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Billie Jo Hohepa-Ropiha with her foam wash, BDèt (Photo: Supplied)
Billie Jo Hohepa-Ropiha with her foam wash, BDèt (Photo: Supplied)

BusinessMay 19, 2021

She started at the bottom, now she’s changing the way we go to the toilet

Billie Jo Hohepa-Ropiha with her foam wash, BDèt (Photo: Supplied)
Billie Jo Hohepa-Ropiha with her foam wash, BDèt (Photo: Supplied)

From the Kiwee Lifter to BDèt to Toru Roll, Billie Jo Hohepa-Ropiha has found her niche creating toilet-based innovations – but that wasn’t always the former journalist’s plan.

“Dad was an inventor,” says Billie Jo Hohepa-Ropiha, recounting her childhood in the Northland settlement of Moerewa. It’s a US rust belt-style factory town, full of Māori families whose multiple generations have lived and died within a 5km radius of the Affco meat processing plant for the past hundred years.

“Dad worked at Affco, both my grandparents worked at Affco, my mum worked at the local Four Square and I got my first job at the local Four Square.” 

It wasn’t a flashy childhood by any means. A good Sunday was measured by the success of a trip to the Whangae rubbish dump, where her father Thomas Hohepa would salvage parts for new inventions. Go-karts were made from old lawn mower motors; working washing machines were pieced together with the usable parts from three different models. An ice cream or hot chips from the Opua store on the way home was the mark of a particularly successful dump hunt.

“He would sit around the table until one in the morning, or you’d be sitting on the couch and listening to him come up with designs,” says Hohepa-Ropiha of her dad. “We had an electric garage opener because he made it from all these parts, it wasn’t actually a real one. Nothing came from a box, it came from the dump.”

Among the steady stream of inventions flowing from Thomas Hohepa’s brain was the Kiwee Lifter – though it wasn’t called that at the time. Arguments about leaving the toilet seat up were a common occurrence in the Hohepa-Ropiha household, so he created a solution. 

“It’s one rod twisted, another rod and then just a plate that it sits on. It’s really simple but never broke or anything.”

The contraption works a bit like a pedal bin, with a foot plate that lifts and lowers the toilet seat. It was a fixture of Hohepa-Ropiha’s home for years during her childhood, and a source of fascination for all who visited.

“I remember people coming over to the house and going to use the bathroom, they would come out and go ‘what the heck is this?’ But then they would use it and think it was great.”

Billie Jo Hohepa-Ropiha tells Simon Pound about inventing BDèt and the Kiwee Lifter in this episode of Business is Boring. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

Her dad wasn’t the only family member whose creative side was handed down. Hohepa-Ropiha recalls the beautiful dolls made from hessian sacks her mum would spend hours crafting, using pistachio shells for fingernails. Her maternal grandfather was a hobbyist carver who made taonga from bone, wood and pounamu, and her paternal grandfather grew large community gardens for his local marae. 

Childhood was a lesson in sustainability for Hohepa-Ropiha and her family, but this wasn’t unusual in the small Māori town where DIY was often the only option. 

“It was really a childhood of people of the land or just repurposing stuff. It’s becoming trendy now but that’s always what we’ve done. Sustainability has always just been a part of life.”

It makes sense, then, that Hohepa-Ropiha’s current business is very much about sustainability, setting an ambitious goal of eliminating 1 trillion wet wipes globally by 2025 by replacing them with her BDèt foam wash. She sells it alongside the revamped version of her dad’s toilet seat lifting device, the Kiwee Lifter, and, most recently, a triangular toilet roll, the Toru Roll, that makes it harder for kids (and some adults) to unravel too much toilet paper at once.

When applied to toilet paper the BDèt foam wash works almost like a hand sanitiser, cleaning the wiped area without need for water or rinsing off. It can be used in place of wet wipes for people who need – or who just enjoy – a bit of extra freshness down there.

Hohepa-Ropiha didn’t always plan to start her own business. After graduating from the University of Waikato with a Bachelor of Arts in screen and media studies in the late 1990s, she travelled and worked in Japan teaching English before moving back home to begin a career. It was during a trip to a central Auckland bookstore that she discovered what that career would be.

“I remember going to Borders on Queen Street and buying a book called How to be a Journalist and I read it from front to back.”

Somewhat surprisingly, this led her on to a successful career in broadcast media. For years, she spent her time in front of the camera as a journalist for TVNZ and Māori Television where the skills she was taught as a kid about solving problems with creativity came in handy.

“In the newsroom you have to be really solutions-based, thinking about how to get a story, and so it really helped there. It’s the ability to feel confident about thinking outside the square.”

A few years into her career, Hohepa-Ropiha started feeling disheartened about where the industry was heading. As a broadcast journalist she was used to meeting people, writing news scripts and presenting in front of the camera. The future seemed to be asking a lot more of journalists, with the expectation to be creating more content for more platforms than ever before. 

Her kids were getting older and Hohepa-Ropiha decided it might be the perfect time to change tack. She completed a Masters of Business Administration at Massey University in 2017, with her sights set on one day becoming the CEO of Māori Television.

