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Toilet paper dialogue

Monday May 5 2014

By BITANGE NDEMO
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Just this weekend I drove to Nakuru, and along the Nakuru Highway there were many people waving down motorists with what looked like rolls of white paper.  Some were vigorous in their attempt to catch the eye of motorists. 

At the Limuru turnoff, I stopped to check what they were actually waving.  They were hawking rolls of toilet paper. The hawkers flocked around my car thinking I was a customer. 

Due to the persistence of one particular hawker (who looked motherly and despairing), I decided to buy one.  “Made in China” screamed the writing on it.  

From Kangemi to Limuru, we’d been discussing how haphazardly we build in Kenya.  Houses too close to the highway.  A culture of not using architects and even when we use them, no aesthetic beauty in our housing designs.

Lack of building standards and zoning.  All these make driving on our highways unpleasant and more like going through a museum of misery, instead of savoring the tranquility of forested highways and the beautiful environmental landscapes Kenya has to offer.  As we got back to the highway, our topic changed on to the toilet paper.

“What has happened so that toilet paper gets hawked on highways?” my friend Martin asks.  Perhaps it is a market entry strategy, possibly because there is no credit in such a distribution system, I responded.  We seemed to agree that there has to be something driving these new initiatives and possibly toilet paper is at last is becoming affordable. 

Then we began to reflect on toilet paper, when we saw it first, what we used before, the purposes of toilet paper, its market penetration as a product and so on.

The history of toilet paper dates as far back as the 6th century, but mass production did not take place until the 14th century in China.  It is argued that the British registered the first patent in 1590 but what is more important is that a solution had been found to deal with this important aspect of hygiene. 

It is now seven centuries later yet toilet paper is still not widely used.  From the 2009 census in Kenya, the penetration rate of toilet paper is still below 50 per cent.  As many as 30 per cent of our people still defecate in the open and use grass for you-know-what.

SPONGES ON STICKS

It is emerging that communication is much more important to most people than matters of nature.  Mobile innovation that came around in the 1990s now enjoys 85 per cent penetration in Africa.  Prior to the invention of toilet paper, different people used different methods. Growing up as children, we used grass, old newspapers and leaves, but even these proved harmful especially if you were unfamiliar with the local flora. 

Some people could at some time admire a green leafy shrub for the purpose, only to discover it was the stinging nettle.  Of course what ensued was drama and if there was no water nearby, you got to learn a valuable lesson on vegetation.

Nobodys-perfect.com says other people used “fur, mussel shells, and corncobs.  The ancient Greeks used stones and pieces of clay; ancient Romans used sponges on the ends of sticks, kept in jugs filled with salty water.  In the Middle East, they commonly used the left hand, which is supposedly still considered unclean in the Arabian region. 

“Corncobs and pages torn from newspapers and magazines were commonly used in the early American West. The Sears catalogue was well-known in this context, and even produced such humorous spinoffs as the ‘Rears and Sorebutt’ catalogue. The Farmer's Almanac had a hole in it so it could be hung on a hook and the pages torn off easily.”

Affordability propelled mobile penetration to where it is today. So I called one member of the Kenya Manufacturers Association to ask why we cannot manufacture cheaper toilet paper than the one from China.  He told me that our production costs are high.  Energy and taxes in Kenya are our biggest problem, he said.  I sought to investigate these allegations. 

SIMPLY NOT COMPETITIVE

Indeed, the cost of electricity in China at 7.5 US cents per Kwh is almost half what Kenyans pay at 13.73 US cents per Kwh.  On gasoline, it costs Chinese people 111 US cents per litre while in Kenya we pay 133 US cents per litre most of it going to taxes.  The average wage per hour in Nairobi at $1.5 is higher than that of China at $1.2.  Outside of Nairobi in many counties, our wage per hour is less than 50 per cent that of China.  We are simply not competitive. 

With a little bit of adjustment, we can be more competitive than China and this is how:

We need to reform the energy sector and make it more responsive to industry as the Chinese did.  In April 1996, an Electric Power Law was passed in China marking the departure from the past inefficient way of managing electricity.  The law set out to promote the development of the electric power industry, to protect legal rights of investors, managers and consumers, and to regulate generation, distribution and consumption. The installed capacity has moved from 315 GW in 2000 to more than 1,200 GW in 2012.  They discarded small generation plants in favour of large and efficient plants. 

Kenya’s installed capacity stands at 1,700 MW, virtually all of it coming from small generation plants with only 18 per cent connected.  The latent demand is enormous yet economists keep on using antiquated predictor models to come up with answers like 'Kenya cannot absorb significant amounts of energy production'.

We need to simply liberalize the sector and strengthen regulation.  Discard small and inefficient plants and build large plants to leverage on economies of scale and more importantly, get the Government out of the way in the energy sector.   We have done it in the telecommunication sector when we swallowed the bitter pill of liberalization. Many thought it will be the end of communications in Kenya.  We forget that most of us grew up knowing that telephony was something for the rich only.   Tell that to a mama mboga today.

FROM FURNITURE TO STEEL

 The Kenya Posts and Telecommunications (KPTC) due to its monopoly status had become too arrogant and non-responsive to customer needs.  At some point there were 3,000 drivers when the company had only 1,000 vehicles.  Without liberalization, such innovations as Mpesa would never have happened. 

With some bold decision, we can change our country forever.  Provide energy to all then you begin to see innovations popping up from all over the place.  From furniture making to steel welding there will be jobs all over.  Manufacturers will effectively compete and give us locally manufactured toilet paper as well as other goods where we are not competitive.  The ripple effect will be enormous when people begin to afford the commodity leading to greater hygiene and fewer opportunistic diseases.  This is how every citizen will understand that we are making progress.

Use of toilet paper?  The volcanic soil of Nakuru had dirtied our dash board and the toilet paper came in handy.  At the restaurant, someone had rolled out a piece of toilet paper to blow his nose.  I say we use it to create a genuine industrial revolution, but hey, let me leave it to your imaginations as to what Kenyans can do with toilet paper.

As former Nigerian President, Ibrahim Babangida said “We have established a new basis in our country in which economic liberalization would continue to flourish alongside democratic forces and deregulated power structure.”

We need liberalization in our devolved systems.

Dr Ndemo is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Business School, Lower Kabete Campus. He is a former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication. Twitter:@bantigito