Suspended Kemsa CEO Jonah Manjari and Mr Charles Juma arrive at Parliament buildings on September 3, 2020.

| Jeff Angote | Nation Media Group

The making of a mega Covid-19 scandal at medical supplier, Kemsa

What you need to know:

  • Kemsa had got ahead of itself and was issuing commitment letters at a speed impossible for the money available to match.
  • The dysfunctional and disjointed operations at the agency played out, with Dr Manjari and other suspended officials contradicting each other at a parliamentary committee.

It’s five minutes to 5pm on the first day of April and government offices are about to close.

Mr Eliud Muriithi, the commercial director of Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (Kemsa) pulls back his chair at his office on Commercial Street to respond to an urgent email.

It’s three days into the dusk-to-dawn curfew. Kenya is in panic, having announced its first coronavirus positive case, just two weeks earlier. 

But Mr Muriithi has more pressing matters at the time Kenyans have been visited by unprecedented police brutality that comes with enforcing the 7pm-5am curfew in Nairobi.

Only items valued at Sh149 million had been delivered to Kemsa warehouses.

Something has happened between his boss Jonah Manjari and Health Principal Secretary Susan Mochache. Why the two are fighting, no one knows. But it is related to the procurement black hole at the drugs agency.

Muriithi has become the person to work with, following deteriorating relations between the ministry and the Dr Manjari.

Dear Madam PS,” he writes in the email sent at 4.55pm.

Please find attached the Covid-19 emergency products procurement status report as at 01.04.2020 for your review.”

Cost of face masks

On the attachment was a breakdown of the cost of face masks, personal protective equipment (PPE), gloves, laboratory items and other supplies. The total value of the ordered items was Sh2.1 billion.

However, only items valued at Sh149 million had been delivered to Kemsa warehouses.

Shocked by the numbers, Mr Murithi wrote: “Please note that laboratory products alone amount to Sh1,722,640,532.20. Other products amount to Sh462.3 million.”

Kemsa had got ahead of itself and was issuing commitment letters at a speed impossible for the money available to match.

This was one of the biggest blunders that threw the country into the coronavirus millionaires scandal.

And it was not the only one. When Kemsa exhausted its budget and the ministry was dilly-dallying, refusing to allow the agency to use the billions of shillings under its watch for the universal health programme, Dr Manjari took matters in his own hands and wrote to the National Treasury, seeking additional Sh5 billion.

This was the last nail in the coffin. When Treasury brought the request to the attention of the Ministry of Health, it became apparent that Dr Manjari had grown too big and it was time to cut him to size.

Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (Kemsa) offices. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

But Ms Mochache and Dr Manjari were not always at war. After Kenya confirmed coronavirus cases, Ms Mochache wrote to the Kemsa boss. 

Kenya has confirmed seven cases of Covid-19 and the ministry has enhanced surveillance and response measures,” the PS wrote.

She added that during a meeting with the Laboratory and Resource Mobilisation Team, a decision had been made to procure commodities for the Covid-19 response.

Emergency measures

“In this regard, you are requested to urgently procure and distribute the following items in addition to the procurement shared on March 18 March to support the emergency measures,” Ms Mochache wrote.

The PS asked Dr Manjari to buy 6,000 testing kits, laboratory supplies and reagents. Ms Mochache wrote  to Dr Manjari again on March 23, asking him to procure ventilators fast.

It was as a follow-up to a meeting held two days before by the National Emergency Response Committee.

During the March 21 meeting, a directive was issued to the ministry to buy 30 ventilators that would serve adults and paediatrics as well as universal disposable tubing and accessories.

Ms Mochache said in the letter that the approximate cost of every ventilator was Sh3 million, giving Kemsa guidance on how much to buy.

“It is in this respect that you are directed to urgently procure the items for distribution to counties. The distribution list will be communicated in the course of the day,” the PS wrote.

Everything that went wrong at Kemsa replayed in Parliament on Thursday.

The dysfunctional and disjointed operations at the agency played out, with Dr Manjari and other suspended officials contradicting each other at a parliamentary committee.

It emerged that nine companies were given commitment letters and even went ahead to win multimillion-shilling tenders without passing through the office of procurement manager Charles Juma, who is on suspension.

While the CEO told the National Assembly Health committee that he signed the commitment letters of the companies since Mr Juma was away from office, the procurement boss interjected, saying that at no time did he leave.

“I was not indisposed as claimed by the chief executive. I was only away from office for one day, and had asked permission. I have been in the office 24/7 during the Covid period,” Mr Juma told the team, led by Murang’a Woman Representative Sabina Chege.

The spat of the two officials at the authority now gives Kenyans a glimpse of the tussle and jostle that might have taken place as companies walk away with tenders to supply Covid-related materials valued at billions of shillings.

Just a week after stating at the Senate Health Committee that he was under pressure from Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe and Ms Mochache to dish out contracts to specific entities, Dr Manjari made a 180 degree turn on Thursday, saying that at no time was he pressured to act in a particular way.

Dr Manjari said the supplies agency was not given a list of companies from where to procure coronavirus-related materials as reported by the media.

“Communication that came from both the Principal Secretary and Cabinet Secretary was normal operational discussion and I was not under any pressure,” the suspended Kemsa chief executive told the committee.

“I did all the procurement with my eyes open. I was not under any pressure. I am an honest passionate medical professional who has only the interest of our frontline healthcare workers at heart.”

The suspended CEO further told the House team that no money was lost in the procurement of Coronavirus-related materials.

“All the money on Covid related materials was used to buy the products, and they’re available at our stores,” Dr Manjari said.

Awarded tenders

As he was putting up a spirited fight to convince lawmakers that the procurement was clean, Mr Juma gave his version of the story.

He narrated how he unsuccessfully attempted to convince senior Kemsa managers to stop the process since they had already gone beyond the approved budget.

Mr Juma said despite his warnings, the management went on a purchasing spree. He said some equipment at the Kemsa warehouses was in excess.

Mr Juma said it was at that point that several companies were awarded tenders valued at millions of shillings without following the correct procedure.

“I advised that the procurement should be within the provided budget and that we should put on hold any direct procurement of materials,” Mr Juma told said.

He further told the panel that he informed the Kemsa managers that any procurement should be through an open tender.

He said he protested the award of commitment letter to Kilig company, warning, the Sh4 billion tender it was about to be handed was equivalent to Kemsa’s consumption budget for a financial year.

Realising the cash crunch they were in, they wrote directly to the Treasury seeking more money.

Kemsa Board chairman Kembi Gitura admitted that members did not approve the Sh7 billion spent by the management on procuring coronavirus related materials.

Dr Manjari acknowledged that his team surpassed the board approved budget as they thought they would get money from the Ministry of Health and donations to pay the debts.

Everything went well until the fallout between Health Ministry top officials and the medical supplies agency. 

The relationship between Ms Mochache and Dr Manjari had deteriorated much by this time.

It was so bad that the PS chose to communicate directly to the Kemsa commercial director Muriithi, who is also suspended.

Dr Manjari would only receive copies of the communication.