The death of 14 people in August after they consumed a substandard liquor in Gulu is one indicator of the heavy cost we are paying for the poor consumer protection against harmful products.
While the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS), the body mandated to certify that products on the market meet compulsory standards and are safe for human consumption, has seemingly established processes for assessment and enforcement of standards to improve product quality, the current situation suggests that the enforcement is sometimes slow, and the national capacity is still inadequate to fully implement standards.
A study by the Economic Policy Research Centre identified several challenges to standards enforcement. The main challenge being inspection and market surveillance. UNBS is understaffed, which negatively impacts country wide inspection of goods, more so at the borders.
Majority of border points have limited presence of UNBS staff, hence inadequate import inspection. Similarly, factory inspection is impossible in incidences where production of sub-standard commodities is done in clandestine locations by manufacturers. These commodities end up on the market before authorities are alerted about the illegal production. Out of 59 manufacturers interviewed in Greater Kampala, 33 perceived UNBS as ineffective in identifying and punishing these culprits, being that punitive actions were not sufficient to trigger deterrence.
Regarding conformity assessment of a product, UNBS tests commodities of registered manufacturers under the Product Certification Scheme, before issuance of a quality mark. This mark that is clearly displayed on product packaging, signals that the product conforms to stipulated standards and is therefore safe for consumption.
From the same study, 68 percent of the firms perceived UNBS as effective in this regard. However, much as UNBS has established clear guidelines and processes for certifying commodities, the challenge arises from poor interpretation of the parameters required to achieve certification. Some manufacturers complained about the complexity of standards and the difficulty of understanding their requirements.
Notably, this challenge is prevalent among new entrants. The poor interpretation of a standard by a manufacturer elongates a straightforward and effective product assessment process. Moreover, there is an associated cost with getting products samples retested – in terms of accessing UNBS laboratory services but also the delay in putting the product on the market. Hence, in an effort to cut costs, errant manufacturers prefer to skip this process.
Therefore, as Uganda embarks on the import replacement strategy envisioned in the National Development Plan III, it is essential to boost the standards ecosystem by mitigating these challenges.
Key among these mitigation strategies is the evaluation of laws and regulations to address gaps in standards enforcement, particularly when punishing errant manufacturers. Furthermore, increasing the UNBS staffing will address human resource gaps, particularly in inspection which is vital in curbing illegal manufactures.
Simplification of standards will overcome challenges related to poor interpretation, especially among new entrants. In addition, encourage manufacturers to join associations and networks, to easily access information from their peers. Manufacturers should be facilitated to formalise their businesses in order to tap into and benefit from UNBS services that also include advisory and technical support.
It is vital that UNBS empowers the local authorities to support it in enforcing standards, by building their capacity to detect violations relating to illegal production in their localities, and report the culprits. Lastly, consumers should be UNBS’ main enforcement resource in the identification and reporting of sub-standard commodities, and demanding better quality from manufacturers. However, their awareness of product standards remains low. Therefore, UNBS should intensify standards awareness campaigns among the public.