New initiatives at KEBS reduce certification time, open doors for SMEs

Bureaucratic delays related to standards certification almost led Michael Kimeu* to give up on his ambitions to set up a bottled water business in early 2010’s.

Kimeu set up a water distillation and bottling plant on the outskirts of Kajiado, a county to the south west of Kenya’s capital Nairobi. However, he knew that he could not embark on his new venture without his product acquiring certification from the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS). The certification is a mandatory requirement for all locally manufactured products before they are shipped to markets locally or even regionally. It is issued to a firm as confirmation that a product conforms to requirements set by the Bureau.

As soon as his equipment was installed and first product samples generated, Kimeu lodged his application for a permit. Almost half a year later, he was yet to receive the permit and attempts to follow up led to frustration. The delay had a negative impact on his business as supermarkets and other retailers could not stock his product without the KEBS mark of quality. It is an offence under the Standards Act Cap 496 of the laws of Kenya to offer a product for sale without a valid standard mark of quality. To keep his business active, Kimeu altered his initial plans and set up a small-scale water-refilling business, awaiting the KEBS license. “The kin d of investment I had made could not be recouped by the new strategy and I found that I was running into debt mainly because I had installed the machinery in a big facility in anticipation that the orders I had received from retailers and hotel suppliers would cover the rent and associated bills,” Kimeu said.  Just when he was about to give up, Mr. Kimeu received a call from KEBS to collect his certificate, paving way for him to get his initial plan back on track.

Kimeu is one of hundreds of stories from Kenyan entrepreneurs, who a few years ago, almost gave up brilliant business ideas due to the slow pace and arduous process of acquiring the necessary regulatory documents from various state agencies. In the early 2010’s KEBS had a backlog of requests for certification of products from local SMEs, mostly driven by inadequate testing capacities at the Bureau.  This was one of the many reasons that Kenya fared poorly in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, having ranked at position 129 out of 190 countries in 2014; until 2018 when deliberate steps were taken to simplify and speed up the business licensing processes, including through the introduction of unified business permits. The following year, Kenya ranked at 57 in the global rankings.  Strategic partnerships have pushed KEBS closer to being a world class bureau of standards. Working with partners like TMA, the KEBS adopted a multi pronged strategy that focused on reviewing its governance frameworks on policy and institutional contexts; building capacity standards development, adoption and application; Quality infrastructure services such as quality promotion, conformity testing and inspection; Compliance/third party quality assurance and certification programmes and stakeholder interactions and information exchange.  It is on the strength of this approach that KEBS promises that the enabling environment has improved and that it is now possible for qualifying businesses to receive the ‘Standardization Mark (S-Mark) in under two weeks. Part of this efficiency is attributable to TMA’s support to KEBS that improved the Bureaus’ efficiency and effectiveness in product testing.

Following the multi pronged strategy, KEBS evaluated its processes, especially in relation to product testing and permit issuance and TMA provided support of approximately US$ 1.714 million, and KEBS started implementation of identified initiatives in 2011 until 2017.   Specifically, the initiatives ranged from support in acquisition of modern equipment, training of standards staff, review of the Standards Act, and development of the National Quality Policy. Collectively these have enabled KEBS widen its testing scope by 20 additional tests, including improvement of testing sensitivity levels up to parts per trillion from parts per million. This intervention has increased effectiveness of test results, leading to Kenyan products being assured of meeting market requirements before they are exported. Interception of Kenyan products has also reduced, enabling market access for products.

Reduction of turnaround time for testing and costs associated with testing for various parameters have reduced significantly, from 14 days in 2012 to 1 day in 2014 and cost reduction from an average of US$800 to US$120, thanks to the partnership by KEBS and TMA. Further, average time taken for standards-related clearance of goods at select Kenyan borders reduced from 3 days in 2010 to 2 days in 2014. Moreover, increased capacity at the Bureau has resulted in increased product certification to 1820 permits issued in 2014 compared to only 619 in 2010. As part of advocacy and capacity building efforts,  KEBS trained small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) on standards and certification, to increase their compliance levels and enhance chances of getting their products certified upon submission of samples.

Lucy Ikonya, Manager-Trade Affairs, KEBS says the programme has had a huge impact. “One of the things it has built is the capacity for Standards Quality Management, Metrology, and Testing (SQMT) activities. This is crucial to ensure effective trade facilitation for Kenyan products in the regional market and beyond.”

“The TMA support helped equip the KEBS laboratory with state-of-the-art analytical instruments, which have greatly increased our efficiency,” said Antony Irungu, from the KEBS Food and Agriculture Laboratory and Microbiology department. “So radical was the transformation that tests which would have initially taken 10 days to perform, now take just two minutes – KEBS microbiology laboratory is now able to perform up to 25 tests in 120 seconds.”

Similarly, the equipment has expanded the scope of testing to cover organic contaminants in drinking water such as benzene, xylene and halo-methanes, as well as methyl mercury and other toxic elements in food products such as fish and beverages. This is in addition to testing mineral elements in animal feeds, food products and mineral supplements. “Our detection limits have also improved – the new equipment are 1000 times more sensitive and have moved our detection ability to ultra-trace levels up from trace level,” Irungu said. He explains that ultra-trace testing capabilities gives consumers the assurance that products approved for markets by KEBS are safe to use.

With gains in laboratory functions, Ms. Ikonya adds, KEBS has witnessed a spike in its trade facilitation activities supported by the hastened pace of issuing the standardization mark to SMEs.

“The results of the tests done using the equipment are used to support the issuance of S-Mark through testing of products under the product certification scheme. This has led to the doubling of certified SME products,” Ikonya said.

Other achievements arising from the investment include the set up of a web-store, allowing certified businesses to purchase and print the standards online, as opposed to waiting for hard copies of the stickers from KEBS, a process that previously took several weeks based on demand.

Such progress is exciting for Kimeu and other SMEs. “Up and coming businesses need all the support from the government, and most of it arises from smoothing the licensing processes. I am glad that new SMEs will not have to go through the challenges and frustrations I underwent in getting my products certified,” Kimeu said.

*Name has been changed to protect the interests of source