Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Enigma of "Kichina"

In Tanzania, the locals have a habit of referring to any poor-quality product as "kichina," which roughly translates to "a thing of China."  Whenever something they use break or gets damaged when they think the product should not be, they just shrug and casually blurt out, "well, it's kichina."  It is not particularly targeted toward Chinese products though; in fact, the saying is used for all products, whether or not the product is from China.  The connotation, however, is pretty clear: it goes without saying that Chinese products, as they have elsewhere, acquired a negative reputation in Tanzania.

The negative reputation of "made-in-China" being synonymous with "low quality" is not particularly surprising.  After all, China, being the "world's factor floor," still in many ways remain the supplier of the world's cheapest products, manufactured with dubious quality standards in order to ensure prices stay rock bottom.  These low prices ensure that they are exported to every rural, unidentified markets around the world and lapped up by price-conscious consumers everywhere.  As long as the world does not create a manufacturing power to rival China in scale, this pattern is bound to continue.

But what is still surprising is the proportions with which Chinese products inundate the local markets here in a rural Tanzanian town.  From the secondhand clothing on the poorest farmers' bodies, to humble everyday goods like bars of soaps and rolls of toilet papers, to more "high-end" necessities like motorcycles and electric generators, Chinese products make up the overwhelming majority.  In fact, in the author's recent not-so-scientific quick survey of non-perishable items being sold in the market, 8 out of every 10 products he came across originated in China.

Such high degree of dependency, even when taken into account the quantitative (if not qualitative) dominance of "made-in-China" anywhere in the world today, is extremely rare, to say the least.  Even in China itself, where increased wealth has seen shifting consumption patterns, one would not see such a high percentage of Chinese products being sold, bought, and used by people.  It is no wonder that, while walking around busy markets, one would hear so much "kichina" being said, whether it be referring to those easily to break stuff, or more benignly, just stuff that come from China in general.

With such abundance of Chinese products, the outbursts against "kichina" when something breaks is no longer just a single tirade against poorly made manufactures.  Rather than "these Chinese products are so bad, I will never buy them again," the underlying meaning of the outbursts become more akin to "these Chinese products are so bad, but what can we do?"  It is a dismayed rhetorical question for which the answer is something like, "well, not much, since within few hundred kilometers radius, these products are the only ones of the kind that are sold."

Certainly, the statement here is not to condescendingly live with Chinese products of low qualities.  The reality is, even among the vast range of made-in-China things out there, there are genuinely cutting-edge, high-quality products that can out-compete the best of what Japan, US, or Europe can create.  The problem is that these high-quality products from China do not end up in the rural markets of Africa.  Instead, the suppliers supply these rural markets with the cheapest of the cheap, and lowest of the low quality, firmly believing that those are the things that will sell and be profitable to sell.

The fundamental problem of why such a logic becomes the (sad) norm is the weakness of the markets themselves.  Neither the suppliers and the producers see any reason to cultivate the local markets here in rural Africa.  This is because (1) the market value is so small and the number of markets so dispersed that losing the confidence of consumers in one market does not dent the overall operational reputation of the supplier/producer; and (2) the spread of commercial information and brand awareness is so low that "kichina" is purchased in large quantities even if they are, well, "kichina."

Hence, unless the above two points change significantly, "kichina" is here to stay and dominate the markets.  Maybe one day a China that move up in the manufacturing value chain will no loner be the chief supplier of "kichina," but there will surely be another country that step in to ensure that those cheaply priced, low-quality products continue to flow into rural markets.  It is capitalism at its cutthroat best: a market that does not become "picky" in its consumption habits will not end up getting any power to raise the qualities of available products.  

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