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Watchdogs have let consumers down

OPINION
By Alice Kemunto | March 19th 2020

Every day, there are many violations and infringements of consumers’ rights across the country from substandard products, misleading product information to toxic chemicals found in our food system. It is such a common occurrence that Kenyans have come to accept these violations without too many questions.

Regulatory agencies have been in existence in Kenya even before we gained independence. They are spread out across every sector in public service including health, manufacturing, tourism, insurance and agriculture. Regulators are typically created by Parliament to implement and enforce specific laws. They tend to have quasi-legislative, executive and judicial functions. Arguably, however, the most important role of the majority of regulators is consumer protection.

Indeed, the importance of consumer protection was stamped into our legislative framework when the country’s supreme law provided for consumer rights in Article 46. It states: “Consumers have the right to goods and services of reasonable quality; to the information necessary for them to gain full benefit from goods and services; to the protection of their health, safety, and economic interests; and to compensation for loss or injury arising from defects in goods or services.” The Consumer Protection Act 2012 was enacted to give full effect to this constitutional provision.

With all our laws and a battery of regulators, you would think we would be safe. Sadly, this is not the case. Most of the institutions tasked with our protection fall far short of effectively executing their mandates.

Media coverage

Take the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs), which was formed in 1974 and is basically responsible for developing quality standards, providing quality assurance as well as market surveillance. Kebs has not covered itself in glory in recent years. In 2019, there was widespread media coverage of the agency’s failings related to substandard fertiliser that contained mercury that found its way to the market. In addition, a large consignment of vegetable oil that fell short of set quality requirements was allowed into the market. 

Recent media reports have painted a rather worrying picture of the state of regulation of human medicine. Two agencies charged with policing the trade in medicine, the Pharmacy and Poisons Board and the National Quality Control Laboratory are said to be involved in a debilitating turf war at the expense of consumers.

As the two squabble, counterfeit and substandard drugs are on the rise in the country. To further illustrate the mess, PPB recently admitted to a Senate committee that the Sh63 billion Managed Equipment Service (MES) project equipment supplied to 122 health facilities in 47 counties were neither inspected nor given a clean bill of health before being commissioned.

Toxic pesticides

The National Environment Management Authority (Nema) does not fare too well either. From effluent choking rivers in urban areas to dubious project approvals, the incidents against the environmental protector are too many to enumerate.

In the ongoing discourse about the use of toxic pesticides in the country, a conspicuously silent player is the regulator, the Pest Control Products Board (PCPB). A significant number of harmful chemicals have been withdrawn in more judicious jurisdictions with nary a move from PCPB. Yet dealers in the toxic pesticides have been the loudest in touting PCPB’s competence to determine what is safe to use. As a consumer, it is alarming when the agrochemical industry appears to be in open embrace of the body that is supposed to be monitoring its actions.

Regulators are obligated to protect the public. They should act as referees and impose strict measures to ensure that the common good is never sabotaged - be it human health, animal health or the environment. It is worth noting that the people’s elected representatives do play a useful role in holding our various regulatory bodies accountable in the discharge of their duties as evidenced by the multiple summons to Parliament.

Kenya certainly needs structured reporting requirements to be instituted to ensure that regulators do not become laws unto themselves or hostage to vested interests. Our parliamentarians should continue to be aggressive in policing them and perhaps a little bit more creative.

Ms Kemunto is the executive director, Consumer Grassroots Association and Secretary of the Civil Society and Private Sector Alliance in Africa

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