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Should Kenya make toothpicks?

May 05, 2013 Strategy, Success, Sunday Nation

My friend and fellow columnist Charles Onyango-Obbo asked an interesting question on Twitter recently: why don’t Kenya and other African countries make toothpicks? I promised to answer, so here is a response.

Perhaps the question is better framed in the way that many of Charles’s followers seemed to put it: why can’t we even make toothpicks? The toothpick, you see, is viewed by many as something very simple: it is small, cheap, made of one thing, and has only one use. Every country should be able to make toothpicks, surely?

Not so fast. Making a good toothpick is no simple matter. You need the right type of wood to start with: ideally white birch. You need machinery that strips bark off the wood; that chops the wood into uniform pieces; that cuts the pieces into even-sized picks; that filters out the broken or uneven ones; that dries the remaining pieces and polishes them; and finally that packs the uniform picks into handy package sizes.

You get the point: the end-product may look simple; the process of producing it is not. You require a substantial supply chain and investment in heavy-duty automated plant to do this at all well.

A second point: we aren’t the only ones struggling with making toothpicks. America used to make 75 billion toothpicks annually; now, it makes hardly any. Even its own brands carry those ubiquitous words, “Made in China.”

But is America really sad about not making toothpicks any more? Not very. Perhaps it is better off leaving China, with its many cost advantages and state support, to make low-value items like those, as it concentrates its own efforts on design, high technology and research?

Thirdly, are toothpicks even the right thing to be making? They are a carryover from the days of using twigs to clean our mouths. Dental hygiene has moved on. If we want to make something, should we not be focusing on dental floss – or its successor, whatever that might be? I realize that many Kenyan men still keep a toothpick in the mouth or behind the ear as a fashion accessory, but this surely will die out soon…

Despite all of that, some hardy souls do make toothpicks in Kenya. Here are some of the things they will very likely encounter: a dysfunctional port which will make importations very difficult; a railway that is yet to function as it ought to; a corrupt and expensive system of regulating the movement of materials by road; a power distribution system that seems to see no crisis in businesses losing electricity for an increasing number of days every month; importers who seem immune to customs duties and who can undercut any local producer; and municipal bodies that regard it their sworn duty to harass and extort money from anyone silly enough to start a business of any sort.

With that in mind, it is a wonder we make anything at all, let alone toothpicks.

And so, Charles’s question triggers many answers, all of which provide an insight into the true challenges of business in Africa. It is not enough to have a consuming class; we must also create a producing class. It is not enough to produce the simple stuff; Africa will have to leapfrog into the complicated stuff soon. If we wish to produce anything of any quality, it is not enough to leave all of this to private endeavour; governments have to provide the essential infrastructure, clean up regulation and get the hell out of the way.

Any African economy has to learn the art of adding value. That is about moving on from primary production, and deepening the skills of supply-chain management, brand building and customer care. It is not about making everything we need, it is about making the right things – those we can excel at.

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