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Enforcing quality standards to protect Ugandans

By Agnes E. Nantaba

The Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) is the public body mandated to protect Ugandans from fake, substandard and hazardous products. Dr. Ben Manyindo, the executive director, spoke to Agnes E. Nantaba about the status of standards in the country, the numerous challenges they face, and their interventions to build compliance.

What are the key elements in your management philosophy as a manager?

UNBS is a government institution with a mandate, and a purpose. As the head of this institution, together with the team, we ensure that the mandate is implemented to meet government aspirations.  Our mandate is to ensure that the products and services supplied to Ugandans meet the required standards. This is done through developing the standards, making them available to the users, applying them, and enforcing them.  Therefore professionalism, integrity, customer focus, innovation and team work are key to meeting the institution’s goals.

What is your assessment of quality standards in Uganda currently?

Quality standards in Uganda have been improving but this is not only attributed to UNBS. Other factors outside UNBS have played a crucial role. Although it is difficult to quantify the rate at which they have improved, there is assurance. On the side of local products, producers are increasingly rushing to UNBS to be certified. Currently, the bureau has over 2,000 products already certified and with more in the pipeline.  For the case of imported products, PIVoC is already in place to scrutinize those that do not meet the standards. However, we cannot run away from the challenges associated with implementing our work on both the imported and locally-made products.  Developing standards is not the problem but enforcement is still a challenge to us as the market place is infested with many substandard products. We are working towards getting to a level where the consumer is fully sensitized to be in position to make an informed decision on whether a product is genuine or substandard.

However, with all these challenges at hand, we are working towards having a market cleaned of substandard products.

A recent survey carried out by UNBS showed that 60% of goods sold in supermarkets are expired. Many consumers would say UNBS isn’t doing enough to protect them. What is your take on this?

Numbers can be true or false and many times they can portray an alarming picture. If the figures are true, then it should worry consumers as it is a threat to the economy. We need to further do an investigation on that.  As an institution, we cannot allow such a situation to go on. We are currently engaged in interventions with supermarkets to guide them on how to monitor expired goods. These people need to know that once a product is expired, it should be documented and that destruction takes course.  As part of our interventions to prevent the sale of expired and fake products, the shelf life of food items should be 75% at the point of importation while non-food items should be at 50% to allow for ample time to sell off the product.

To what extent is UNBS limited in the fulfillment of its mandate? What challenges do you face in executing your roles especially in the management of standards?

The biggest challenge is as regards consumer empowerment. Consumers are not yet at a point where they are able to determine whether or not to purchase products that do not meet the required standards.  Also, the standards document is too technical to the extent that consumers and even some UNBS staff cannot interpret it. We need to simplify the message such that a business person and consumer can understand it. There are also challenges of limited staff where thousands of products are handled by a few staff. Currently, UNBS has a presence at only 17 entry points out of over 160 and only ten hours a day yet business runs 24 hours. Giving the business community all the required support especially SME’s is also a challenge. Many of these people want to put their products on the market but still have a long way to go and yet they are the drivers of industrialization. They cannot meet the expenses in laboratory testing, training in quality control and upgrading technology and with the limited budget of the Bureau, we cannot do much help them. But of course the driver of all these challenges is financial constraints – the limited budget. The government gives Shs 500 per citizen per year for protection but our estimates indicate that we need five times that amount to be in position to protect Ugandans as required.

There is public concern that UNBS doesn’t have the power to deal with the sale of expired, substandard and fake goods. What is your take on that?

We have a lot of powers to the extent that in 2013 the UNBS Act was amended but even before that we were empowered. The Act came in effect in February 2014 with the penalties moving from as little as Shs 3,000 to Shs 5 million and imprisonment or both which to us is a good deterrent.  We are linking up with the Directorate of Criminal Investigations and KCCA to use their court so that we can present the culprits to court within 48 hours.  We are certain that with such engagements, the level of compliance will improve. We are still grappling with amending the Weights and Measures Act of 1964 because the fines in it are even worse – just Shs 200. Once this is passed, our powers shall be more visible and felt among consumers.  You are always complaining about the weak and ineffective legal framework. How far has the enactment of those new laws gone?

We are not yet there but we are getting there. Already in place is the UNBS Act amended, and as Ugandans are law-abiding citizens, others will learn from those who will face the wrath of the law.  The Weights and Measures Act is still before Parliament for amendment but with the change in priorities falling towards electoral campaigns, we are not sure that this will come to pass soon. Never the less, we have come from far and so we shall get there.

Despite the EAC Common Market protocol, EAC member States still have different standards though there were plans to harmonize them. How far has this gone?

EAC member States have been facilitating the move after realizing that standards are key to improving regional trade. Government funding was taking long so partners like Trade Mark East Africa have continuously invested to facilitate the activity for the most-traded items especially food items.  However harmonization is a challenge in its self as there are five partner States at different levels of development where the weak and strong have to use the same standards, which takes more time. In the mean time, member States continue using their standards as Kenya leads with more than 7,000.  Therefore with harmonization, we are starting with the most-traded items in the region.  Others shall follow.

What relationship does UNBS have with local manufacturers and producers as regards adherence to standards?

We have been fighting but good things have come out of the struggle. For some time, manufacturers complained that standards were increasing their costs but we later came to an understanding that the cost translates into increased market.  They have come to realize that regional trade demands standards, which has forced them to run to us for help. This has created a good working relationship with manufacturers. The demand for services has instead outstripped the capacity of UNBS.

Some manufacturers complain that the process of certifying products is too long and tedious. What is your take on that?

Too long, yes – and it must be – but tedious no as certification is not just granted but earned. Some in the business community want shortcuts yet there are no short cuts to public health and safety. We need to monitor premises and operations to ascertain that there is consistency in standards adherence.   A lot is involved in the process including training personnel, which cannot take less than six months on average.

What new measures is UNBS adopting as a way of improving public confidence in the quality of products they consume?

Confidence is built on awareness on how UNBS does its things and why it does them that way. We shall very soon launch the e-tag system, which will be put on all certified products of UNBS. With such a system, a consumer will be in position to get the code on the product SMS it to 114 on all networks and receive feedback immediately on whether the product is certified or not.  This will be effective by next month but it requires cooperation of manufacturers as it goes with an extra cost. Other interventions in market surveillance to determine substandard products shall also continue.

Where do you see UNBS and the state of quality standards in Uganda in the next few years?

Already, manufacturers have realized the need for standards as a gateway to the marketplace, though we need to engage them more. But with government policies such as ‘Buy Uganda, Build Uganda,’ compliance will keep growing.  Industry will be up and running on standard products and farmers will still be struggling but will eventually get there. We shall continue to engage small scale importers and get them to join the PIVoC system. We shall also continue to empower the consumers as an informed consumer makes regulation easier.

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