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We have a long way to go in product quality

Mar 07, 2010 Management, Sunday Nation

The other day I reached for a box of tissues. As I pulled a tissue out, another five came out of the box. I had not encountered this recently, and wondered what the problem was. It turned out my household has been using imported tissues for a while, which are soft and detach easily. Those were out of stock, so we reverted to a Kenyan brand. Hence the problem.

I decided to test several Kenyan-made brands. Same problem everywhere: the tissues are coarse, and never detach cleanly. As there is not a substantial price difference between the local and most imported brands, the choice becomes a no-brainer for most people. But in which advanced country are those excellent tissues made? Malaysia. Which, I seem to recall, had the same GDP per head as Kenya not so long ago.

When it comes to products, the spirit of inquiry fills me every day. Delighted with the performance of my desktop printer – a leading international brand – I looked behind it to check the country of manufacture. Made in Malaysia. And I wondered: is it truly impossible for Kenya to make printers of this quality, even under international license?

The problem of product quality assails us every day. In my office there is a fridge that contains chocolates for sale. There are two brands on offer, a locally manufactured international chocolate, and one made elsewhere. The imported one is more expensive. Yet every single day I observe the imported chocolate selling out, while the locally made one is only taken if there is no option. Why? Because the one made here is coarse, lumpy and tastes vaguely of soap.

Let’s move on to ice-cream. Kenyan ice-cream is not bad, right? Right, until you try a high-end international brand. That’s when you realise what ice-cream should really be like. Kenyan manufacturers have indeed raised their game here in recent years, but there is a long way to go before we produce a Haagen-Dazs. At its worst, Kenyan ice-cream is lumpy, develops ice crystals rapidly, and fails the taste test.

I realise I’m making sweeping attacks on Kenyan products, but I am fed up with consuming the shoddy outputs that so many Kenyan manufacturers are routinely churning out. I realise many companies are making valiant attempts to produce world-class products, and I don’t wish to discourage them. But there is an essential truth we simply have to face up to: we have a long, long way to go before we are known as a quality manufacturing base.

Think about it: if we can’t make high-quality tissues, ice-cream or chocolate, how are we ever going to make printers? And if we can’t do printers, then microchips, cars, phones, lasers, routers and the like are just pipe dreams.

There is a standard reaction Kenyan manufacturers have to complaints of this sort: they roll out a long list of scapegoats. Here we go: erratic, high-cost power supply; corrupt officials; harassment; import tariffs; high taxes; awful roads; poor raw materials; low-quality labour. The list is long. I don’t even argue with most of it: this is a difficult environment for manufacturers, and many multinationals packed their bags long ago. But looking for scapegoats misses an important point: quality is fundamentally in the mind.

When you open a business, how good do you want your product to be? The answer, quite frequently, is not very. Many manufacturers have a basic Kenyan consumer in mind, one who is driven more by price than quality, one who has not been exposed to too many international products, and one who settles easily for whatever is on offer. When you have a low target in mind, naturally your entire business model will be affected.

Too many of our manufacturers buy second-hand, dated equipment – and kid themselves they are being shrewd. They employ the most basic labour and don’t invest in managerial talent – and kid themselves they are making efficient use of human capital. They use the cheapest raw materials they can find – and kid themselves they are good deal makers.

This may all be very well for the income-challenged average Kenyan consumer, but have you noticed what happens to shopping baskets once affluence is achieved? They are stuffed with foreign-sourced products. Does that not ring alarm bells?

Where is the person who wakes up every morning wanting to produce the best products in the world? Where is the person who sees the world’s top brands and wants to better them? Where is the person to whom “Kenya quality” is an insult? Where is the person who is obsessive and a little insane about product quality, and for whom a defective product is a slap in the face? For whom “good enough” is nowhere near good enough?

We need those people, for they are the ones who overcome barriers and the limitations of environment and create world-beating products and companies. Our competitive future demands that they emerge.

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