There’s a surprisingly interesting business to be had in little wooden sticks. Like much of the region, toothpicks are a staple at nearly every restaurant in Rwanda and this is a discussion about the industry operates.
Olly Cassels gives us an overview of the market from his research into the timber production market, along with a lucrative business to be had in other areas of wood processing.
Here are some of the key quotes:
“Rwanda has a lot of bamboo”
Olly began evaluating the agriculture market in Rwanda by looking at methods to give support to bean plants. In doing so he saw the abundance of bamboo in the country and from there, its other uses. One of which is toothpicks.
“Toothpick types are supply led not demand led”
There are different wood types used in the production of toothpicks. In the US it is mainly birch as it is a fast growing and readily available type of wood. In China it is almost all bamboo.
“Toothpicks are used everywhere in Rwanda”
Pretty much every restaurant in the country has toothpicks on the table and it’s customary to use one or two toothpicks per meal. There is also an image factor involved with people often keeping a pack of toothpicks about their person.
Across the East Africa region it’s probably a $30m-50m industry
“All toothpicks come from China”
There’s a route of importing, middle men, distributors which bring the toothpicks in Rwanda to restaurants that buy them. 60-80% of the cost of a pack of imported toothpicks come from travel and import duty costs meaning there is an opportunity for an African toothpick company to emerge.
“It would be relatively easy to set up a Rwandan toothpick company”
Olly estimates that it would cost $20,000 to buy machinery and begin a production line. With the additional considerations of quality control and ensuring a steady supply of bamboo, it should be plausible for the business to begin.
“Bamboo is green gold”
It is considered a wonder crop. On top of having several commercial uses it has environmental benefits: absorbing carbon, stopping soil erosion, and it grows incredibly quickly.
In Rwanda it is currently underutilised, only being used for scaffolding and artisanal furniture. It’s applications could be far reaching.
“Activated carbon is a secret billion dollar industry”
In China, bamboo is used in the production of activated carbon as a means of capturing carbon through industrial processes. Olly estimates that this market is worth several billion USD and is all centred around the processing of bamboo.
1 gram of activated carbon has a surface area of 15,000 metres squared which shows the industrial scale that it can manage.
“Kebabs is another market to enter”
Skewers used in brochettes (meat kebabs) are essentially big toothpicks. From a production perspective they are similar, although the main consideration is the internodal length of the bamboo. You want to have a continuous stretch of wood that isn’t interrupted by the nodules that exist in bamboo.
“In Japan it’s just pointed at one end”
Whilst we might be used to seeing symmetrical toothpicks, in Japan it is customary to have one side pointed and the other with an ornate design. The grooves in the pick could then be used to snap the toothpick to indicate to others when it had been finished.
Historically people have used bone or ivory to have their own toothpick with them at all times.
Olly Cassels: https://twitter.com/olivercassels