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How ban on plastic bags is choking ‘kadogo’ economy

By Graham Kajilwa | Sep 26th 2017 | 5 min read
By Graham Kajilwa | September 26th 2017
A trader in Kakamega town Luice Mukhwana sell paw paw to his customers in town

NAIROBI, KENYA: Recently, as I alighted from the matatu with haste just outside my gate, I went straight to my ‘githeri man’ for some takeway. He knows my order. After exchanging pleasantries, he got straight to the point. “Do you have a dish?” he posed. We both burst into laughter, knowing clearly what he meant.

This was in reference to the recent ban on plastic bags. “You know I am risking by serving you in a plastic bag. This is my last stock. Next time, come with a dish.”

That Friday evening, I paid him a visit again without a dish. To my shock, I was served in a khaki packet. “I told you to come with a dish. Now I have to charge you Sh5 for this packet,” he said with a chuckle. I gave in and paid for the packaging.

He later disclosed how the ban on plastic is slowly choking his business. Before the ban, he used to buy up to 200 pieces of flat plastic bags at Sh40 from a wholesaler.

This meant every piece cost 20 cents. Because of this, he saw no need to charge customers for packaging. “But now, if one cannot pay Sh5 for the packet, then the other option is to slightly reduce the amount of githeri I sell to them,” he said.

He is not  alone. At Nairobi’s Ngara Market, though some traders still use plastic bags, especially in makeshift hotels, things like takeaway sugarcane, groundnuts and chapatti are being packaged in khaki papers.

Others go to the extent of using manila envelopes to pack fries (chips), old newspapers and packets of already used baking and maize flour.

“I sell sugarcane. I give customers two options: I either peel the sugarcane for them and leave a small part untouched for them to hold, or I peel, chop it into pieces and put it in a khaki packet. Of course, many of customers do not like any of the options and choose to drive off,” said Peterson Kamau, a sugarcane seller Ngara Market.

This is the category of ordinary Kenyans who drive the economy - supporting the day-to-day lives of majority of Kenyans, including the middle class as majority of Kenyans do not shop in bulk owing to lack of time and inadequate cash.

Also feeling the pinch of the new law are roadside kiosks that are famous for unbranded cooking oil, sugar and baby diapers. Without these bags, traders are resorting to using old newspapers whose hygienic standards are questionable.

At least for plastic bags, the sanitation level of the food was guaranteed. But with newspapers and manila papers, traders are not only complaining of unreliability but some foods like chapati, mandazis dry up faster when packaged in khaki papers compared to plastics.

“I cannot keep on re-frying my mandazis all the time to keep them fresh. That is a waste of cooking oil and time. Plastic bags are better as once you package them, you are assured that the chapati or mandazi will remain soft,” said Mildred Kagonya, a trader from Kibera.

Director Public Health Dr Kepher Ombacho said use of newspapers pose a danger to Kenyans as the chemical element in newsprint compromises the immune system, lexposing consumers to cancer-related complications.

Nema Director

This is whether the food is cooked or still raw. The gazette notice of February 28 that banned plastic bags cited carrier bags and flat bags with or without gussets.

According to the new law, anyone found with such bags is liable to not less than two years imprisonment or a fine of Sh4 million. National Environment Management Authority (Nema) Director-General Geoffrey Wahungu however clarified that this punitive fine is not meant for the common mwananchi but the big manufacturers and suppliers.

“For them, counties will come up with by laws that will have fairer fines attached. I understand the informal economy is the most challenging and we will have to carry out a sensitisation exercise to have them embrace alternatives,” said Wahungu. The huge fines have seen closure of several plastic making factories and retailers. “Save yourself and us Sh4 million bob or four years in jail by bringing your own bag or buy our recyclable biodegradable bags at an affordable price,” read a notice at the entrance of Uchumi Supermarket, Capital Centre, Mombasa Road after the ban.

And next to the counters, Uchumi has lined different types and sizes of recyclable bags ranging from Sh6 to Sh106.

A manufacturer, Kings Plastics in Industrial Area with a market scope beyond East Africa was also cautious with a notice mounted on the main entrance that indirectly meant no jobs for those contracted.

Addressed To Whom It May Concern, the notice read in part: “We are closed due to the polythene ban until further notice.”

Outside, a group of youthful casual workers  would not listen to any  explanation from the Nema boss who insisted they did not order closure of any company. “Companies can continue to produce plastic but only those streams that we have not banned. We always do extensive research before we ban a product, we do not just pick products randomly and ban them,” said Wahungu.

He said there was still room for innovations, noting that it was wise for manufacturers to invest in alternatives.

There are 176 plastic manufacturers across the country but Wahungu said the number could be more since some are not registered.

According to Kenya Association of Manufacturers, the ban was expected to the loss of 60,000 jobs. But as others ponder on their next move, others seem to be smiling all the way to the bank.

“We deal with alternative bags and I must say it has been a long time coming. There is no difference in pricing either way. We sell our bags at Sh10 the same as plastic bags,” said Khuzeima Mohsin who operates along Accra Road, next to Ngara Market.

But Joseph Weswa, who used to sell plastic bags thinks otherwise. “I buy my bags at Sh40 and sell for Sh50. That is just a profit of Sh10.”

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