“I didn’t have that business background or knowledge and you can’t be CEO without it, so I thought, ‘let’s go do my MBA’.”

Balancing raising a family with full-time work and full-time study meant Hohepa-Ropiha’s schedule was tight. For the two and a half years she studied she would wake up at four, work on her MBA until seven, get the kids ready and go to work, then be back hitting the books again in the evening. 

“Your weekends are out so you really need good support,” she says. “I couldn’t have done it without my husband and my mum and dad. They call it a ‘marriage break-up’, MBA – halfway through I realised why.”

While the workload was gruelling, she felt the MBA was what she was destined to do. But during studies she realised she no longer wanted to be the CEO of Māori Television. Inspired by her father’s knack for invention, she launched her own business in partnership with him. And so the Kiwee Lifter was born. 

She spent any spare time she had – on planes, between meetings and after her kids had gone to bed – drawing up an initial business plan, and soon afterwards had taken her dad’s initial design to a factory to make a version of the Kiwee Lifter that was marketable. It cost a lot of money to set up, and Hohepa-Ropiha had to get used to the feeling that she was flushing cash straight down the toilet. 

“My dad sold his house and I took half his money and then we had more bills to pay so we sold our first investment home in Porirua and put all the money we made on that into the business. You have to, in order to move it, be prepared to have the feeling like your money is being burnt up.”

Billie Jo Hohepa Ropiha and her dad, Thomas Hohepa with the Kiwee Lifter (Photo: Supplied)

In 2018, after finishing her MBA, Hohepa-Ropiha realised the Kiwee Lifter wasn’t a big enough idea to sustain an entire business. That’s when she drew on an idea she’d been sitting on for years. 

“How do you wipe your bum?” she began asking anyone who would listen: her TVNZ colleagues, whānau, friends. Each time it was met with the same puzzled, slightly embarrassed reception. 

“I would ask and then think ‘ooh, that might be the wrong crowd’,” she says. “Then one day I was with a group of friends and one of the guys was talking about his son who was blowing his nose and putting tissues into the toilet and not flushing it, so a day’s worth would block up like concrete. That was my segue.”

The conversation developed from there, with people chiming in about their experiences. A kui whose boyfriend was Middle Eastern had introduced a water spray-bottle into their bathroom to use in place of toilet paper, to which she said she would never return. Then Hohepa-Ropiha asked if anyone would use a foam on their toilet paper to help them stay cleaner, and the answer was 100% yes.

“One guy said he would drive home and have a shower – those sorts of conversations came out. I made the product and here we are now.”

The target audience for BDèt has shifted over the time Hohepa-Ropiha has been working on the product. While she initially thought it would be a good way for anyone to feel a bit cleaner, and replace their use of wet wipes, it’s been older men who’re using BDèt the most.

“The biggest users of wet wipes who flush them down the toilet are men over 55. They have hair, they get piles. A lot of them have bad diets, lots of meat, and that creates constipation, constipation creates piles and those can be really sore,” she whispers across the table at a coffee shop in one of Auckland’s priciest suburbs.

BDèt has also proved helpful for people with other things going on down there, for whom wiping with dry paper isn’t effective or hurts. 

“One lady just wrote to me saying she got a couple of bottles and she and her mum used it, and her mum doesn’t use wet wipes any more: ‘We get cystitis, it’s a bacterial infection and we haven’t had it since using your product,’ so removing all the matter down there and keeping it clean is doing wonders.”

Now, after three years with BDèt on the market, Hohepa-Ropiha is making some progress towards getting the right people onboard. She’s been communicating with Auckland Council’s water company Watercare from the start, having learned how much infrastructural damage occurs each year due to people flushing wet wipes, not to mention the health risks to employees. 

“The only reason their guys will get into the waders and get down into raw sewage to blast wet wipes out of the pipes is because they block the system. It’s only wet wipes. The risk to their workers is huge. They never had any problems before, they’ve never ever had a problem with toilet paper.”

During the peak of New Zealand’s Covid-19 cases last year, Watercare reported an increase in pipes overflowing and blocking in Auckland as thousands more wet wipes were being flushed down the toilet. There was a theory that shortages of toilet paper meant people were turning to wet wipes, and using the two interchangeably, not realising the latter should not be flushed. 

Now, after years of discussion with Watercare, Hohepa-Ropiha has made a breakthrough. She’s partnering with them for the duration of the central interceptor construction project, providing BDèt to all the workers on the four-year project.

“It’s only taken over two years, with much reluctance till now,” she says. But now both parties agree that it’s a good first step towards eliminating unnecessary landfill waste and the threat of clogged pipes. BDèt foam dispensers have been installed in the toilets on the central interceptor project and after a two week trial there’s potential for an expansion into all Watercare facilities.

It’s not the most glamourous industry to get into, but Hohepa-Ropiha is thrilled she gets to help the environment while also helping people suffering from sometimes debilitating problems.

“One lady told me that she wouldn’t even leave the house because of incontinence, and having to carry wet wipes was so hard. We have an 18-year-old girl who is going to be in nappies her whole life and was using wet wipes.

“It’s so awesome because I know it’s a hard subject to talk about, but when they write to me and say ‘I love your product’, that means so much to me.”

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