Daraja Academy Empowers Girls to Own Their Health, Education, and Future

At Daraja Academy in Kenya, girls are given the opportunity for a brighter future.

Daraja Academy is a boarding secondary school for Kenyan girls with excellent academic abilities but no financial means to pay for their education. 

The school, through foundation support, provides full scholarships for these girls. The girls come from 31 tribes from all parts of Kenya. The academy provides shelter, food, clothing, and counseling services, which allow students to focus on their academic and personal potential, without being hindered by the everyday barriers of poverty. The campus is located 200 km north of Nairobi in rural central Kenya.

A dentist and professor at NYU’s College of Dentistry, Yvonne Buischi, has made it her mission to empower Daraja’s students to take their health into their own hands, beginning with their oral health. She describes her journey to increase access to care at Daraja in the blog below.

Discovering Daraja Academy

I first learned about Daraja Academy in early 2013, through a very close friend, Deborah Santana, in the opening night of the documentary “Girls of Daraja.” I was mesmerized by the scenic beauty of rural Kenya and the magnetism emanating from each one of these special girls who seemed so happy and grateful to be part of Daraja. However, many were uncomfortable smiling due to mottling of their teeth from excessive intake of fluoride in their natural water. Cavities and gum inflammation were also very evident.

The Daraja girls immediately caught my heart and I felt an indescribable need to take action in order to promote better oral health among them. However, at that point I did not see how I could do this by myself.


A few months later, when Dr. Peter Loomer was recruited to NYU Dentistry as the Director of Global Health for Oral Health Sciences, he asked me about my research interests. I shared with him my dream of implementing a health promotion program for the girls at Daraja. After listening carefully, he asked, “When would be a good time for us to go to Kenya for an assessment trip?” We went there in February 2014, and now, after a great deal of organization and preparation, the official start of our oral health program will be this June.

Fitting Oral Health Into the Big Picture 

Poverty is an important social determinant of poor oral health. As extreme poverty persists in Kenya, prioritization of oral health remains very low as Kenya’s limited financial resources are directed towards other health concerns, such as HIV/AIDS.

In this context, the girls in Daraja Academy have no regular access to routine dental care, and they face several oral health challenges. In a recent site visit, we assessed their oral health needs and evaluated local conditions for the development and sustainability of a health promotion program at Daraja Academy.

Promoting Health at Daraja Academy

Our main goal is to establish a comprehensive health promotion program that will significantly improve the oral health of the girls and promote healthier behaviors. The program will serve as a pilot project, which we intend to be reproducible in other parts of Africa and beyond. Most importantly, the girls will be given training on how to become leaders in oral health: they will given the tools on how to instruct their peers, family, and friends on the importance of excellent oral health and general health.

We raised initial funds with sponsorship by NYU Dentistry and my friend Deborah’s Do A Little Foundation. Dental materials and equipment were generously donated by Henry Schein Cares, and Colgate-Palmolive donated personal oral health supplies.

Establishing Sustainability 

We have made three planning and assessment trips to Daraja to identify and establish the much-needed local support, including our Kenyan research collaborator, Dr. Kimathi Mowngera (Kenya Methodist University, Meru), local dental care provider Marius Ruto (Huruma Dental Clinic), and Sister Lucia from Huruma Health Center. The legal aspects of doing research in Kenya were also taken care during this period, such as IRB approval, and all necessary Kenya government research passes and permits.

In order to attain our goal of establishing a model for a replicable, self-sustained oral health promotion program, local support is crucial. We involved all of Daraja’s staff: Jason and Jenni Doherty (Daraja’s founders), Victoria Gichuhi (Principal), Charles Mbuto (Dean of Academics), Francesca Muthoni (Clinical Officer), and Stephen Stems (Daraja manager).

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Looking to the Future

We are very close to launching our program this June. We’re very excited to see how every member of our team will play his or her role, and to finally start the implementation stage of this life-changing project.

We are honored to have the chance to help these special girls. We know we can have a positive impact and improve their health and that of their family and friends. I’m inspired by the deep and genuine appreciation from the Daraja community to our work, and truly feel that our work can make a difference in people’s life.

After our second trip to Kenya, I received this email from one of Daraja Academy’s students:

“Hello Dr. Buischi, I humbly write to thank you for the great opportunity to travel with you and be part of you in your work. I am so pleased to tell you that I added so much value to my life within those three days we were together and the moments we shared.

“Indeed, I got so motivated while moving around the hospitals and clinics and the outcome is that I am not changing my mind about being a dentist. I really want to do this so that I become great just as you and Dr. Loomer. I am so very proud of you and your great work to change the world. Thank you for choosing to work in our beautiful country, Kenya…”

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Dr. Buischi and Dr. Loomer have been supported by a donation through Henry Schein Cares, the corporate social responsibility program of Henry Schein, Inc. 

Written by Yvonne Buischi, DDS, PhD, Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Periodontology and Implant Dentistry, and Peter Loomer, BSc, DDS, PhD, MRCD, Dip Perio, Clinical Professor and Chair, Periodontology and Implant Dentistry and Director of Global Health for Oral Health Sciences at New York University College of Dentistry.

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