So one of the most striking things I’ve noticed about life in Madagascar is just how dissimilar shopping is here. There is no such thing as “stocking up”, for many reasons: one, because people’s income varies and is often based on what they sold in the market that day; and two, because most people have no room to store anything anyway, even if they did have the money to buy a large quantity of something. Simply put, most people just can’t buy any more than exactly what they need right now. So if it’s time to wash your hair, you buy an individual packet of shampoo. And if it’s time to do laundry, you buy a single-serving packet of laundry soap.
This type of small-scale consumer behavior is actually big business. I’ve just finished reading the excellent book “Stealth of Nations:The Global Rise of the Informal Economy” by Robert Neuwirth, and in one of the chapters he talks about how Procter & Gamble realized that if they wanted to market items like shampoo or laundry soap to lower-income consumers in Latin America, who typically buy items in single-use packets from small local stores, they’d have to shift away from their traditional model of producing items in rather large quantities, for consumers who’d buy them at traditional retailers like Wal-Mart or Target. P&G realized the value of selling their products to this different type of consumer, and started producing their items in smaller-quantity packaging. They then get distributed, indirectly through a multi-layered supply chain, to tiny neighborhood stores all over the world. The result has been a massive increase in their revenues and reach across the globe, but especially in Latin America.
Unfortunately, even if this single-serving packaging is a profit generator for companies like P&G, all this plastic packaging is incredibly wasteful and detrimental to the environment. In Madagascar, the brand of laundry soap that most people use is Klin (pronounced “clean”), and these discarded rainbow-striped packets are ubiquitous all over the country—but I’ve noticed them especially in my town. Litter is a problem as is, because there’s no municipal garbage pickup and people generally just throw trash everywhere, which is incredibly depressing in a country as beautiful as Madagascar. But Klin packets just seem to be everywhere, especially around water sources where people manasa lamba (wash clothes.) There’s a pretty little beach in Farafangana, my banking town, which is actually separated from the ocean by a freshwater river, where many people wash their clothes. And on this nice little beach are dozens upon dozens of discarded plastic Klin packets, littered throughout the sand, remnants of numerous laundry days. It would be a fool’s errand to try and pick them all up. From an environmental standpoint, it’s incredibly disheartening.
|Detergent packets for sale in my neighbor's epicerie...|
|... and then scattered all over the ground. Not exactly 'clean'.|
Recently I wondered to myself if there is a way that people could be encouraged to not buy the single packets of soap that lead to such extensive littering. Because most people probably won’t see an increase in income that will allow them to buy detergent in bulk, there would have to be another way to achieve this. What if the little shops selling packets of Klin could instead buy a large sack of it, and people could buy their laundry soap by the scoopful? They’d have to bring their washtub or a reusable container to the mpivarotra (shopkeeper). But if it was cheaper to buy a scoop of detergent than to buy the same amount of detergent in a plastic packet, the economic incentive would be there to alter their choice. And shoppers here are already used to buying items such as rice, beans, pasta, and other dry goods out of large bulk bags, so the behavior change wouldn’t be too drastic. Looking at the detergent itself, which is no doubt extremely chemical derived and petroleum-based (as are most commercial laundry detergents), I wonder if a company in Madagascar could produce an alternative, more ecologically-friendly detergent based on coconut oil (coconuts are everywhere here) that would also be cheaper than Klin, which is imported from Indonesia. If a soap was produced locally, valuable jobs would be created, and if it was biodegradable, there would be fewer chemicals getting dumped into the rivers in which people do laundry, and if this soap was sold in bulk, there would be less plastic trash littering this beautiful country. It doesn’t get much more “triple bottom line” than this.
As an economic development volunteer, I love looking at market-based solutions to public health and environmental problems, and this type of consumer-targeted development is something that I would love to see happen in Madagascar. And the benefits it would offer ring very clear as I’m currently studying microeconomics via an online course, with the central question of whether consumers’ self-interest can be meshed with social interest. In this case, I think it can: lower prices are a factor of self-interest, and less trash in the environment is an example of social interest.
Unfortunately, with only 4 months left in my service, it’s not feasible for me to take on a new project, especially one as large-scale as this one. But as I think about what I want from my career after Peace Corps, I’m realizing that this is exactly the type of business that I want to get involved in. And so who knows, perhaps I’ll be able to work on it as an RPCV! Now that I’ve become so familiar with this country, I definitely see myself being drawn to continue working with this island that I will have called home for 2 years. Whenever I do end up returning to Madagascar, I know for sure that the sight of all those discarded plastic packets will still bother me, and I’m pretty sure that I’ll still want to do something about it.