There’s more to standards than meets the eye, disregard them at your peril

Hawkers selling their wares at the pedestrians' walk path on River Road in Nairobi County in this picture taken on June 23, 2024.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

Imagine a world where the range of products and utilities human beings use regularly differs drastically from one jurisdiction to another. Or think of a situation where, say, the ‘size medium’ of a shirt or blouse is not consistent with a set of universal parameters. You can imagine such a recipe for chaos among consumers! Yet, more often than not, standards—those sometimes seemingly mundane regulations—play a crucial role in stemming confusion and guaranteeing the safety of products and utilities across sectors.

When we talk about standardisation, our minds go to the Kenya Bureau of Standards, and rightly so. But beneath the edifice of that important institution lie layers of information that every citizen deserves to take note of. Many would-be successful traders, investors, and manufacturers short-change themselves by sidestepping specified conventions and strictures.

Concerning standards and standardisation, British politician William Hague, nailed it when he famously implored, “Let’s not be afraid to speak the common sense of truth: you can’t have high standards without discipline.” What perhaps Hague could have to his entreaty is that without strict adherence to set standards, one cannot enter the realms of meaningful entrepreneurship, let alone fully benefit from worthwhile international trade.

So why standardise?

Standardisation acts as a universal language within industries. It establishes a set of guidelines that ensure compatibility, safety, and quality.

Take, for instance, the ubiquitous USB port. Imagine the frustration if every device required a unique connector. Standards ensure that a flash drive purchased from one company can seamlessly connect to a computer made by another. This not only benefits consumers by preventing confusion but also streamlines production for businesses.

Beyond convenience, industry standards are paramount for entrenching safety. Building codes, for example, dictate structural requirements to withstand earthquakes or high winds. These standards protect lives and property over and above preventing catastrophes. Similarly, standards governing electrical wiring and medical devices minimise the risk of accidents and malfunctions.

Standardisation also plays a vital role in maintaining consistency in quality. Food safety regulations are safeguards that keep consumers protected from harmful contaminants.

Manufacturing standards set thresholds for materials and production processes, guaranteeing a certain level of durability and performance. This allows consumers to make informed choices with the knowledge that the product they use meets a baseline level of quality.

To some, standardisation might seem to stifle innovation, however, it provides a stable foundation upon which companies can explore new horizons of unexplored possibilities. By establishing the basic functionalities, standards allow businesses to focus on innovation.

Simply put, standardisation, beyond being an ethical practice we should embrace to rein in quality, is the ultimate passé-part out to the doorway of opportunities in our interconnected world.

You can imagine the angst vehicle owners would suffer if the world of car manufacturers reinvented the wheel with every new model! Yet standards hem-in elemental functionalities—such as wheels that fit on axles—while leaving room for innovation in aspects of design, fuel efficiency and reviewing safety features.

In today's interconnected world, industry standards are crucial for facilitating international trade. With our recent trade pacts with European Union and existing ones with EAC, COMESA and AfCFTA we ought to rethink how we shall treat standards moving forward if we are to increase our exports.

Strict adherence to standards paves the way for seamless movement of goods and services across borders, promoting global trade and economic growth.

While essential, standards should evolve alongside changing technology and industry advancements; imposition of rigid parameters can stifle innovation. A key aspect of standardisation, therefore, is striking a balance between maintaining essential parameters and allowing room for adaptation. Regular revisions and updates ensure standards remain relevant and capable of fostering continued progress.

Ideally, standards are best set by various entities in concert. These include government agencies, professional organisations and even industry consortia. The development process should also rope in such stakeholders as manufacturers, consumers and regulatory bodies to serve everyone in a complex web.

Rebecca Miano is Cabinet Secretary for Investments, Trade and Industry in Kenya.

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