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UNBS: Half of goods on market are inferior

John Paul Musimami

The Uganda National Bureau of Standard (UNBS) is in a race against time as it fights to overcome the mounting challenge of substandard products finding their way onto the Ugandan market.

Deputy executive director in charge of the compliance department at UNBS, JOHN PAUL MUSIMAMI, talked to Yudaya Nangonzi.

Your aggressive crackdown on formalin-laced meat in city butcheries has since died down. What did the investigations find?

The crackdown was a mandate of Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), but UNBS was called in as a sister agency. Since we have an MoU with KCCA, we had interventions with the butchers’ association to help them upgrade their butcheries.

I am sure KCCA took samples for testing in various laboratories and they have their results. During the KCCA operation, we only tested meat submitted to our laboratory by the ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries from which results indicated there was no presence of formalin.

But during our market surveillance, we found that butchers were using insecticides to chase flies, which is against market standards. We are still engaging butchers to have them certified. But for the formalin, KCCA is best placed to comment.

How do substandard, adulterated, uncertified and tainted products end up on the market? Almost everything is suspect…

There are a number of entry points that bring in substandard goods. One of them is the imported products from within the East African Community (EAC) as well as locally manufactured products.

Here, when someone wants to set up, for instance, a juice factory; they start instantly without considering hygiene issues, among others.

And also some genuine products are counterfeited. Adulteration has also come up within the country.

Between local and imported products, where do you see more substandard goods?

We have just concluded a survey that indicated that locally manufactured products outweigh imported ones. With imported products, we have a programme called Pre-export Verification of Conformity (PVoC). Under PVoC, a number of service providers look at the quality of the products before they come into the country.

By the end of December 2017, we had over 16 million substandard products banned from being imported. By now, the numbers must have increased to about 20 million because the programme has helped in continuously detecting substandard imports.

From the survey, 54 percent is the level of substandard products, with the greatest percentage being locally manufactured products. This means that much as we have put emphasis on imports, we need to do more locally.

However, UNBS has done a great job because a baseline survey done in 2013 put substandard products at 72 per cent. We intend to collaborate with Uganda Bureau of Statistics to ensure that such surveys are done annually or bi-annually such that our performance is rated from the public.

With these statistics and so many uncertified local products on the market, are Ugandans safe?

Technically, it is not good because out of every two products, chances are one is substandard.

The good news is that we have managed to tame the imports and we are intensifying efforts to make local manufacturers compliant.

There is no country without such products but the point is in the magnitude and mechanisms put in place. We have only 1,400 certified products but I am sure the uncertified ones are more on the market.

In February this year, UNBS seized tonnes of cosmetics with fake UNBS Quality marks belonging to Sure Deal Beauty Centre Limited. The proprietor later met the president at State House in Entebbe… 

That is very true. Sure Deal was using the UNBS mark illegally. We warned them, gave them a time line to recall all their products but they failed to comply.

We decided to swing into action and have her products tested. We took them to court because some products were not appropriate for human use.

We are not against Sure Deal but we want them to comply. Most people buy such products with chemicals like hydroquinone and mercury to become light-skinned yet they are breeding cancer of the skin.

Her products were found wanting but wherever she went, we could not stop her because people have different connections. I don’t think the president would want somebody producing cosmetics that are harmful to his people.

But she still operates normally. So, where do UNBS enforcement powers start and stop?

As far as operating normally, I am not sure about that. But, to begin with, she is not supposed to use the UNBS mark. We are in court with her and all we demand is total compliance.

If she is still operating illegally, UNBS will continue to pursue her. We should not have deceptive ways of doing business because if her products went to the EAC market where routine monitoring is done, she would not only kill her business but the entire country.

The partner states would lose confidence in our quality management system and this would be detrimental to our business community. Yet, if someone has a UNBS Quality mark, you are supposed to have free access.

UNBS was set up by an Act of parliament and has powers to impound and sue people who trade in substandard goods. Why is this not felt by the public?

We are doing a lot of things but I understand if you say the public is not feeling what we do. We need to ensure that we inform the media whenever we are doing some things.

Our challenge is that we do not have the numbers to carry out a lot of operations. We want to collaborate with other sister agencies to address the gaps.

Does UNBS have the capacity to function optimally?

Our biggest setback is manpower. We would like to ride on institutions like local governments but if you try and team up with them, the people engaging in substandard goods are their friends and live in the same community. At the end of the day, they cannot be objective.

We want to centralise our market surveillance, certification and registration services. People are manufacturing products but they need a lot of sensitisation. We are going to open up regional offices but they need staff.

Countrywide, UNBS is operating at 45 per cent with about 290 staff. In the enforcement department alone, we need more staff in the imports inspection due to the single customs territory that demands that people be placed at all major ports. To operate optimally, we need about 600 staff.

Why do banned products stay on the market despite alerts from consumers to the standards body?

When UNBS is alerted, we make follow-ups and this cannot be attributed to inadequate manpower. We have had so many cases where we advise proprietors to recall products after we have done test purchases from the public but they do otherwise.

In the case of Sure Deal, we have engaged the proprietor several times but she is reluctant to do the right thing; that’s why we have ended up in court.

Is the standards body more reactive than proactive?

Our market surveillance department is doing quite a commendable job. Just take a look at the mattress and electricals sectors; we have worked tooth and nail to wipe out substandard products.

We now have a new regulation that places products under a category of compulsory standards and requires one to have a quality mark. This means our market surveillance teams will check for goods without our marks.

We are also looking at close collaborations with Uganda Revenue Authority because of the electronic single window, which requires that all government ministries, departments and agencies come on board to simplify cross-border trade.

In case a product comes in, it will not be about taxes alone but all entities will be able to clear it before it is allowed into the country. We want to open up offices in Gulu, Mbale and Mbarara for starters as opposed to us operating from Kampala.

How far with the mandatory registration and certification of products?

It’s a new requirement. We are going to sensitise manufacturers about the merits of certification and registration of their products.

Some manufacturers have small visions for their businesses; they don’t know that if you are certified, you have access to the regional market.

If someone wants to be certified, at that point they are running their systems very well but with time, they relax and these are things we need to talk to them about before closing their businesses. For the next nine months, we shall engage in sensitisation as we plan to start registration and certification by coercion next year. 

What are some of the challenges facing UNBS?

In some sections like weights and measures, we have a 1963 obsolete law that needs to be revamped to capture the current understandings of measurements.

For instance, in hospitals, they use equipment to check people’s weight and pressure, thermometers and they keep giving varying results.

As I said before, our greatest challenge is human resource. With the single customs territory, we need people in Mombasa and Dar es Salaam. We are operating at few entry points. Our challenge is that government says it has no resources. They put a ban on recruiting more staff and insist that we work within the current staff.

UNBS cannot do much with just 290 people. I think that number could even be less; about 286 across the country. We are too few. Let government give us people, facilitate us, then demand for results.

Talk about UNBS’ plan to build a multibillion modern food testing reference laboratory …

UNBS is currently constructing the Shs 20 billion food and safety laboratory to ensure that all food products sold on the market and exported in the region meet standards.

This laboratory will help small and medium enterprises because the space in Nakawa is too small to add more equipment. We shall be supporting local manufacturers once this laboratory is complete in the next two years. 

nangonzi@observer.ug

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