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January 22, 2019

WAMBUI MBARIRE: Technology the best bet to safeguard quality bottled water

Bottled water
Bottled water

The country has been awash with news of food contaminated with chemical residues that has been on sale to the unsuspecting public.

And while sugar has received more prominence, the reality is, there are dozens of other foods, including bottled water, in the market whose quality cannot be guaranteed and which are not being talked about.

Kenya has a flourishing bottled water market, with 2016 figures from the International Finance Corporation (IFC) estimating sales to be more than Sh12 billion per year.

Whilst it is marketed as ‘pure mineral water’, recent research and government raids have shown that most of this water is tap or borehole water that is bottled in unsafe, unhygienic estate backyards and in some cases even from rivers. Further, tests carried out on some samples have found presence of faecal matter.

Investigations have also revealed that this water is packaged in used bottles in unsanitary conditions without proper testing facilities. Sometimes, unscrupulous vendors go as far as using bottles bearing labels of well-known companies and passing it off as genuine products.

This illegal practice is not only limited to the vendors who seem to be working in cahoots with crooked businessmen but extends to the hospitality industry.

A few months ago, the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) cautioned that some hotels and public event organisers were procuring packaged drinking water that has not been certified by the bureau and distributing it for consumption to their clients.

The thriving industry seems undeterred by the sporadic enforcement that is carried out by government authorities.

According to the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), over 70 per cent of products in the water and juice sector are illicit.

This translates into thousands, if not millions, of Kenyans being exposed to water contaminated with chemicals, hazardous waste and bacteria such as e-coli, which can result in serious diseases such as salmonellosis, cholera, typhoid, Hepatitis A, meningitis or amoebiasis.

In severe cases, water contamination has led to death, especially in young children and the elderly.

The proliferation of illicit bottled water has been blamed on a lack of stringent surveillance and enforcement mechanisms. Until now, only the Kebs mark has been required on bottled water products.

However, the Standardisation Mark (SM) for domestically produced product is not a secure, serialised mark that can be used by consumers to verify the authenticity of these product — each manufacturer is simply authorised to include the SM image in their product packaging. But most, if not all, illicit producers include the SM image on their products as well.

Additionally, the recent scandal regarding Kebs Import Standardisation Marks (ISM) has demonstrated the limits of a marking solution that is not secure and robust. This situation therefore calls for a change of tack, especially in the water and juices sector.

The best shot at protecting and defending the consumer comes in the form of tools such as the impending introduction of the Excisable Goods Management System (EGMS) as a first step to eradicating the sale of unlicensed and unapproved products.

The EGMS is a tried and tested solution that has been implemented in the tobacco, spirits, beer, wine and ready-to-drink alcoholic drinks industry for nearly four years with impressive results.

The system will enable Kenyans to verify the source and authenticity of the water they are consuming. In addition, this system would help weed out unscrupulous traders, importers and illegitimate products, thus guaranteeing the licensed bottlers a level playing field on which they can protect their brands’ integrity.

As core benefit, the EGMS would help enhance revenue collection. For the implementation of such a system to work however, the KRA must work hand in glove with other relevant authorities such as Kebs, the Water Services Regulatory Board and the Water Resource Management Authority.

The ultimate goal should be ensuring that only companies bottling genuine, clean and safe mineral water are licensed and authorised to bear the secure KRA stamp.

Water is an essential element of life thus there should be no compromise in ensuring that the highest standards attainable are met by all companies operating in and handling it.

Profits and revenues should never supersede compliance with the regulatory objectives including safety of the consumer and protection of government revenue.

The writer is CEO, Retail Trade Association of Kenya

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