By Pearl Natamba
Suspension of UNBS boss, Terry Kahuma, exposes how failures at nation’s quality standards body endanger unsuspecting consumers
Kigozi Sebaggala, the executive director of the Uganda Manufacturers Association, bought a neatly packaged 50-meter electricity cable from a shop in downtown Nakasero to use at his father’s burial. It failed to work.
“We decided to cut its insulator and see what was wrong,” he told The Independent, “I was shocked when we discovered that there were actually no wires. It was a fake.”
Callist Tumwiine of Zzana, a Kampala suburb bought an expensive-looking new shirt for just Shs 30,000 from a shop on Luwum Street in the city. After one wash, it faded and looked so old he cannot wear it.
Sebaggala and Tumwiine’s story are common in Kampala and most of Uganda where consumers make losses daily when they buy the increasing number of counterfeits on the market.
The Independent to some of them soon after news broke in February that the Minister of Trade, Amelia Kyambadde, had suspended the head of the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS), Terry Kahuma.
UNBS is the regulatory body mandated to develop and promote standardisation, quality assurance, and laboratory testing and metrology.
No official reason has been given for Kahuma’s suspension but he told The Independent that he was accused of seven cases of insubordination and collusion with elements working against UNBS.
Word on the street is that the minister was unhappy that Kahuma had either failed or refused to disband a notorious surveillance team created by Kyambadde’s predecessor in the ministry, Gen. Kahinda Otafiire.
Some insiders at the Trade Ministry, however, say Kyambadde wants to kick out Kahuma because of his siding with Otafiire in a row over replacement of the UNBS Council.
Insiders say on August 10, 2011, Kahuma wrote to Kyambadde advising her not to appoint the council against the provisions of the law but the minister ignored the advice and on November 7, 2011 inaugurated a new council.
The minister’s action has attracted action from Isa Sekitto, the spokesman of Kampala City Traders Association (KACITA) who is suing both UNBS and the government for appointing the UNBS Council against the provisions of the law. Kyambadde allegedly suspects that Kahuma leaked vital information about the appointments to Sekitto and is fueling the suit. She was not available for comment when The Independent sought her side of the story.
Whatever the reason, however, Kahuma’s suspension has been welcomed by Sebaggala and others. He said the UNBS Surveillance Team was extorting a lot of money from manufacturers with claims of protecting their businesses.
UNBS’s Principal Public Relations Officer, Moses Sebunya, confirmed that some UNBS staff had been caught taking bribes from people dealing in counterfeits but they had been subjected to disciplinary measures based to the UNBS Code of Ethics.
He said UNBS works in a weak regulatory framework, without adequate testing capacity for all products, and manufacturers who fear to go public in the fight against counterfeits.
Sebunya said removing counterfeits from the market cannot be accomplished by UNBS alone. It requires collaboration between police, manufacturers, and the registrar of companies, URA, local government and consumers.
He says that they have managed to create public awareness on counterfeit goods to the extent that most people buy counterfeit products when they are aware of them.
It is, however, difficult to agree with Sebunya’s claim that according to a UNBS survey, counterfeits on the market have reduced. Although, he says there is collaboration among agencies, China, and regional states against counterfeits, there is no evidence of it.
Sebaggala says manufacturers face as much competition as ever from counterfeits from China that are allowed on to the market by UNBS.
They include foods, plastic and rubber products, textiles, human and animal drugs and electronics. As a result, UMA has agreed with the embassy in Uganda that all Chinese factories exporting to Uganda label their goods with contact information to enable easy tracing.
Other counterfeits come from India, Dubai, Indonesia, Thailand and Taiwan, and African countries like Nigeria and South Africa. However, there are also counterfeits produced within the region.
UMA also agreed with Minister on Feb. 2 that the Commercial Law Amendment Bill and Anti-counterfeit Bill which are now before parliament should be expedited into law.
