Kebs now shifts focus to MSMEs to reverse 'State victim fear' tag

Members of Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Embu Chapter, show manufactured liquid soap for distribution to various businesses to support hand washing during the height of Covid-19 pandemic. [File, Standard]

The standards body is shifting its focus to small businesses in a bid to reverse a negative narrative that has made micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) operate under the radar for fear of being victimised by government agencies.

The Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) says it is reaching out to small business associations and women’s groups to have them not only adopt set standards but also propose some that will improve the quality of their products and make them competitive in the market.

This shift has also been informed by damning data on small businesses showing that half of these enterprises (46.3 percent as per 2016 data) close shop just a year after starting out.

Many small traders, as well as those who import their products or manufacture overseas, have found themselves on the wrong side of the law for not having the right documentation for their products. This leads to a cat-and-mouse chase when KEBS and its sister agencies carry out market surveillance.

Additionally, the number of product certifications for big manufacturers, which stands at 17,500 compared to 6,400 for small and medium businesses, has been a concern to KEBS. This is because 98 percent of businesses in the country are SMEs according to the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM).

Joan Makhanu, Manager Quality Assurance Chemical Division, notes that the reason why there are more  product certifications for big manufacturers is because they understand the value that comes with having a certificate.

“They literally camp at our offices,” she says. “But then we realised, for our country to develop, we need SMEs because these are people from our own production systems: they are the ones growing the crops and making the juices.”

The realisation came when the figure stood at 2,000, she says, which informed a policy to intentionally go out in search of these businesses.

“I know it is a small percentage compared to what is out there, but we feel like we are making a step towards ensuring all these smallholders come on board,” she says. “We are working with associations, women’s groups. We are actually customizing trainings for them.”

This intervention aims to reach all types of enterprises, from the simplest that make homemade peanut butter or cosmetics from herbal products.

Ms Makhanu made the revelations during an informative session with the media on the efforts KEBS is employing in standards development, adoption, and market surveillance.

It was noted in the session that small businesses are generally quick to apply for product certification. The challenge comes with sustaining the momentum of the business, as some of them ignore other aspects of their enterprises like product packaging, design, or the extent of the market.

Set standards

This was mentioned as one of the reasons behind the death of several enterprises which were certified by KEBS to manufacture face masks, soap, and sanitiser at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

And almost similar to KNBS data that shows 46.3 per cent of SMEs close within their first year of operation, it was revealed that just 65 percent of small businesses whose products have been certified do manage to transition over this period.

One of the reasons behind this closure is the tedious and expensive process of adhering to the set standards, which KEBS acknowledges.

However, Zacheus Mwatha, Acting Head Standards Development and Trade, explains there are products where the cost factor of adhering cannot be compromised.

This is even as he insists there has to be a balance when developing the standards, which is based on science and experience.

“If you are developing a standard and you find the level of aflatoxins, for example, you are proposing, is going to save lives and make sure we do not have cancers, which one would you go with? Make that maize meal more expensive with less aflatoxin or make it cheap with high aflatoxin levels?” he poses.

He adds: “Sometimes the standard can make the product expensive because you are trying to mitigate against those effects on health, safety, and the environment. You do not have to compromise.”

But there are others, says Mr. Mwatha, where negotiations can be done with the industry, and a primary standard will be developed with agreeable improvements on a yearly basis.

“When we are developing standards, there is a balance between the economy and the specifications, but at times you can overlook the cost because of the (health, safety, and environment) benefits,” he says.

He notes that there are no separate standards for MSMEs and big manufacturers. All of them have to adhere to the same standards.

Benson Bundi, Manager Pre-Export Verification of Conformity, says even as KEBS enforces compliance with the set standards, manufacturers and importers are the ones who should enforce them further.

“For us, we facilitate you by setting the standard and quality assurance officers who will let you know if it is juice, these are the set standards and we have laboratories to test and confirm,” he says.

He adds: “As a manufacturer, you need to know your product very well; you should not venture into a business you are not aware of. If you are an investor, then you employ a quality assurance officer. In case of any non-compliance, that officer takes responsibility.”

Mr Bundi states that in some cases, if the product is being manufactured outside, some traders negotiate with the manufacturer for lower costs, which may then compromise on quality.

“The standard set is just the bare minimum for safety, health, and the environment to protect the consumer. You can actually go for the excellent and you will have a good reputation in the market, your product will sell fast, and you will have an edge,” he says.

He reveals that the major problem at the moment with small traders is the use of consolidators to get their products from abroad. This way, some of the traders only interact with the products when they are delivered at their shops without knowledge that whoever they gave the order to has cut corners from manufacturing to payment of duty and taxes.

“So you sell electrical switches but you have no documents to show how they were imported. Those goods are basically smuggled,” he says. “Importers need to know of their responsibility of ensuring the goods have the correct duty and taxes paid and all the regulatory requirements have been met.

He adds: “This way you will not run away when you hear Kenya Revenue Authority, Anti-Counterfeit Authority or KEBS are doing surveillance.”

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