Why do we import cure-dent from China?

Tuwashe mishumaa tusitukane giza, (literally, light the candle lest we insult the darkness). This saying advises that we should focus on solutions instead of blaming other people and other reasons for our problems.
Sam Kebongo
Sam Kebongo

Tuwashe mishumaa tusitukane giza, (literally, light the candle lest we insult the darkness). This saying advises that we should focus on solutions instead of blaming other people and other reasons for our problems.

This is the spirit of this discourse. It is not an attack on China. Indeed, The People’s Republic China or its sister states Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore have had exemplary development records that we all should emulate. We have a lot to learn from China’s meteoric rise to be the world’s second largest economy.

We must applaud the architect of modern Chinese economy Deng Xiaoping for this. He is remembered for his pragmatism and clear vision that led to China’s current position.

Deng’s pragmatism is captured in what is perhaps his most famous quotation: "It doesn't matter whether it's a white cat or a black cat, I think; a cat that catches mice is a good cat." 

But I am an unapologetic African and a good Pan-Africanist in the making.  So let’s light the candle upon our darkness.

I have developed peculiar habits lately. As I shop, I look out for where products have been manufactured. Perhaps it is my famous dislike for shopping or it’s just the conscious in me of wanting to know where my money goes and in which country I am creating jobs. I was at this and I got curious about the small, mostly unnoticed item in Kigali, what we like to call ‘cure-dent’, the tooth pick. This is how I stumbled onto the fact that we import toothpicks. Yes we import toothpicks from China.

Toothpicks here are a symbol for all the things we could make ourselves but import.

It got me wondering; just how complicated is it to make a toothpick? First toothpicks are made from bamboo and we have plenty of that in Musanze. In any case bamboo can be cultivated. It grows fast and there are new genetically modified reach heights of over 15 metres.  A little time on Google showed me that it does not take very much to make them. Indeed the whole process can be done in a woodwork workshop. The process from splitting the bamboo to sharpening the toothpicks takes less than half an hour. That is about 100 packets of toothpicks.

The reason we give for import stuff is supposedly because we do not have the technology required to make them.  This is clearly not true in this case, and, I bet, in the case of a lot of other imports.

Toothpicks are very cheap. They go for between Rwf100 and Rwf500 for each small packet. This is after all the manufacture, freight, taxes and, of course, the shopkeeper’s profits have been considered. Maybe this is why we consider it not to be a profitable venture. Would making toothpicks be profitable? The answer is yes. Let us consider two reasons.

One: The Chinese are not known for time wasting. If they would engage in this enterprise to this extent, they must be something in it. Two; consider being able to make 100 packs of toothpicks in half an hour.

That makes 200 per hour and 1600 per eight hour day (you are by no means tied to this. If you sell them at Rwf50 per pack, you will be grossing Rwf80,000 per day. Now that is profit!

Where is the market? Are we not in the East African Community? We have to start exporting beyond the agricultural produce. Why is urwagwa and akabanga not on the shelves of Kenyan, Ugandan, Tanzanian and Burundian shops?

Why are we always importing? If we are importing toothpicks what do we not import? Unfair Balance of Trade (BoT) and its accompanying Balance of Payments (BoP) in addition to aid dependency are the main propagators of poverty in our country. They give us aid….we use it to buy their products, down to toothpicks!

If we are to make it to self-sufficiency we have to manufacture and export. The journey to self-sufficiency must precede self-reliance. As Bob Marley would say, “We gotta be conscious”.

NB: Did you know that bamboo is actually a grass? Bamboo is a type of true grass that is one of the largest grasses in the world. They are fast-growing, woody plants.

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