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Stop frustrating small businesses

Regulation must start by trusting the small
Regulation must start by trusting the small importer instead of approaching him with suspicion. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

A friend of mine who is currently putting up a fairly big hotel in one of Nairobi’s suburbs recently put out a tender inviting manufacturers of small hotel room refrigerators to submit bids.

The best bid came from an Italian manufacturer who promptly sent a sample to Nairobi with a price tag of $40 per refrigerator.

When my friend sent his clearing agent to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to collect it, he was told it was not possible because the product did not have pre- shipment import verification from Italy.

The authorities insisted that he needed to write a letter to Trade minister Peter Munya to seek exemption from the pre shipment verification requirement.

When the exemptions took too long to come through, and with storage charges having accumulated to a figure just below the purchase price of the refrigerator, my friend - in apparent anger, told them to destroy it and walked away.

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The painful truth is that businesses in this country are forced to endure foolish and maddening regulations and laws.

At the Port of Mombasa, you have to deal with the Kenya Bureau of Standards, Kenya Revenue Authority, public health authorities, the police, the National Intelligence Service, and many more.

And, complying with one set of these strangulating controls does not necessarily mean that you are compliant.

Make no mistake, I am not against the campaign to rid the country of counterfeits that is led by Deputy Head of Public Service Wanyama Musiambo.

Even the most strident critic of the government will admit that the campaign has achieved major success.

What I disagree with is the unthinking and rigid attitude that cause agencies regulating imports to frame laws only with cheats in mind - regardless of the enormous inconveniences and harassment to the far larger sections of the taxpaying public.

Anti-counterfeiting regulations and practices should be framed with the convenience of the loyal businessman in mind.

We must guard against the dangers of introducing values of a police state.

A supermarket that is wholly pre-occupied with prevention of shoplifting will always be a candidate for stagnation.

Going by newspaper reports, Mr Musiambo and his team have in under one year confiscated over Sh8 billion worth of goods suspected to be counterfeit or sub-standard.

Secondly, hundreds of suspected counterfeiters are currently at various stages of prosecution.

Thirdly, the campaign has spawned an unprecedented overzealousness on the part of sets of civil servants working in agencies that regulate imports who have now become stricter at approving imports coming into the country.

There is anecdotal evidence that many small businesses have been forced to wind up and close because the whole chain of import trade has been interrupted by the abrupt entry into the supply chain of an overzealous regime that insists on rigour.

As it has turned out, the loudest protests came from traders operating in Nairobi’s Nyamakima and River Road home brisk business in sale of all manner of imports, mainly electronic equipment and clothes imported from China and Dubai.

Surprisingly, the cries and protests by these small business reached President Uhuru Kenyatta’s ears, causing him to convene a meeting with representatives of the importers. The events are what built up to a visit by the President to the Inland Container Depot in Embakasi where he reiterated the government’s support for small businesses. Granted, the war against counterfeit goods make sense to the economy of this country.

But can we really expect a small trader dealing in mobile phone accessories to fill a whole 40-foot container with wares?

Since we know that this is impossible, why is the government opposed to consolidation of goods by different players into one container? Regulation must start by trusting the small importer instead of approaching him with suspicion.

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