Ratio Blog: CCK Encroaching on KEBS Territory?
Monday, 23 August 2010
The Communications Commission of Kenya hasn’t had such a lucky run with regulations recently, and now wants to set up facilities to test electronic goods. Is that the best use of their time?  
My downstairs bathroom is so small that you have to wash your hands in the kitchen sink. However, I do think that guests should be able to check if their eyeliner is still in place, so I bought a little mirror with a wooden gold-painted frame in one of the supermarkets. It cost a few hundred shillings and is pretty, if uneventful, and does the job. That’s also what the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) must have found: because the mirror has the KEBS standard mark sticker, which must mean that it met the KEBS Little Gold Mirror Standard. I have long wanted to ask KEBS what exactly the requirements of the Little Gold Mirror Standard are. Goldiness? A clear reflection of your eyeliner?  

And it’s not just my mirror where the KEBS standard mark makes no sense. Companies like LG already have quality standards, and if there’s a problem with your fridge, you have a warranty. I have little faith that KEBS has more rigorous testing procedures and more in-depth product and technology knowledge than companies that specialise in electronics. And products like, yes, little gold-framed mirrors or coffee mugs don’t exactly need a quality standard, don’t they? But you can’t retail your product in any formal outlet unless you have that little stamp. Which costs. And you need one for every product line - don’t assume that the Little Gold Mirror stamp application then also includes the Medium-Sized Red Mirror. It is, in the end, just a cash cow for KEBS, an unnecessary cost for people producing things, annoying and costly enough if KEBS works according to procedures. Naturally KEBS doesn’t have standards for each and every product ready, so they need to develop them (lots of research on global little gold mirror standards, I imagine), and unless you want to shut shop and sack your staff, you just slip in the ‘facilitation’ to speed things up a bit and stay in business. This government may froth at the mouth with excitement about how SMEs are the backbone of the economy, but if they desire to be a part of the formal economy, pay taxes and stuff, GoK has no qualms about thanking them for this by shaking them down for some extra money.  

Now it appears that the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) has similar niggles as I, even if not over little gold-framed mirrors. CCK has discovered that KEBS has apparently not been very rigorous in testing ICT goods. So consumers, whilst clearly supplied with little gold mirrors of a reliable quality, receive sub-standard ICT goods that somehow weasel into the country. That’s unfortunate, and I’m glad that CCK cares. Of course several options come to my mind here: Sit down with KEBS and decide what to prioritise in testing and how? More phones, fewer mirrors? Perhaps beef up law enforcement and investigative capacities against imported counterfeits – an issue that doesn’t just affect mobile phones and other electronic goods, but also cigarettes, batteries or, sometimes life-threatening for consumers, pharmaceuticals? Or take a look at consumer protection again: If a dealer sells you a faulty handset, you should be able to take it back and exchange it for a functioning one, or get your money back. But CCK have probably watched KEBS having riotous fun testing all sorts of things. And now they want in on the party and have decided to set up testing facilities as well. Now CCK, really? Duplicate that same (not always very sensible) activity that another government agency is already responsible for? Feeling flush with unused taxpayers' taxes?  

What also surprises me a little is that CCK still have so much energy for new adventures left, considering they didn’t exactly have a lucky hand with their recent regulatory offerings: Remember SIM card registration, ostensibly so that crimes committed by mobile phone can be controlled and prevented? Nice thought, yet less impressive in execution: Partly because law enforcement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and if you report an incident and want the police to look at it, chances are you need to send them a cab. And it wasn’t clear to me how this data base would be kept up to date, or how subscriber data would be protected – because the law providing for the latter doesn’t exist yet. All that was before I registered. Then I found that I could have probably done so with Elton John’s ID and an address in Neverland. At least in my case someone made an effort to collect an ID copy even if they didn’t check it. Others told me that the outlets didn’t insist on seeing the ID, never mind collect the copy. Before that, CCK amused themselves with slapping ‘dominant operator’ status on Safaricom in the new tariff regulations – not an issue as such, but Safaricom weren’t well pleased that this status brought instant penalties, even though they hadn’t actually abused their dominant status, and the regulations did not contain any definition of abuse. And even before that, CCK thought up a regulation that all broadcasters would have to relinquish all but one broadcast frequency, i.e. effectively shut down the better part of their business. Unsurprisingly not a big winner with media owners.

All of which suggests a rethink of how to regulate: Regulations have a purpose – consumer protection, say, or systems stability – and they come with a cost. In these cases, I doubt that the regulations will actually achieve their stated purposes. The ICT sector is an incredibly dynamic sector, and I think there’s a hint here for CCK to get up to speed and look at smart regulations. And for KEBS to get out of manufacturers’ hair and do the same, too.  
Republished with kind permission from the Star.

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