"We reject your (African) produce because it's substandard," a former EU Commissioner told me. We were engaged in a heated debate after my talk: Africa Does Not Need Aid during the 60th Anniversary of the Marshall Plan in Vienna, Austria. I had argued that Africa needs trade, not aid. "But that is exactly why Europe wants to aid Africa, to enable the continent meet standards that will be acceptable in Europe," the former commissioner continued.
The "standards" subject is controversial bearing in mind that most cash crop farming in Africa still follows the colonial order without giving a thought to whether what they are producing answers to their comparative advantage. It is of great concern too that the standards keep shifting depending on which geographical divide a country hails.However, as much as "standards" are a subject of great debate, they should not be dismissed altogether. If Africa has to be globally competitive, it has to embrace the culture of standards right from subsistent level.
A recent countrywide Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS) spot test of 132 samples of fresh produce in the market for the maximum residue levels, 15 of them from the leading local supermarkets, found 83 of them contaminated with chemicals. Vegetables sold in various city markets contained high levels of chemicals, beyond what the human body can tolerate. Most of the contamination was attributed to the use of raw sewage in irrigating crops. "We have already tested food samples collected along the sewage irrigation scheme and all results indicated that they contained extremely dangerous levels of heavy metals, particularly lead," said Dr. Rhonest Ntayai, KEPHIS chief analytical chemist.
It does not need aid for a consumer to question the source of the product he is purchasing and guard against harmful products. It does not require aid for the bureau of standards to enforce professional standards or reduce the cost of testing samples. The bureau of standards should put in place strict measures and ensure that only those products that go to the market meet the standards, failure to which products are rejected. This will put the producers on task.
When the Kenya Cooperative Creameries used to be a monopoly, farmers would sell milk in open containers on the roadside. When more players came in, milk is increasingly being packaged in bags. Fresh Produce Vendors ought also to be compelled to start packaging and labeling their produce. This will make it easy to trace the business person who sells contaminated produce and take appropriate action.
That is why the recent move in Kenya that requires local vegetables and fruit traders to deal with products that meet acceptable chemical residue levels is welcome. The battle for standards calls for a multifaceted approach that involves producers, consumers and government. Consumers ought to not only mind what they consume, but also demand value for their money. They should not pay for that which will harm their health in the long run. Cheap will prove to be expensive in the long run. Producers on the other hand ought to guard against signing themselves off business through poor stewardship.
By Josephat Juma
Mr. Juma is an African Executive Writer
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