Kenyans are eating, drinking and beautifying themselves to an early grave.
Products in the market ranging from food to alcoholic drinks are silently poisoning consumers. The ongoing war on illicit brew proves that people are consuming dangerous chemicals in the name of alcohol as well as foods, lotions and beauty enhancers.
Medical experts and consumer rights organisations now warn that Kenyans are exposed to carcinogens (cancer causing agents) found in genuine and counterfeit products they consume.
The skin lightening creams, body lotions, soaps and even tooth-paste, they could set you on the path to a terminal illness.
Boxed into a tight corner by high inflation and, in the midst of aggressive marketing by manufacturers and ingenuity by counterfeiters, many people have become vulnerable to these deadly agents.
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What is more worrying is the fact that some of these dangerous products have the official approval stamp by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs), making consumers trust even substandard items on offer.
Moses Otieno had a bad experience early this year when he hosted a birthday party for his 12-year-old nephew in Kayole Estate in Nairobi.
He bought a two-litre bottle of tropical juice, the children’s favourite, from a local supermarket.
To his shock, and indeed to the disappointment of the children, the juice tasted acidic.
“Even after diluting it three times, I could not sip the juice, leave alone the children,” says Otieno, “I had to throw away the whole bottle. Unfortunately, I had spent all the money I had so the children were forced to forgo their favourite drink.”
To his amazement, he says, the product had the Kebs seal of approval, although it did not have a sell-by date on the label or container.
And, that is not the first time he was duped. Otieno once bought six packets of ‘fake unga’ packaged neatly under the name of a popular brand.
Yet you do not have to be gullible to be a victim of Kenya’s fast growing multi-billion shillings counterfeit industry.
Three times, this writer was sold fake bottled water in Malindi, Nairobi and Nyeri respectively — the name of a multi-national soft drink manufacturer was labelled conspicuously.
The water bought in Nyeri and Malindi had a clearly fake seal — having been sealed off by a candle flame or, something of the sort, while the product in Nairobi tasted like plain tap water.
Why are Kenyans busy making substandard and fake goods for mass consumption without a care about the health of the buyers?
Silphanus, a technician at the Kariobangi Light Industries, which churns hundreds of tonnes of consumer goods every day, has a manufacturing plant on the fringes of a dirty river in Kariobangi. It is easy to see how the counterfeit industry is a thriving business.
From cooking fat to washing powder and juices, the plant is the conduit for uncertified goods that find their way to supermarket shelves.
“We even sell to big suppliers who supply the big supermarket chains,” brags Shilpanus who declined to give his second name for fear of being hunted down by the authorities.
He sells Sh6 million worth assorted consumer goods every year, he says. Besides his plant are a chain of similar edifices churning out tonnes of such goods.
But even that would be a drop in the ocean if you consider such goods coming into the country through our ports of entry, especially through the far and middles eastern countries.
According to Steven Mutoro of Consumer Federation of Kenya (Cofek), the worst affected are fast moving consumer goods such as bottled water, imported baby feeds, cigarettes, electrical appliances and foodstuffs such rice and powdered milk.
The counterfeit is now a massive industry that cost the Government in excess of Sh70 billion a year in lost revenue through tax avoidance, he says.
“What is more worrying is that the major brands having been pushed into a corner by the counterfeits have now engaged in ‘legal counterfeiting whereby they comply with all the regulations but cut down on the ingredients put in certain brands,” he says.
Dr Dundu Owili, a consultant dermatologist at the Aga Khan University Hospital says some cancers are either related to the food we eat or the products we use like skin lightening creams and soaps.
What you eat gets into the bloodstream. Processed foods are a big problem because they contain additives and contaminants which may be carcinogenic.
“Also when it comes to food, it matters where it is grown because if they are grown in environments with adverse levels of mercury or lead for instance, these can find their way to the food chain,” he says.
A recent joint research by the University of Nairobi and Strathmore University has established that most fruits and vegetables sold in Kenya contain a cocktail of harmful pesticides and heavy metals that exceed safe levels. Testing of numerous samples of common vegetables and fruits drawn from open-air markets and supermarkets in Nairobi, Nakuru and Machakos found that kales (sukuma wiki), amaranth, tomatoes, and mangoes contained chemical residues at levels not regarded as safe by the World Health Organisation.
In particular, high levels of lead were detected in samples collected from farmers in Machakos. The researchers say laboratory studies have showed that pesticides can cause health problems including birth defects, nerve damage and cancer.
There is a heavy use of pesticides in tomatoes, kale and amaranth sold in the towns under study as indicated by the high level of residues. Some of these pesticide residues found in the samples were above the recommended maximum levels,” states the report titled, Evaluation of the safety of selected fruits and vegetables sold in the domestic markets in Kenya.
Besides food, beauty products that are imported into the country pose a serious threat to health.
Dr Owili says some of the beauty products like skin lightening creams contain a substance called hydro-quinone, a white crystalline compound which could lead to kidney toxicity if used over a long period of time.
Some of the products contain mercury which could lead to similar health consequences.
Dr Owili says there is need for proper inspections of food, drugs and other consumer products imported and manufactured in the country to ensure they comply with Kebs standards and the WHO standards.
“I’m aware this inspection goes on all the time but there is also need to maintain a high level of market surveillance to ensure that uncertified substandard goods do not find their way into the market,” he says.
In the United States such market surveillance and production validation goes on all the time. On June 15 the Food and Drug Administration finalised its determination that artificial trans fat is no longer generally recognised as safe for use in food.
Already, about 85 per cent of artificial trans-fat has been eliminated, thanks to sustained public health campaign that has included disclosing trans-fat on nutrition facts labels, litigation and city, county, and state prohibitions on the use of partially hydrogenated oil in restaurants according to CSPI website.
In contrast, this ingredient is still being used in the manufacture of edible oils in Kenya.
Dr Robert Mathenge, a heart specialist at the Nairobi Hospital, says the health risk in food extends beyond counterfeiting adding that Kenyans now consume more fat and sugar than ever before.
He notes that the improvement in the infrastructure and communication services means that such products packed in small packets can now reach even the remotest of villages.
“The so-called kadogo means some of the foodstuffs that were consumed only in cities can now reach villages. But as more Kenyans eat more fat and sugar there has been a jump in cases of obesity, diabetes and heart diseases, including in sections of society where such disease were rare,” he explains.