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Controversy on Sh3.7b net scandal deepens

Health & Science
 National Treasury PS Dr Chris Kiptoo (centre right)  when he appeared before the Senate Committee on Health chaired by Jackson Mandago (left) to deliberate on the alleged irregularities in the procurement of long-lasting insecticidal nets. July 12, 2023. [Elvis Ogina , Standard]

A heated grilling session by the Senate Health Committee probing irregularities in tendering of mosquito nets worth Sh3.7 billion has shifted the spotlight to the Ministry of Health, for changing tender specifications against the preference of the Global Fund.

Sacked Public Health PS Josephine Mburu and acting CEO Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (Kemsa) Dr Andrew Mulwa, who was then Director of Medical Services, Preventive and Promotive Health, are now at the centre of the scandal, which triggered cancellation of the Sh3.7 billion tender in favour of Wambo.Org.

Appearing before the committee for a second time, Ms Mburu maintained her innocence, saying the change of specifications was occasioned by a letter authored by Dr Mulwa.

Mburu clarified that she received a memo from Mulwa directing her to include a pesticide synergist known as Piperonyl butoxide (PBO) in the tendering process, yet it was not a requirement listed by Global Fund.

“Mulwa was sited in my office, he signed the letter, and I signed it.”

“I did not cancel the tender, I wrote (the memo). The purpose of this was to seek clarity and fast-track the procurement. There was nowhere I sat with (suspended Kemsa CEO Terry Ramadhani Kemsa) to change specifications. The letter was to fast-track the tender to meet deadlines. As PS, I never cancelled the order. As an accounting officer, you can either take it or not,” Mburu told the committee.

In her defence, Mburu was categorical that there were two letters that touched on the change of specifications. One was authored by the head of the malaria programme, Dr Ahmeddin Omar, while the other was from Mulwa.

According to Mburu, her letter addressed to Ramadhani directing her to change the specifications was triggered by Mulwa’s letter.

Mburu said though Omar had an original letter to have changes on specifications, the one she signed to have PBO included was from Mulwa.

“I needed to get all copies from malaria, there was an original letter from Omar, and Mulwa raised a letter. The letter signed on my desk is signed by Mulwa and forwarded to PS Public Health (Mburu).

But appearing before the senate committee last month, Mulwa distanced himself from forwarding a memo to the PS to have a change of specifications, saying he had no knowledge of the tender irregularities and was only informed about it by Omar.

According to the acting Kemsa CEO, he advised Omar to write a memo on the same and forward it back to him for advice, but instead, Omar bypassed him and had direct communication with Ms Mburu.

Poked holes

Mburu however poked holes into Mulwa’s statement, revealing that the change of specifications was signed by Dr Mulwa in her office.

“The letter forwarded to my desk either from secretary or Personal Assistant (PA), or Mulwa, I signed a letter which he (Mulwa) had signed,” said Mburu adding that her letter did however not direct extension of the tender, nor inclusion of the PBOs, but was to seek clarity.

Documents tabled before the senate committee, the sacked PS Mburu wrote a letter to Kemsa CEO Ramadhani on February 21 to Kemsa CEO to have errors in the tender corrected and the procurement process fast-tracked. After receiving the letter, Ms Ramadhani wrote to the donor, National Treasury, requesting an extension of the closing date for the tending process. February 23 was the set deadline for tender application by bidders. However, on the same day, the tender was re-advertised based on Mburu’s letter on specification omission (PBO insecticide).

On February 27, Kemsa issued an addendum to the tender which indicated that an extension of the tender closing date was necessitated by a clarification raised by Mburu, and on March 10, the tender was closed prior to cancellation of the tender by Global Fund in April.

In support of Mburu’s defence of Mulwa signing the memo, Dr Nazila Ganatra, the Head National Strategic Public Health Programme at the Ministry of Health confirmed that the initial memo emanated from Omar to Dr Mulwa through her office.

She confirmed having forwarded Omar’s letter to Mulwa who reviewed, approved, and further wrote another fresh memo to the sacked PS containing the same information.

“Dr Mulwa wrote a fresh memo to PS, and we do not review what he writes to the PS. It doesn’t come backwards,” Ganatra told the committee.

But the official said the signature on the memo which was forwarded to Mulwa was signed by Dr Jackline Kisia, whom she directed to sit in for her, as she was attending an executive leadership course in Mombasa, communication she did via email.

A letter written to Kemsa according to Ms Mburu was aimed at rectifying the errors and fast-track the tendering process for timely delivery and distribution of the nets.

On her part, Ms Ramadhani maintained to have extended the tendering process following Mburu’s memo.

“...it (letter on the extension of tender) came on February 22, as the CEO, I had to make a decision, I tasked the technical team and raised the queries.

Eleventh hour

I made two decisions – to extend the tendering process and to write to Global Fund to let them know - because of the letter from the Ministry of Health was received at the eleventh hour. We had to extend because Kemsa is the only procurement agent,” Ms Ramadhani said.

She added, “I received a serious letter from the PS, and saying something was omitted...this is something I was to take seriously and rectify. If we let the tender close, it meant we had to begin afresh,” Ms Ramadhani told the committee.

Despite Ms Mburu directing Kemsa to change the specifications as per Dr Mulwa’s letter, Ms Ramadhani questioned the decision.

“I communicated back to the PS. We had actually not missed any specifications, and what we had put was actually correct,” said Ms Ramadhani.

During the grill, the senate also demanded an explanation from The National Treasury and Economic Planning PS Chris Kiptoo said on why Global Fund wanted pyrethroid and not PBO. In response, Mr Kiptoo said pyrethroid nets are less costly than PBO nets.

The senate further took Mr Kiptoo to task to explain why the donor cancelled the tender to Wambo.Org, yet it supplies PBO nets to Uganda, which is malaria endemic noting that the nets were to be supplied to counties which border Uganda including Busia, Homa Bay being malaria prone.

But Kiptoo maintained his stand, saying too much poking into the donor may cause diplomatic issues since they have continuously supported Kenya in the fight against three killer diseases-malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS.

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