How lethal sugar vanished from warehouse under watch of Kebs

Kebs Managing Director Bernard Njiraini

Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) Managing Director Bernard Njiraini during a past event.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

A dispute over the ownership of the condemned 1,000 metric tonnes of brown sugar, and the apparent push by suspended Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) Managing Director Bernard Njiraini for a company to destroy the commodity by converting it into ethanol, has added a new twist in the probe into the disappearance of the consignment.

The sugar disappeared from the go-downs in Thika where it had been stored pending its conversion into ethanol for industrial use. The mysterious disappearance is now the subject of investigations by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) .

Mr Njiraini, alongside senior government officials from the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), Kebs and the National Police Service have been questioned by the DCI.

Documents seen by Nation show that the bad sugar that was stored in two containers each with 10,000 50-kilo bags shipped from Zimbabwe to Mombasa on June 30, 2018, mysteriously disappeared last month from Vine Park Industry go downs in Thika.

The shipment of the commodity to Kenya happened despite having been flagged by Kebs in its inspection report of June 13, 2018 as having not complied with the requirements of the standards in terms of indicating the manufacture and expiry dates.

It was again inspected in Mombasa on June 2 and 3, 2020 and it failed the labelling test due to missing production and expiry dates and was declared unfit for human consumption and scheduled for destruction.

However, it has been established that the consignment was irregularly diverted and released, raising fears that it may have found its way into supermarket shelves and consumed by the unsuspecting Kenyans. On December 9, 2022 Mr Njiraini wrote to then KRA Commissioner-General Githi Mburu indicating that As sets and Cargo Limited, one of the two companies that had claimed ownership of the consignment had requested to convert the sugar into ethanol.

“Kebs received a request from Assets and Cargo Limited on June 5, 2022 for conversion of the condemned sugar into ethanol through distillation,” Mr Njiraini’s letter to Mr Mburu reads. The letter is copied to Investments, Trade and Industry Cabinet Secretary Moses Kuria and Head of Public Service Felix Koskey.

In the letter to KRA, Mr Njiraini does not mention Galgamesh, whose request to convert the condemned sugar into ethanol had been processed and approved by the National Standards Council (NSC) and therefore “appointed to undertake this destruction on their behalf.”

A document authored by Kebs Director of Quality Assurance Dr Geoffrey Muriira and approved by Mr Njiraini on behalf of NSC, recommended the release of the contaminated sugar for conversion into ethanol “as there is no risk to human beings or animals as the proposed ethanol was only for industrial use.”

The NSC document contains annexures of Galgamesh’s request letter for conversion into ethanol, NSC resolutions and an advisory by the Attorney-General. The Standards Act requires non-compliant goods to be shipped back or destroyed at owners cost. The documents indicate that Assets and Cargo Limited applied for the conversion of the bad sugar on June 5, 2022, 75 days after Galgamesh Enterprises Limited had submitted its request that was received on April 7, 2022. The documents show that Galgamesh submitted to the Principal Secretary Industrialisation, Trade and Enterprise Development a request to destroy the sugar by conversion into ethanol for industrial use.

The approval was granted based on the precedence that Kebs received from the head of public service who instructed a multi-agency team (MAT) that included Kebs to release edible oil that had been condemned by KeBS because of not meeting the requirements of the standard.

The management initiated the process of implementation of the NSC resolution but the process could not proceed due to court cases on the appointment of the agents to undertake the conversion. This is because there were two court cases related to the release of the consignment. Galgamesh, the company that submitted the original letter of appointment from the shipping line to undertake destruction, was given a letter of no objection under the Attorney-General’s frameworks.

The NSC documents note that, along the process, Assets and Cargo Limited also submitted a letter of appointment as it claimed ownership of the consignment. Galgamesh went to court and secured an order restraining Assets and Cargo limited from accessing the consignments.

“The case proceeded without Assets and Cargo Limited appearing in court, which forced the court to release the consignment to Galgamesh,” reads the NSC documents. But Assets and Cargo secured an order restraining Galgamesh from accessing the consignment.

Early this year, the two companies agreed to work together to undertake the conversion of the bad sugar to ethanol.

While responding to the Kebs letter, KRA first sought the opinion of the Attorney-General on the release of the bad sugar.

The Attorney-General would later call for a physical meeting between KeBS and KRA, and on his evaluation of the matter, he gave the opinion that the “proposed release of the sugar for alternative use was lawful as long as it worked under the MAT framework ensuring that all the concerned regulatory agencies are in agreement and that KRA recovers all its taxes.”

On April 28, 2023, KRA officially released the consignment to Vine Pack limited.

“We have further noted that a demand letter was issued by Customs and Border Control Department but there is no evidence of settlement of the same," the KRA letter to Vine Pack Limited signed by Ms Faith Kiara on behalf of Commissioner, Intelligence, Strategic Operations, Investigations and Enforcement, reads.

"Pursuant to the provisions of the East Africa Customs Management Act, kindly proceed to make the settlement within 30 days,” added Ms Kiara. MAT was summoned to coordinate the release by KRA in Mombasa on April 12, 2023.

The team inspected the consignment, sealed it and dispatched it to Thika for distillation at Vine Pack Industry through Assets and Cargo Limited. The consignment was received in Thika by Nairobi MAT “where they witnessed” the removal of the seals and offloading into go downs and secured.

The conversion operation into ethanol was to be fully supervised by Kebs to ensure that all the sugar is used for the purpose of distillation into ethanol and “not diverted to other uses.”

Kebs was also to pick samples of the final product, ethanol, for analysis to ensure that it was in compliance with the standard.