observant Muslims around the world. It is sustainable, healthy, and has been proven to fight oral diseases.
Born in Saudi Arabia, Sadder grew up in Beirut but only came across the miswak in school. “I actually read a lot about the miswak as part of a design project,” Sadder told me. “I realised that many people didn’t know about this fascinating natural toothbrush, so I decided to revive it and give it a cool new spin.” Interest in the product was quick and worldwide. With the help of an industrial designer and a crowdfunding page, Sadder launched This Toothbrush by rebranding the miswak and creating a new cutter to maintain the toothbrush.
“The majority of the interest early on came from the Gulf,” Sadder recalled. “Many people already knew what the miswak was and were very eager to get their hands on a modern version of the toothbrush. So I moved to Dubai to focus on the UAE and Saudi markets.”
She found that the miswak was a hit among tourists in Saudi Arabia. Eventually she created an online store and began to branch out beyond the Middle East to communities in South-east Asia and around the world. The product also proved to be a great Ramadan gift for corporations. As such, a fair portion of miswak sales come from bespoke corporate gifts across the Muslim world. After two and a half years, Sadder has started to see universal interest in her project and is now exporting more toothbrushes to Europe than the Gulf. In fact, the use of tree bark as a toothbrush extends far beyond the Arab world. In India and parts of Africa, twigs have long been used for oral hygiene.
“There are so many communities around the world that have similar values and aspirations that are looking for a product that represents them and their culture but also doesn’t clash with their modern lifestyle and the products they already own today,” Sadder noted. “This appeals to a young generation but it is not specific to Arabs or any other culture.”
To hear more from Leen Sadder about her unlikely toothbrush, listen to our extended interview with her on our podcast, The 85%, and don’t forget to subscribe for more great interviews with entrepreneurs and changemakers across the 85 World.