Rising counterfeits are threat to construction qaulity, safety

CEO of East African Cables, Paul Muigai. [Courtesy]

In the early 1980s, my father decided to construct a masonry tank, a project that holds fond memories for me. 

The job was entrusted to Muya, a skilled graduate from the local polytechnic, and my brother played the vital role of ‘mtu wa mkono’ (handyman). I eagerly contributed by fetching water from the nearby stream and assisting with tools.

Looking back, the simplicity of the construction process was striking. Just three main ingredients: stones from Njiru, sand from Machakos, ballast, and bags of cement from Portland Cement made the core materials.

Additional components, like barbed wire for reinforcement and chicken mesh to prevent cracks, were planned for future implementation. Waterproofing compounds, membranes, and floor compactors were conspicuously absent, yet remarkably, the tank still holds water to date without any noticeable leaks.

The success of this tank project prompts an important question: if such a straightforward project can stand the test of time, why are we grappling with leaking flat roofs, which don’t need to retain water? The answer lies in an alarming trend that has swept across various industries in Kenya – a rise in counterfeit materials and compromised quality.

Somewhere along the way, the focus shifted toward short-term gains as unscrupulous suppliers compromise on the quality of materials offered. Whether it’s cement, reinforcement bars, iron sheets, or electrical cables, the authenticity of these products are at risk. 

Between 2009 and 2019, 86 buildings valued at over Sh2.4 billion collapsed. The highest number was recorded in 2015, when 21 buildings collapsed. An estimated 200 people died in these incidents (National Construction Authority, 2019).

I challenge you to google the phrase “the fire, suspected to have been caused by an electrical fault”. It will return news of incidences within the last 24 hours.  According to data from Comtrade, building and construction goods are the most counterfeited category at 23 per cent - equivalent to Sh136 billion of Illicit trade. 

The repercussions not only affect the construction industry but also other sectors that rely on dependable materials. For example, in my electrical cables field, I’ve witnessed thinner conductors and shorter coils than what is stated on the label, indicating that counterfeit practices have infiltrated even the most critical aspects of infrastructure.

As counterfeit goods flood the market, tax revenues dwindle, impeding government budgets for essential services and infrastructure development. Moreover, the loss of revenue disrupts supply chains and jeopardises the jobs of legitimate workers, fostering uncertainty within the manufacturing sector.

The impact of counterfeit goods goes beyond lost revenue. Gravely, they can lead to loss of lives, as we’ve unfortunately seen previously.

To combat counterfeit goods proliferation, governments must strengthen intellectual property protection laws and enforce stringent penalties for counterfeiters. Collaboration and information-sharing among stakeholders, such as manufacturers, regulatory bodies, and law enforcement agencies, are crucial for effectively dismantling counterfeit networks.

To safe guard consumers from this menace, manufacturing organizations such as East African Cables have integrated mobile phone-based technology systems dubbed Zinduka for the anti-counterfeit risk management as well as heavily invested in consumer education.  It’s a USSD service that enables the consumer to identify a genuine electrical cable from East African Cables.

At the regulatory level, establishing the Anti-Counterfeit Authority (ACA) in Kenya is a beacon of hope in the fight against illicit trade in sub-Saharan Africa. The ACA’s proactive approach, including investigations, raids and awareness campaigns, has successfully seized and destroyed counterfeit products.

Strengthening technological infrastructure for tracking and tracing illicit goods, enhancing collaboration among stakeholders and revisiting anti-counterfeit legislation is vital to tackling this issue.

- The writer is the CEO of East African Cables