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Tower of Babel: Who is fooling who in the sugar scam?

By Sara Okuoro | Published Tue, July 24th 2018 at 13:02, Updated July 24th 2018 at 14:34 GMT +3
Some of the 1,350 bags of sugar packed in 50kg bags impounded by a Multi-agency team of from Public Health, KEBS, KRA, DCI and Police officers at a warehouse belonging to Kanini Supermarket in Nakuru. [Kipsang Joseph/Standard]

Reports on the "contaminated sugar" scam have, predictably degenerated into a veritable Tower of Babel; what with everybody protecting their backs. Contradictory explanations and double-speak have left many dizzy. Here's what we know.

How much sugar was imported in 2017?

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National Treasury CS Henry Rotich differed with his industrialisation  counterpart Adan Mohammed on the quantity of sugar imported last year.

He told legislators that according to data obtained from the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), only 920,571 tonnes were imported during the period.

This was a jaw-dropping 100,000-tonne difference from Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri's figures.

Contaminated sugar?

Claims of Mercury contamination were first made by Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang'i when the Government launched a crackdown on contraband sugar across the country.

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He said harmful levels of Mercury had been discovered in sugar consignments seized in police raids.

He has since been contradicted by top government officials, creating uncertainty and a crisis of public confidence in the country's sugar supply.

The row

Authorities said they had seized over a million bags of illegally-imported sugar from warehouses in the capital Nairobi and other parts of the country. This  when anybody could produce Kenya Gazette waivers that allowed traders to ship in duty-free sugar.

Following the raids, Interior Minister Fred Matiang'i told local media that harmful levels of mercury and copper had been found in samples tested from the sugar seized in Nairobi's Eastleigh.

“It is shocking that some of this sugar has been found to contain particles of mercury and copper, which is very dangerous to our lives,” said Matiang’i.

But the then Trade Minister Adan Mohamed denied that the impounded sugar was Mercury-contaminated.

A few weeks down the line, CS Fred Matiang’i "clarified" that tested sugar samples did not contain Mercury but other metals. The Cabinet Secretary said he only used the term ‘Mercury’ as a precautionary measure to the public.

“We are holding 1.2 million bags of contaminated sugar which will not be released to the market. We have written to the Attorney General for direction on how we can destroy the goods,” said Matiang’i. 
What are the relevant authorities saying?

The Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs), the body that regulates standards in Kenya, has also denied that any Mercury had been found in the samples seized. The reports indicated that there were only traces of copper and lead in the impounded sugar.

The agency said it had so far tested 1,266,351 bags (50kg bags) out of the 1,319,668 bags impounded. Out of the 1.3 million bags, only 157,392 met standards required for human consumption.

KEBS boss, Charles Ongwae, told MPs that the samples had been found to contain nearly 21mg/kg of copper, more than 10 times the recommended safe level. In a shock development, Mr Ongwae was arrested barely after the report was released, along with several other KEBS officials, in connection with the scandal.

A report dated July 9, detailing results from tests by the Government Chemist revealed some of the sugar had traces of Mercury. The document, which contradicts the KEBS report, shows that 0.5910 per parts per million (ppm) Mercury were found in sugar sample from Bungoma, while tests done on another sample in Nairobi revealed 0.1151 parts per million of the heavy metal.

The tests further detected traces of Copper, Lead and higher moisture content in the samples tested.

The Government Chemist is under the Interior Ministry and is tasked with carrying out biochemical analysis of substances when the need for truth arises.

Tight-lipped officials

The officials have been rather reluctant to comment on the sugar scam with few giving very limited information and scanty details on the issue. Another factor that has stirred up confusion.

On Monday, a Government official confirmed the findings, but refused to be on record since the report has not been made public officially by the ministry.

Interior Ministry Communication Officer Mwenda Njoka declined to comment on the report, only saying that, “I can confirm that the CS Matiang'i talked about Mercury in some of the tested samples and he must have been sure about what he was talking about."

Public Accounts Committee (PAC) Chairman Opiyo Wandayi said following the latest report, all the seized sugar should be destroyed to safeguard the public from consuming contaminated sugar.

The revelation emerged even as the joint Parliamentary Committee of Agriculture and Trade said that it would not table its detailed report today (Tuesday) as it was still waiting for some reports from Government agencies.

The committee co-chair Kanini Kega told The Standard that the team expects further reports from KEBS and other agencies.

He said the committee was yet to receive the report by the Government Chemist that indicated the sugar had traces of mercury.

“We are yet to get certain results carried on the seized sugar and we are waiting for it before we can conclude on the report. We want to give the public a detailed report and we expect some of the results by Wednesday,” said Kega.

Should Kenyans be worried?

Mercury is harmful to human as it causes damages to brain, heart, kidneys, lungs and immune system as well as being toxic to central nervous system.

It is however hard to say anything definitive at this point, given the contradictory reports that have been coming from different government authorities.

But experts in the field are not impressed at the skulduggery and the government's handling of the situation.

"Conflicting information from the government should be a cause for worry for Kenyans", says Dr Catherine Kunyanga, senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi's department of food science, nutrition and technology.

"Any presence of heavy metals in foodstuffs should worry consumers," she says.

If the reports of heavy metals contaminating sugar supplies are confirmed, she thinks it would be a cause for concern, especially when it comes to lead.

Lead is more toxic than Mercury, she says, and children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of Lead, which can damage the brain and nervous system.

As for Copper, Dr Kunyanga says it could have been introduced if the soil or water feeding the sugarcane plant was contaminated.

How have lives been affected?

Sugar prices have increased ironically in shops in some parts of the country, creating problems for both traders and consumers. This, when politicians are shouting themselves hoarse about a glut.

Dakane Ahmed, a shopkeeper in Nairobi's Eastleigh,  has to walk long distances in search of sugar to restock his shop.

"We used to buy a 50kg bag of sugar for 4,000 Kenyan shillings (£30; $40), but now it's 6,300 shillings (£47; $62).

"Now we have to go around looking for sugar, which is not available in warehouses in this area," he says.

Mr Ahmed says he has almost doubled the price of a kilo of sugar, from $0.80 (£0.60) to $1.50 (£1.10), and he is worried that poor customers will no longer be able to afford it.

How have Kenyans reacted?

Kenyans on social media have expressed worry about consuming toxic sugar and many questions still remain unanswered.

Many have been using the hashtag #sugarylies on Twitter to criticise what they see as misleading and false statements being made about the scandal by politicians.

Additional reports from Moses Nyamori and BBC 


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