“The anti-counterfeit bill has been delayed too much. The government should move fast on this matter and this law should be so punitive,” says Uniliver Uganda Managing Director George Inholo.
He says although there has been reduction in counterfeiting of Uniliver products, which include most household toiletries, they have had to engage the services of a third party and deploy a well-trained team to detect and identify any on the market.
The fake option
Some analysts, however, say the laws, old and new, cannot remove the basic reasons why counterfeits and sub-standard goods are popular in Uganda. Although some people buy fakes out of ignorance, at times people buy them willingly for several reasons, including their low prices.
Some traders say they sell counterfeits because some specifically ask for them. They cannot afford the original ones.
As one man who spoke to The Independent said, Uganda is a third world country and the people are poor and cannot afford original products.
“Counterfeits are advantageous since they act as options for those who can’t afford the original products,” he said, “people buy counterfeits well aware of what they are purchasing and even ask for them sometimes which forces traders to import them.”
A technician who repairs electronics said he imports counterfeit spare parts because the original spare parts are more expensive and attract higher taxes. He said if the government cut taxes on original goods, it could help reduce the popularity of counterfeits. He said products that are written on `Made in England’ are taxed higher than those that are written on `Made in China’. So traders import Chinese products that are in most cases duplicates.
In fact, Uganda also produces its own counterfeits, mostly plastics items like cups and plates, writing material like pens, cosmetics, and electronics like extension cables.
On Feb. 16, the Police in Rwanda impounded 105 cartons of counterfeit BIC pens valued at over Rwf 6 million and arrested five people suspected to be behind the act. The suspects claim that they bought the BIC pens from Uganda and that they had receipts to prove it.
An apparels dealer in downtown Kampala city told The Independent of how she used to sell ladies underwear at Shs 8000 per dozen because they were original.
“Customers liked them because they were unique,” she says. But her unique underwear story ended badly.
“One time I walked into a Chinese shop and found the exact underwear with the same brand at Shs 5000 per dozen,” she says.
The counterfeiters had perfected their crime so much that some of their products look like the originals. According to Kahuma, such goods can be made from garages or small hidden rooms.
For some products, especially human and animal drugs, it is not that easy to tell the genuine from the fake. Experts recommend users to be familiar with the size, color, taste and the packing of the drugs but this is sometimes difficult because consumers cannot check the active ingredients. Counterfeiters typically use more or less of the active ingredients with dangerous consequences for consumers.
Regina Kamoja, who is in-charge of counterfeit drugs surveillance Uganda’s main referral hospital, Mulago, in Kampala, says there is no data and counterfeits are not considered a serious problem.
“Counterfeits have not been given serious attention since it is even still a Bill in parliament and the law has not yet been put in place as well as the punishment,” she says.
For now, she advises patients to only buy medicine from registered and licensed drug shops. This might not work because some health centers sell both the original and the counterfeit drugs and patients do not know who and what to trust. It’s no clear how Kyambadde expected Kahuma to fix that.
According to UNBS, the most counterfeited goods include: detergents, electrical appliances, cosmetics, soaps, shampoos, shoe, polish, toothpaste, carbonated drinks, sanitary pads, juices, detergents and spices. According to The Independent’s research, some of the counterfeits on the market include bags, electronics, phones, plastics, cosmetics, clothes, shoes, accessories and beverages.
The most counterfeited products are those with the famous labels like Prada, Gucci, Adidas, Nike, Phillips and others. In one case, a Nokia x1 phone was retailing at Shs 150,000 in one shop downtown but counterfeited one, Nokia without the x1 was also selling for Shs 80,000.
In the handbag category, Prada was counterfeited as Pada , Gucci as Guci, Nike as Naik, and Adidas to Adidos.
Accessories like earrings and counterfeited sunglasses like Ray Ban and Gucci were on the market. In the electronics sections, flat irons like Phillips became Philips. Jeans and shirts, shoes were counterfeited as were bottled water, cereals, and powder milk.