Cartels block locally made Covid-19 kits in tender wars

Health workers take samples for Covid-19 tests from hotel workers in Nyeri town on July 9. The fight for Covid-19 billions has shifted to higher ground and is now between Afya House, Kemsa  and Kebs.  PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI I NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • The fight for Covid-19 billions has shifted to higher ground and is now between Afya House, the Kenya Medical Supplies Agency and the Kenya Bureau of Standards.
  • Mr Kagwe believes that some individuals who imported PPEs and are stuck with them in warehouses want to muddy the waters for local manufacturers so that they lock them out.

First, the Covid-19 billions split the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) and the National Influenza Centre — two institutions that are at the heart of testing for coronavirus.

Their bitter turf wars would escalate when it emerged that Kemri was running broke when the fight was just beginning. Kemri could not understand why it was the one doing the bulk of the work but the money was flowing elsewhere.

To register its disappointment, it rioted by delaying results to the Ministry of Health, and this daring move would almost cost one of its top researchers, Dr Joel Lutomiah, his job .  Instead, he was demoted.

The sibling rivalry would be brought to the doorstep of Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe, then an outsider who was still settling in his new job at Afya House. At the time, Mr Kagwe was having problems of his own. He started off on a bad note with his accounting officer, Principal Secretary Susan Mochache, who insiders say has a tight grip on the ministry’s budget.

Mr Kagwe had trouble finding a middle ground on a number of expenditures on the initial Sh5 billion budget from the World Bank. But something happened and they quickly ironed out their differences.


That calm, it emerges, was short-lived after more money flowed into the ministry’s coffers.

The fight for Covid-19 billions has shifted to higher ground and is now between Afya House, the Kenya Medical Supplies Agency (Kemsa) and the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs).

On the sidelines are billionaire suppliers, and on the losing end are local manufacturers and the taxpayer.

The Nation has learnt that, as the big importers and billionaires who run the show in Afya House were plotting to lock local manufacturers out of the party, Mr Kagwe had a different plan.

The CS said he secretly removed labels from personal protective equipment (PPEs) imported from China and privately sent them to official government labs at Kebs for testing.

The results shocked him after the masks miserably failed the liquid penetration test. He also sent from the same batch, the same PPEs but this time with labels. They passed with flying colours.

“When I sensed that there was something going on, I removed labels from China PPEs and took them to Kebs, and they failed miserably and this was only after the label was removed,” he told the Nation. Both reports were signed by the same manager at Kebs. The CS would then write to Kemsa to stop further imports.


Mr Kagwe believes that some individuals who imported PPEs and are stuck with them in warehouses want to muddy the waters for local manufacturers so that they lock them out.

It is not the first time the minister is raising concerns over deep-rooted cartels that call the shots behind the scenes at the Health ministry.

“Why do we want to bring down our own companies that are doing a great job and employing our people? What is their interest? This is just a plot to kill local manufacturers,” Mr Kagwe said. He said the local manufacturers have brought down the cost of PPE kits to about Sh4,300, compared to the Sh15,000 the government has been buying from importers.

At the heart of the fight is a confidential report by Kebs, which found that some locally manufactured PPEs had failed the liquid penetration test. To pass the test, the liquid should pass through the mask after 100 minutes. However, the samples taken from Shona EPZ and Bedi Investment failed after 24 minutes and 48 minutes, respectively.


This means that in less than half an hour after a healthcare worker wears such a gear, they can be infected.

The 100 minutes was the recommended time because most health care workers spend close to two hours in isolation and intensive-care wards before changing shifts.

But Kagwe would hear none of it. He said local manufacturers were producing quality kits and even exporting to other countries.

“When we started, we had issues with the sewing but this was rectified. Kebs had certified that they were of good quality, so how comes they are failing again?” Mr Kagwe posed. The fight began in May when the minister visited Machakos County and revealed that some of the imported PPEs had failed the test. He said PPEs are critical in the management of the virus and there is need for absolute caution.

“Health care workers will not be exposed. We will not accept any materials that the doctors themselves are not comfortable with. They are the ones on the front line,” he said. Investigations by the Nation reveal that there are many billionaire importers who are stuck with imported PPEs and have nowhere to take them after local factories were given the go-ahead to produce.


The report signed by Kebs textile lab assistant manager Enock Katam indicated that the samples were okay in other areas expect for the fact that they were bulky.

However, the liquid penetration is the most important aspect that would ensure that the health workers are protected.

When the Nation reached out to Mr Katam for comment, he referred us to the managing director.

“If you want any comment regarding that, kindly get in touch with the managing director who will direct me to give information on that,” Mr Katam said. When the Nation reached out to Kemsa, who are mandated to supply the counties with the masks, Chief Executive Officer Jonah Manjari said they could not comment on the matter and referred us to the Health ministry. However, according to Bedi Investments Managing Director Jaswinder Bedi, when they were told that their consignment had failed the tests, they recalled the pieces and retested at Kebs again and they passed.

“Prior to production we had met the standards. After the allegations, we resubmitted our production samples to Kebs for testing and were confirmed to have met the required standards,” Mr Bedi said.

“If this is what I presented to them before I started the production, why would I compromise on the safety of our health workers? I value quality and would not be malicious with people’s lives,” he said.

The company has since contracted an international body to carry out an independent testing on the same pieces and the result will be out this week.


“I am supplying both local and international markets and I will be glad to know what international bodies says about our products. We are ensuring that all the quality requirements are met,” he said.

“How comes the consignment from the companies failed only after they were tested for the second time? This is not about quality, it is a smear campaign orchestrated by import cartels trying to destroy the local industry. We need to stop politicking and fighting local manufacturers due to selfish interest,”  he added.

People familiar with the intrigues told the Nation that the samples were collected from Nyandarua County in the 1,000 batch donated by the Health ministry officials who visited the region sometime this month. Currently, there are four local factories that are making PPEs — Kicotec in Kitui, Rivatex in Nakuru, Bedi Investment in Nakuru and Shona in Athi River.

Shona EPZ Limited has the capacity to produce 20,000 units of PPEs in each category, per day. Kebs has also delisted three companies manufacturing substandard face masks. The three include WAMNDAS manufactured by Wandas General Supplies, ARAX manufactured by Arax Mills and a brandless mask manufactured by Hela Intimates EPZ.


In a statement on Tuesday, Kebs said it carried out countrywide surveillance on surgical face masks and established that some unscrupulous manufacturers were taking advantage of the high demand to sell substandard masks.

“Accuracy of measurements is very important in the production of non-pharmacological medical devices. These standards are important in meeting customer requirements on the safety of products,”  Kebs' Director of Metrology and Testing, Henry Rotich, said. The products should be friendly to the environment and their performance should be optimal, Dr Rotich added.

As the country gears towards utilising locally manufactured PPEs, Kenyans should also be on the lookout for defective and substandard products, the director said.

“Most importantly, Kenyans should buy products from legitimate and certified sources. They can send a short message with the safety mark (SM) to 20023 to know if a product is certified or not,” said Dr Rotich.