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KEBS caught up in battle for lucrative fertiliser market

By Lee Mwiti | February 18th 2020
By Lee Mwiti | February 18th 2020

Sometime in 2017, then Trade and Industry Cabinet Secretary Adan Mohamed convened an important meeting in his office. 

In attendance were then Agriculture CS Willy Bett, senior Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) officials and the agency’s Fertiliser Technical Committee.

On the agenda was a single item: to evaluate a proposal by a Moroccan fertiliser manufacturer to review the current standard, specifying the permissible level of cadmium in one of its imported fertiliser brands.  

The meeting would set the tone for a relentless campaign by Morocco-based fertiliser producer OCP Africa to win over Kenyan authorities in what could potentially put millions of lives at risk. 

Financial Standard has learned that OCP through its local subsidiary, OCP Kenya, has stepped up lobbying for Kebs to allow the importation of Diammonium Phosphate (DAP) that contains a high level of a heavy metal element called cadmium.

And the Moroccan firm and other interested parties seem to have carried the day after Kebs granted a six-month waiver for importers to bring in DAP with a high cadmium limit of 30ppm, pending a final decision on the standard review.

Cadmium is a poisonous heavy metal pollutant that is in the same league with mercury, lead, arsenic and chromium.

DAP is the world’s most used fertiliser for planting. OCP is out to influence Kebs to review the current Kenya Standard KS157:2018 fDAP/MAP, which specifies the maximum permissible level of cadmium in imported fertilisers at 15 parts per million (ppm).

Kebs has for years struggled to control the level of harmful metals in foodstuffs, fertilisers and other products in order to safeguard consumers and the environment.

Cadmium is an inherent component of phosphate rocks, which is a raw material used in the manufacture of phosphate fertilisers that contain the all-important plant nutrient phosphorus.

The heavy metal element, though rapidly taken up by plants from the soil, is of no use to the plant but accumulates rapidly in plant parts, thereby entering the food chain.

The harmful effects of cadmium on human health are numerous and can impact nearly all systems in the body, including cardiovascular, reproductive, the kidneys, eyes and skeletal deformation, especially in children.

The element may also lead to cancer and affects blood pressure, causes bone damage and renal system diseases. It also causes irreparable damage to the environment.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified cadmium as a Class 1 carcinogen (cancer-causing substance).

Fatal effects 

Cadmium easily gets into the crop chain during fertilisation and is eventually consumed by humans. As a result of its fatal effects, governments all over the world have put in place stringent regulations to ensure fertiliser imported into their realms, contain a minimal amount of cadmium as possible.

But there are those who have discounted the dangers posed by the element in what is seen as a market war between fertiliser manufacturer.

Proponents of higher levels of the chemical argue that Kenya has limited itself to just a few places it can buy fertiliser, which has seen local farmers buy the commodity at relatively higher prices than their regional counterparts.

Kenyan farmers pay Sh3,800 for a 50kg of DAP fertiliser compared to Sh2,400 in some neighbouring countries such as Tanzania, which allows levels of 30ppm. This, analysts argue, poses a serious threat to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s food security agenda under his Agenda Four blueprint.

Documents in our possession show heavy lobbying within Kebs and government circles to raise cadmium permissible content limit to a maximum of 30ppm from the current 15ppm at the behest of OCP.

The reason that OCP wants the cadmium level increased to 30ppm is that its phosphate fertilisers contain high levels of cadmium, locking it out of the Kenyan market.

According to the documents in our possession, OCP first reached out to Mr Mohamed in 2017 after learning that the standard on the permissible cadmium levels was under review and suspected that it could probably be reduced further.

Mohamed would later convene a meeting co-chaired with the then Agriculture CS Bett and attended by Kebs senior management to address OCP’s concerns.

OCP had argued against the setting of 15ppm limit, saying there is no scientific evidence that the element is harmful.

It also argued that Kenya’s access to major sources of phosphate fertilisers would be seriously curtailed, leading to price hikes of the crucial commodity. 

It would appear that the government found OCP’s argument implausible and lacking merit as the National Standards Council subsequently settled on the 15ppm maximum limit.

Contrary to OCP’s assertion, various studies, including those undertaken by Kebs, have concluded that the current 15ppm limit has not curtailed Kenya’s access to wider sources of supply of DAP fertilisers. After the 2018 gazettement of the SK157:2018 standard, OCP did not give up.

It made a fresh request to Kebs in November last year, asking for review.

In a letter that is in our possession dated November 7, 2019, signed by OCP Country Manager Dan Okumu, the firm made a fresh case for the standard to be changed. The letter is addressed to Kebs Managing Director Bernard Njiraini.

OCP argued in the letter that Kenya must change its standard to align itself with the European Union (EU) standard regulation 60mg Cd/Kg P205 (equivalent to 30ppm).

“At cadmium limit of 15ppm, this made Kenya the country with the lowest limit in the world. In the forward section of KS157:2018, EU standard on cadmium is cited. However, EU has set a limit of 30ppm or 60mg/kgP205 to apply from July 16, 2022,” OCP wrote to Kebs.

“It will also permit voluntary labelling of fertilisers with cadmium of 20mg/kg. The limit of 15ppm, therefore, conflicts with international standards and should be reviewed.”

Again, Kebs constituted a sub-committee which deliberated on OCP assertions and presented a report on December 10, last year.

The report refuted all OCP’S claims but strangely recommended adoption of the yet-to-be-enforced EU regulations on cadmium.

The issuance of the “The Public Review Draft” which remains in circulation for 60 days is an invitation to the public to submit views to be considered and taken into account before a final decision is reached on any aspect of the standard review.

Oddly, even before public participation is concluded, the intense lobbying by OCP appears to have won over the Kebs boss Mr Njiraini to granting a six-month waiver for importers to bring in DAP with a high cadmium limit of 30ppm.

The waiver was communicated through a letter dated January 7, 2020 to Kenya Fertiliser Association Chairman Eustace Muriuki who circulated it to the association’s members.

When contacted for comment, Njiraini was quick to defend the waiver.

“In order to protect consumers and facilitate fair trade, the National Standards Council requested the Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Cooperatives to give a waiver that reinstates the maximum limits of cadmium of 30ppm in the current standard as deliberated upon and agreed by the Technical Committee,” Njiraini told Financial Standard.

“The Cabinet Secretary considered the advice of the National Standards Council and granted the waiver to the industry for this particular requirement in the said standard for a period of six months or until the standard under review is gazetted, whichever comes earlier, in accordance with the provisions of the Standards Act, Cap 496, Section 9 Subsection (3).”

Even while defending the waiver, Njiraini stressed that cadmium is an extremely toxic metal element that has been flagged by WHO, and that is why Kebs has struggled to control it.

“Exposure presents a risk to the environment and human health. Cadmium is known to accumulate in soils, leach into ground and surface water and be taken up by crops, resulting in increased levels in animals and in food, which could cause damage to human health,” Njiraini said.

Consumers Federation of Kenya (Cofek) Stephen Mutoro said the lobby would oppose the review because of the well-known harmful effects of cadmium.  

“This is a shadowy process. I still don’t believe that Kebs wants to allow fertiliser that is harmful to consumers and the environment to enter the country. Whoever is lobbying for this review is doing so to gain commercially. We will not accept it. We will fight it to the end,” said Mr Mutoro in an interview.  

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