Opinion: Is UNBS Doing Enough on Counterfeits and Substandard Goods?

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The Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) is established under Section 22 of The Uganda National Bureau of Standards Act Cap 327 with the primary mandate of developing, promoting and enforcing standards and quality of products and services to facilitate fair trade, promote local industries and protect consumers. The bureau is also tasked with the duty of formulating National Standard Specifications for commodities and codes of practice as may from time be required.

Section (1) (f) of the UNBS Act mandates UNBS to enforce standards in protection of the public against harmful, dangerous and sub-standard products, while Clause 20 of the Act prohibits the manufacture, sale, distribution or holding for the purpose of selling any product that does not meet compulsory Uganda standards.

The Bureau being at the centre of quality and authenticity management has been openly faulted by the critics for the quality Kwashiorkor that defines the Ugandan market baskets, and putting every Ugandan consumer at the risk of loss, disease and death.

The UNBS boss Dr. Manyindo while giving the performance highlights of financial year 2017/2018 briefed the public that the bureau had received UGX 38.5 billion which was allocated to implement a number of activities under its approved annual work plan. He further did a self-assessment noting that the performance was very good averring that the institution had achieved all its targets at 100% and exceeded its Non Tax revenue collections by UGX 1.7 billion despite a shortfall from the government grants of UGX 1.488 billion. If as alleged UNBS achieved all its targets, the only light conclusion would be that the targets were so low.

The Bureau has constantly blamed its failures on the little funding from the government. To support this is the statistic that the government on average allocates UGX.700/- per Ugandan for ensuring quality. This is among the lowest in the region. However, some of the failures of the bureau and the worrying statistics of the amount of counterfeit products on the market can be solely based on the bureau’s modus operandi, and shortfall in strategy.

The worrying fact as noted by the report released by the bureau itself is that 54% of the products on the market are substandard. The proceeding numbers put the percentage at 73%, with a dissatisfying improvement still proving how unsuspecting Ugandans are at risk, and not even proverbial  immunization can save them.

It is important to note the difference between counterfeit products and substandard products in order to understand the scope of the duties of The bureau. A counterfeit product is one that violates a copy right or patent of the original manufacturer, even if it matches, or supersedes the standard of the original manufacturer. On the other hand, a substandard product is one which falls short of either the international or standard set by UNBS for that specific. The UNBS has the mandate of specifying the quality of every product on the market and setting a standard threshold below which an item is said to be substandard.

It is at this point important to note that some of the standards of some products that have been passed by UNBS fall way below the standards of equivalent products elsewhere in the world, including in countries with a lower GDP than Uganda. This may be looked at as a measure to maintain some of the industries sustaining the economy, especially with national campaigns like Buy Uganda Build Uganda (BUBU) to encourage localization, though one would think that standard AND safety takes priority over any of the other objectives. This possible excuse also does not explain the permission to import some of the products that are cleared under The Uganda National Bureau of Standards (Import Inspector and clearance) Regulations of 2015, yet they fall way below the world standards their side effects are alarming both for the primary use, and health reasons. These range inter alia from electronics, playing toys, building materials.

While most of the efforts to fulfill its mandate have been channeled towards surveillance, the primary question would be why can’t the efforts for reduce the counterfeits and substandard products be tightened at the other stages after manufacturing for the locally manufactured goods, and before importing for the imported goods?

Section 14 of the UNBS Act gives powers to an Inspector to at reasonable times, upon identifying himself to the person in charge, to confiscate goods, or take reasonable samples, or enter premises to inspect.

Therefore, the UNBS based on such powers has embarked on market surveillance with a series of activities carried out and measures taken to ensure that products comply with the requirements set out in relevant standards and do not endanger public health, safety or any other aspect of public interest protection. Several products ranging from food, chemicals, fertilizers, building material, electronic appliances, drugs by the nature and use by consumer cause an extreme threat to the user if short if standard.

Regulation 3 of the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (use of distinctive mark) Regulations, 2018 bars any person from importing, distribution, manufacturing, selling or having in his or her possession, or controlling sale or distribution of any commodity from which a compulsory standard specification has been declared unless the commodity conforms to the compulsory standards specification. It is vital to note that the UNBS gives the S mark and the Q mark in a scheme that is intended to give assurance to the customer that the product conforms to the Ugandan Market. It is sad to say that this measure has in this error not embraced the good fence that comes with technology wherewith it would be hard for the proprietors of substandard product to forge the mark on the packaging materials of different products. It should therefore me more than a mere ink but code or chip that would easily cause notification of what is standard and what is not.

The fact is that the measures created by the legal flame work may be futile if the other mandates by the bureau are not well executed. A case in point is that the Bureau has one laboratory, yet too many samples to work on to the point that it has sometimes embarked on use of off-book private laboratories which jeopardises the “big why” of the process.

The bureau has always thrown a lifeline at the manufacturers, importers and suppliers stating that those who follow the rules and bear the administrative costs and delays related to compliance with standards should not be disadvantaged compared to those who do not comply with the requirements set out in relevant standards. This however should not be a blanket excuse to the failures of the bureau on efforts of created awareness to the public with the only viable source of the quality goods being on the website which can practically be accessed by less than 3% of unsuspecting Ugandans. (statistics from the average number of visits of the UNBS website daily). The statement is further too shallow to accommodate the failures of the bureau to diversify its operations beyond the capital, with the few established regional centres doing nothing more than paper work, with little penetration to the grass root trade in order to protect the public from substandard products.

From the legal perspective, and for the benefit of the public, most of the offences created under the act and the regulations drafted under the act take the form of strict liability offences, and the offender is punished whether he/she had intention to fault the law. Regulation 15 of the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (Imports Inspection and Clearance) Regulations is to the effect that a person who releases, distributes, sales or markets a product that does not comfort to the requirements of the relevant Ugandan Standard commits an offence. Take an example of a one Mr. Kyarenga who operates a super market, purchases a stock of bulbs, bathing soap, Electric extension and crop fertilisers. If the UNBS supervisor makes entrance to his supermarket, the explanation that he bought the goods from an open market shall not be a defence, and he shall thus be liable for the punishment prescribed by law, and confiscation of all his humble stock.

In conclusion, the question as to whether the failures of UNBS can be remedied by increased funding can be well answered by how effective the bureau has been in employing the resources it has now. The bureau therefore needs to acknowledge it’s shortfalls, and embark on establishing better partnerships with traders associations, manufacturers’ associations, investing in awareness campaigns to the general public, and employing the effective use of technology in implementing the now existing orthodox measures of marking what passed the quality and the standard test, as every Ugandan runs confidently runs to the chest of the bureau too be shielded from the substandard products.

The writer is an Associate at PACE Advocates

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