Scotch tape is everywhere, it is ubiquitous. Small shops and big shops, rich shops and poor shops. Shops for solar/electrical equipment, belts, jewellery, nuts and bolts.
Scotch is visible
No-one seems scared that it will be stolen – it has value but also no value. Without Scotch tape, the market couldn’t function but it is not a scarce resource. There is lots of it. It is lying on the counter, held up on a nail or hook next to the door. Sometimes thrown on a shelf, or thrown under the counter. In several places, we saw the Scotch tape, the receipt book, and the calculator all lying together in the same place.
There are many different kinds of Scotch
Black, paper, multi-coloured, silver with different kinds of application - but the tape you see everywhere in the market is transparent. Much of it seems to be manufactured by the same company. Lots of rolls have the words Xiangshen Jiao NianZhi Rin Chang, written on them. Scotch is cheap but not that cheap. 5 rolls of medium-sized scotch tape for 2000 is the same price as 2 of the cheapest solar lanterns.
The tape literally holds up the market – as important as cardboard boxes.
Packaging, used to seal cardboard boxes, used to wrap up other goods (in one stall we saw a sack of belts being wrapped up with tape, “because it is going far”). But tape is maybe becoming even more important than cardboard, because it is lighter and cheaper, so lowers the cost of transporting/shipping goods.
The tape keeps things secure and safe. It can be used to stop things falling against each other, it can be used to fix things together. Scotch is very sticky – different from the others kinds of plastic that is used to protect the small solar panels on lanterns, scotch would leave a residue.
Scotch tape is important for the transport of goods to the market from China and from the market to other places/people. The tape is about cost and efficiency, if you can wrap things tightly you can reduce the space/volume of goods.
Scotch tape has become good business. When businessmen go to China to procure/buy products in bulk they have started buying boxes of scotch tape too. They use for themselves, for their own shop, and they sell it. For example, for the last 2 years Mr Yacuba has been travelling to China to buy solar lanterns. He sells to customers across West Africa (including Ghana, Togo, Ivory Coast, Benin and Mali), and across Burkina. Customers come to his shop because he has a wide range of products and big stock, “customers like to choose" he said. But he also brings back Scotch. On his last trip to China, he bought 35 boxes of large tape, with 24 rolls in each, at a cost of 25,000cfa/box. He uses them in his 3 stores in the market, which are managed by his younger brothers. If they run out, it will cost them about 1000cfa a piece. He uses the tape as a tool: to package the goods from China to Burkina and to package goods for customers in his store, as they take them elsewhere. There are specialised shops where Scotch is sold alongside plastic bags, carriers. But many electrical shops will sell you Scotch tape too. In one solar panel/solar battery shop, they were selling as much scotch tape as they were selling solar batteries. Small electronic shops, like those selling mobile phones and ipods, also sell scotch.
People want to see their products are new. New electronic products sometimes come with a thin foil to cover the screen/panel: scotch on boxes also keeps things as new, convinces customers that things are fresh/unopened. When people are selling goods at a wholesale price – like when Mr Yacuba sells large quantities of solar lanterns – they might wrap the products in scotch so that the purchaser can see how many are there. Scotch is transparent but it also creates transparency in the market, in the relation between the buyer and the seller. Scotch is a basis for credit. Customers who buy lots of goods many times – like the customers to Mr Sawadogo Yacuba’s solar lighting shop – can have credit, “the fourth time, they can have credit.”
* When we started talking to him, and other people, only about lanterns they were a little bit suspicious and they didn’t want to volunteer information. “I can only tell you the price, I can’t give you any other information,’ one man told us. Mr Yacuba was also a bit suspicious at first. But we bought a lamp at his store – from his assistant – and when he realised this and when we started asking about the tape rather than directly about his business, he became more open and friendly. People don’t have any reason to keep secrets about scotch tape.
Scotch is used to fix and repair other things. Across the whole market, Scotch is used to fix and repair cardboard boxes that are broken or ripped or torn, or wet. Scotch makes boxes last longer. Under most stores you can see flat packed boxes with tape. Scotch is also used to repair other things. In one stall a small solar lantern had been fixed with scotch where the panel had fallen out, the shopkeeper was using this model as a display model.
In a context in which there are concerns across Sub Saharan Africa with plastic – leading to bans on plastic bags in Kenya and Burkina – there are no bans on Scotch. People are wasteful with it, it is not used sparingly or economically, people use lots of it, rolling and rolling it around boxes and sacks. You can find bits of tape everywhere, on the floor and under stalls.
Questions - What happens if you run out, can you borrow or share Scotch tape. And if so, who can you borrow it from. Can you trace friendships and kinship and ethic relations through scotch tape? What are the range of different uses for different kinds of scotch tape – could we do a complete audit of all the different uses, and what would that tell us? Could we follow Scotch tape in Kakuma and Goudoubou?
It seems likely that things might be carried into and out of these camps using tape. What could following the tape tell us. We could ask more about the history of the object, has the import of Scotch tape increased (can we find out some statistics from the customs authorities), what does this tell us about trade relations? Where is this tape made and by whom? You can get personalised tape: but nobody has tried to put a message on Scotch tape. What might it mean to develop an intervention using tape: perhaps creating a personalised message.