Kenya’s ruthless sugar barons transported and stored the controversial consignment of the sweetener alongside clinker, coal, fertiliser and other poisonous materials leading to its contamination, Parliament heard on Monday.
Aldai MP Cornelly Serem submitted documents showing the sugar imports were poorly stored, packaged and transported, exposing Kenyans to poisonous impurities that have caused a public outrage.
“I want to table documents showing how sugar was transported in open trucks and dumped on the ground, just like sand, at a godown in Webuye,” the MP told the National Assembly committee that is probing importation of contraband sugar worth billions of shillings.
Mr Serem demanded a confirmation that importers did not bring sugar in bags but in bulk, setting in motion its contamination.
“They used trucks that had just transported clinker and coal. There was no condition for packaging or improvement of hygienic conditions to handle the sugar,” Mr Serem said, adding that one of the traders was not even licensed to import.
Agriculture secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri told MPs that the sugar may have been contaminated in the high seas, but was stopped from commenting on the issue further “because Industrialisation secretary Adan Mohamed is the right person to respond.”
Treasury secretary Henry Rotich acknowledged poor handling of the sugar may have caused its contamination, but denied it has traces of mercury.
Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) has since confirmed that it found traces of copper in some of the consignments and wanted it recalled from the market.
Mr Kiunjuri said the Treasury published gazette notice number 4536 of May 12, 2017 that allowed anyone, including unlicensed traders, to import sugar to meet the deficit that arose from prolonged drought.
“The window was opened for everyone and nobody was limited on how much they could import,” Mr Kiunjuri told a joint committee of the Senate and National Assembly co-chaired by MP Kanini Kega and Senator Mohammed Haji.
“Once we issue our licences, the mandate goes to those checking what comes in against the licences. We consulted and we advised accordingly,” he told the committees that is probing importation of sugar that has been found to be laced with copper and lead.
Mr Kiunjuri said both licensed and unlicensed importers brought in sugar without limitation to meet the shortfall and reduce the skyrocketing price of the sweetener.
Mr Rotich and Mr Kiunjuri differed on the amounts of sugar that came into the country duty free.
Mr Kiunjuri told MPs that 1,010,000 million metric tonnes of sugar were shipped in while Mr Rotich insisted only 920,571 metric tones came through during the importation window between May and August.
Mr Kiunjuri said the Treasury notice did not specify quantities and the types of sugar to be imported opening the market to abuse.
He said 71 companies had been licensed to import sugar but other companies and individuals joined in without the necessary licences.
“More than 370 importers brought in sugar. The notice was to import sugar, whether raw, industrial or brown, making it possible that raw sugar was imported,” he said.
The ministers, however, failed to explain why they allowed companies parliament had banned to import sugar.
Mr Kiunjuri promised to take action on companies that imported sugar despite parliament’s blacklisting.
The committee also asked him to explain why sugar quantities were not prescribed in the gazette notice as was done for milk powder in the same notice.
“Through gazette notice 4536, you opened the floodgates by allowing free shipping in of sugar, including illicit and contraband sugar. We would like to know who between the Treasury and Ministry of Agriculture originated this gazette notice,” Mr Kega said.
Mr Rotich said a policy was taken to allow quick import of sugar, milk powder and maize, making it necessary to open the doors for anyone who could import.
Mr Rotich, however, insisted that a gazette notice does not invalidate other regulatory authorities from doing their work. He said procedures for importation should have been followed and that Kebs and port health should have checked conformity to standards.
The minister said the Ministry of Agriculture had fixed the quantities for milk powder, but not for sugar and maize.
“Sugar millers are on their deathbed. What rationale did you use to get traders instead of allowing the milling companies to import the sugar,” Rongai MP Raymond Moi asked.
The committee noted that powdered milk did not only have a maximum limit but the notice also dictated that the Kenya Dairy Board would issue permission for imports.