Small-scale importers of cosmetics and beauty products are worried that the implementation of the Pre-export Verification of Conformity to Standards (Pvoc) programme could throw them out of business.
They say that Pvoc, instituted by the Uganda National Bureau of Standards, can only benefit the bulk importers.
Janat Namukasa, an importer of body lotions, explains that most small cosmetics dealers usually collaborate, something known as 'groupage' importing. Several traders pool their merchandise to fill one container for importation. With Pvoc on board now, this seems impracticable.
"I cannot personally manage to bring a full container. If I was to buy products worth 10 feet of a container, I would talk to some importers of, say, clothes or shoes and we put our products together to import," Namukasa says. "But with Pvoc, people are already blacklisting us (cosmetics dealers). They fear that the inspection of products would cause them bureaucratic delays."
Pvoc, first introduced in 2010, requires traders to have their goods inspected in the countries of origin. It was deemed a perfect solution to UNBS's lack of capacity to test samples of all imports, which allegedly led to importation of fake products.
Pvoc programme was implemented in June this year with Intertek, SGS and Bureau Veritas privately contracted to implement it under the supervision of UNBS. It was applied on electronics, cosmetics and food products because they posed a high risk to people's lives - if substandard.
The small cosmetics traders are, however, now in fear that no one would want to join them in groupage - which threatens their ability to import. During a sensitisation drive by UNBS for cosmetics dealers, standards inspector Mathias Kaleebi advised them to form groups and import collectively.
"It would be prudent for you to identify yourselves as importers of common products and import in one container to avoid inconveniencing other importers who are not subject to Pvoc," Kaleebi said.
The traders, however, said this was all but impossible.
"It is impracticable. Sometimes I want to import without the knowledge of my competitor," said Sulait Kamya. "We also import at different times. I may be out of stock when the person I would preferably group with still has some stock. I couldn't want to wait," he added.
Kaleebi, instead, advised them to obtain certificates of conformity (CoC) in advance, so they can easily mix with other people who do not need Pvoc.
"If you can get inspected earlier, you can then join other importers without any complaints of delay," he said.
Pvoc a must:
Before loading products for export to Uganda, all importers are mandated to get CoC from the service providers (SGS, Intertek and Bureau Veritas). According to Joseph Mugula, an operations and quality supervisor with SGS, Pvoc certification is subject to goods that are worth $2,000 (Shs 5.2m) and above. The minimum pre-inspection fee is $220 (Shs 572,000).
"Obtaining the CoC confirms that the products comply with the relevant Ugandan technical regulations and/or national, regional or international standards," Mugula said.
Failure to present this certificate can result in severe delays in customs clearance, penalties, or even shipments being returned to the country of export. The spokesperson of Kampala City Traders' Association, Issa Sekitto, said the fines were already starting to bite.
"Today I have almost 30 cases of traders whose commodities have been seized by UNBS and they have to pay a fine of 15 per cent - because they don't have certificates of conformity," Sekitto said.
In the proper procedures of Pvoc, a trader pays about 0.05 per cent (per unit cost) for pre-inspection in the country of origin. But they would be required to pay a fine of 15 per cent if the goods reach the border/port without CoC.
"If you rightly pay for Pvoc, it is measured at the unit cost of the product but the 15 per cent fine is inclusive of the cost of insurance and freight charges," added Sekitto.
For instance, if a product was bought at Shs 10m in China and its value grew to Shs 14m after insurance and freight, Pvoc would be 0.05 of the Shs 10m while the fine would be 15 per cent of the Shs 14m.
Many traders were strongly opposed to this programme following Kacita's sit-down strike earlier this year, but Kacita says they must move on.
"People are already losing millions of money in fines. We, Kacita, have never told anyone to shun Pvoc," Sekitto said. "The strike was aimed at streamlining some issues and we urge you all to respect and conform to Pvoc."
While Pvoc would help to lock out substandard cosmetics, more products are feared to be entering the country through the porous Congo border.
"We cannot subject cosmetics from Congo to Pvoc. This country has been in war and does not adhere to Pvoc," Mugula explained.
But Kaleebi explained that products from Congo were given escorts from border points to Nakawa where they underwent the usual lab testing.
In June last year, UNBS and the National Drug Authority banned over 20 cosmetics products from the Ugandan market. These were reported to have contained some prohibited chemicals like Clobetasol, Fluocinolone, Mercury and Hydroquinon.