Rwanda: How Plastics Ban Chokes Nation

Kigali — When one buys a loaf of bread in Rwanda, they should eat the entire package once opened.

It's not that about the bread being of low durability, it's just that the kind of packaging material in which the Rwandan bread are put can't guarantee safekeeping once opened.

"The thin paper material wrapped around the bread is not very good and sometimes the bread is damaged even before leaving our stalls," says Devota Kayitesi a sales lady in a supermarket in Kigali.

Poor bread packing is just one example of the hardships manufacturers here are undergoing to safely and attractively assemble their goods under strict regulations that no plastics or polythene of any kind should be used in the country.

Even before February last year when the East African Legislative assembly passed a bill on the controlled use of plastics in the region, Rwanda was already at it having passed its own law in 2005 and seen as the soul inspiration for East Africa to move that direction.

For almost a decade now the strict law on polythene use in Rwanda has become legendary resulting in an enviably clean environment especially in urban areas where unlike in the neighboring countries are always littered with polythene and other plastics debris.

But The EABW now understands things are not as smooth for both traders and consumers.

"While we remain 100% committed to not using plastics for packing, our counterparts in the neighboring states are still using them despite the ban which seriously hurts the competitiveness of our own traders in the region," Gerald Mukubu who's the head of advocacy at the Rwanda Private sector Federation (PSF) told The EABW.

PSF is the umbrella organization that brings together all private business owners and enterprises and the impact of Rwanda's strict ban on plastics has topped the complaints list with members pleading that Government be engaged to revise its stand on the matter.

A policy paper indicating the needs of the private sector was consequently prepared, a copy of EABW has obtained and which has provided a basis for negotiation talks between the traders and the country's environment management authority (NEMA) last year with no positive conclusion obtained.

A participant who declined to be named told us that REMA remained adamant neither telling traders that nor soft stand will be adopted insisting the environment must be protected at all costs.

Engineer Coletha Ruhamya the deputy director general of REMA told EABW in a recent interview that the traders have been provided an alternative which is an option to plastics and one that doesn't threaten the safety of the environment.

"We have given them options, they know them," she said.

Unfortunately, the options open to traders are the ones they are using since the coming into force of Law N°57/2008 of 10/09/2008 relating to the prohibition of manufacturing, importation.

It's the same options that Rwanda's main manufacturers such as Inyange Industries and Sulfo want changed so their chances for surviving the regional integration and common market competition are improved.

"You can't promote conditions that hurt your own competition in a regional common market, REMA officials might not understand this but surely I don't think the president and his government would support a move which kills the same enterprises they have worked hard to create and nurture," another trader told us on condition of anonymity.

Now having failed to agree with REMA, PSF is planning to engage the newly created 'Public-private-Dialogue (PPD) which seeks to maintain close links between the private sector and Government to resolve standing issues to ensure a harmonious development partnership.

Government hand in investing in general public goods is still heavy but the objective is to create a private sector based economy by 2020 to reduce on government expenditure.

There's a positive shift towards that already with controlled privatization of government run parastatals but efforts still remain on improving the private sector especially manufacturers who can create jobs as well as improving the country's export earnings through commodity sale.

While main manufacturers are excited about the prospect of exploiting the bigger common market of the EAC, concerns including unfavorable use of plastics across the region have already been raised as being stumbling blocks in Rwanda's regional hopes.

SULFO Rwanda Industries is one of the pioneer manufacturing companies in Rwanda having started in 1962 as a small soap making enterprise by Tajdin H.Jaffer and Khatun Jaffer. Over four decades later now, it's Rwanda's leading manufacturer making an assortment of products from soap to cooking oil and employing hundreds of Rwandans in the course of production.

Officials, who talked to us for this story could only do so off record but say the need to diversify the market base beyond Rwanda which they amply supply, must be accompanied by packaging a competitive brand that would compete favorably with other goods made in the region.

"If its water, the chances are that it's probably similar to that of your rival but what provides the edge is how the attractive the product packaging is and we are getting a raw deal from that end," said one Sulfo marketing executive.

In May 2007, Rwanda's then Minister of State in charge of lands and environment orally directed Sulfo Rwanda industries to stop the use of plastic shrink wrapping films and bags for the packaging of toilet soaps and cosmetics products, irrespective of the thickness of the film used and were advised to find alternative methods in two months.

Since January 2008, SULFO has replaced the plastic shrink wrapping film used for the packing of major cosmetics line, Petroleum Jelly by Paper Display cartons, a not very desired approach but nonetheless unavoidable.

"The cost associated with the use of the new environmental friendly packaging is three times more compared to the previously used Plastics," Sulfo officials said in a petition to the PSF.

In order to cut costs and also march their rivals elsewhere in the region, Sulfo is requesting for special permission to use plastic bags for the packaging of confectionery product hard boiled candies and films for the wrapping of products destined for export with a condition that these are distinctly printed "EXPORT" and shall not be sold in the local market.

The manufacturer also moves for a ban on regional import of products from Kenya and Uganda for instance packed in Plastic bags which pose a threat to the local products which are using more expensive paper packaging.

The traders' efforts are in a bid to give the 'made in Rwanda' brands leverage against competition in an area where they are still underdogs.

Inyange industries, another household manufacturer in business since 1997 specializes in food processing parking juices, water, milk and other soft products but the law on plastics hasn't spared them either.

The company embarked on an ambitious expansion project worth US$27million on a new production plant which has seen its capacity increase tenfold.

With excessive production, a move for the bigger market in the region was the correct option but current policy restrictions are not helping matters.

"Customers prefer bottled products with polythene seals on the caps which ensure the originality and safety of products which nonetheless is not allowed in Rwanda despite water products from outside Rwanda having the polythene seals and allowed on the local market," remarks Inyange officials.

The young industry also recently had invested in polythene filling & packaging machine and the machine which is now out of work.

In discussions that are hoped will resolve the plastics matter for Rwandan manufacturers, alternative packaging materials have been proposed.

The main candidate has is the "oxo-biodegradable" plastics (d2w) which are developed by Symphony environmental (UK).

But while these have been approved and verified by the Rwanda Bureau of Standards (RBS) and the British Standards Institute (BSI), REMA remains against them, a frustrating position for traders whose main worry now is failure by the government to reach a compromise would suffocate the country's manufacturers as well as their gains in the region.

But Chief advocacy official Mukubu, the Private sector chairman Faustin Mbundu and PSF CEO Hannington Namara are all confident that government will understand the concerns of their members and reach a friendly and useful solution.

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