By AUSTINE OKANDE
It took quiet some time for Lucy Auma to find out why men avoided her.
She had a beautiful and dark skin but her friends always caught the attention of young handsome men in Nairobi. Could it be their skins? She had to find out and get a quick solution if she was to have a husband.
“I resorted to using bleaching products when it became apparent that most of my light-skinned girlfriends were getting married or hogging all the cute boys,” the young women in a full-face veil told The Nairobian recently.
The former beautician did not have to go far to find skin whiteners. They were in every beauty shop around every street corner in Nairobi.
And after a short period of use, the results were apparent — a fair skin like her friends’, but there was a problem. Auma’s skin was gradually starting to get tender and puffy. It soon became permanently bleached, thin, reddened and she felt intense irritation.
According to Dr Benter Pasaker, Auma’s condition was caused by her prolonged use of cosmetic products that had harmful metallic components like mercury, iodide or lead that tampers with the melanin pigment on the skin.
“Such chemical components pose a health risk to consumers and can lead to skin cancer, kidney damage, discolouring and scarring,” Dr Pasaker told The Nairobian.
Auma can now not travel anywhere without sunscreen, a lotion to protect the skin from the damaging sun.
“I no longer walk under the direct sun rays as my skin itches and my doctor has since advised me to be cautious not to break the skin (with the heat) as it would take long to heal,” she said.
But there was something else she found out other than the fact that she was no longer confident with her face (and had to wear a veil in public); she had been using cheap cosmetics all along. Most of them were counterfeits.
Medics who spoke to The Nairobian said there may be thousands of young women in the city like Auma who have experienced adverse effects on their health as a result of using counterfeit cosmetics.
There are fears that a wide range of products like cosmetics, drugs and even food that do not meet legal standards have flooded the market.
Apart from medics warning that the counterfeits expose Nairobians to acute health risks, experts on consumer goods say the rate at which the cheap fakes are being sold in the city is alarming.
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The Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) – commissioned by the Trade Mark East Africa to study the severity of the counterfeit problem in Kenya – says a billion-dollar industry has grown out of fakes and pirated products.
Joseph Wairiuko, senior officer at KAM in the counterfeits department, told The Nairobian: “The country has witnessed the proliferation of both sub-standard and counterfeit products despite the presence of the Pre-Verification of Conformity (PVoC) programme, standardisation mark and the anti-counterfeit law which is yet to be operational.”
The Anti-Counterfeiting Act was passed in 2008 in the hope that authorities would have more powers and resources to clamp down on illegal goods dealers.
The Anti-Counterfeit Authority (ACA) agency was later created through law, but so far, it has not been able to reduce the circulation of fake goods in Nairobi and across the country.
Critics say ACA is still weak given that it has not had enough resources and information to fight the crime. In fact, media reports in June indicated ACA only had 10 supervisors and had by the time only handled about 170 cases, a small number in the multi-billion industry.
Speaking on behalf of Stephen Mallow, ACA’s chief executive Johnson Adera said they are trying to work with different parties in the manufacturing industry to make the public aware of the illegal goods in the market. Adera is the deputy enforcement and legal services director.
But the bigger problem with counterfeits has always been how to identify the fakes from the genuine products. Counterfeiters often fool many traders and consumers and entice them with low prices.
“Often it is difficult to identify fake products as most of them are cunningly packaged and labelled as the original commodities, making it almost impossible to detect the fake