Inside a supermarket in Kigali, two girls come rushing toward a large freezer. They look at all the ice creams inside. After about three minutes, they ask an attendant for a specific brand of ice cream.
"It's not available these days," the attended responds.
This reporter then has a chat with the attendant, who says the supermarket no longer carries most locally-made dairy products.
A spot check by The New Times at various supermarkets in the city later reveals that most locally-made dairy products, mainly cheese and ice cream, are not in stock. Reason? Failure to comply with the regulations of Rwanda Standards Board (RSB).
In an April 20 letter to supermarkets and other dealers of dairy products, the regulator cautioned against selling products that do not meet the required standards.
"RSB hereby reminds you that with effect from the date you receive this letter, you should not accept any milk or milk product that does not comply with standard requirements with a proof of a certification mark," the letter, signed by RSB director-general Raymond Murenzi, reads in part.
Then in another letter, dated June 21, the Minister for Local Government, Francis Kaboneka, wrote to all district mayors asking them to enforce RSB's instruction on sale of only dairy products.
The minister's letter said it had been observed that there were some regions where milk products are sold in conditions that are not conducive and have high potential to cause harm to consumers.
The Director of Quality Assurance at RSB, Philip Nzaire, told The New Times that the letter is in line with existing laws.
He said dealing with milk and milk products is business that should not be done by anyone who does not have skills, and means of handling them.
"We like milk, but bacteria like it too, and such bacteria can make people fall sick. Once it (milk) is contaminated, it will indisputably cause diseases among people," he said, noting that the credibility for quality is assured by a standards mark.
"When there is no standards mark, you cannot trust the quality of a product, and there is no way you can give assurance to people that the milk being consumed was checked by the agencies in charge," he said.
The strict rules have led to a hike in prices of products that have met the standards.
Nzaire said the high prices for dairy products on the market, owing to their shortage, is outweighed by the safety of people who consume them. He called on companies that meet the standard to increase production instead of hiking prices.
"What we are responsible for is the safety of people's lives through controlling foods and beverages, as well as other commodities," he said, adding that those that fail to meet the standards should work toward improving quality and production processes.
Supermarkets, businesses affected
Simba Supermarket procurement and marketing manager Peter Sebukayire said after RSB issued the guideline, the supermarket stopped the purchase of locally-produced cheese, pointing out that no local cheese had standards certification on.
The supermarket chain now imports cheese from Kenya.
Sebukayire said the imported cheese is expensive as it is sold between Rwf5,000 and Rwf7,000 depending on the type, while the locally-made cheese is sold at about Rwf3,000.
He said RSB should speed up standards compliance process so that local products are available on the market again as it is enjoyed by many in the country.
In an interview with The New Times, Nakumatt country manager Adan Ramata said most of the time it sells local cheese, because there is no point in importing cheese when it is locally produced.
However, he said, because there is no entity making cheese that had standards certification, the supermarket chain ceased buying from local producers.
"When clients come, we tell them that we are waiting for a supplier. This directive has affected us a lot because now customers are not getting what they want, and they are suffering because they were used to it," Ramata said.
However, he added, they support the decision to demand quality standards as it is in the interest of the consumers and the producers as well.
André Rwayitare, the managing director of Ingabo Dairy Ltd in Nyabihu District, Western Province, was among those affected. He told The New Times that the company was producing dairy products, including nine types of cheese, and five types of yogurt, which were all affected by the RSB directive.
"The decision has had an impact on our business, including stopping production for three months now," he said.
Rwayitare said the company is working on fulfilling the requirements by RSB, including setting up well-equipped infrastructure so as to produce products in a clean environment, ensure hygiene and integrate advanced processing techniques that guarantee safety.
The Directorate General of Trade and Investment at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Robert Opirah, told The New Times that for products to be sold on the market, they must meet required standards so that people do not fall victims of sub-standards products, something that can damage a reputation of a company.
"We will visit the affected dairy products processors and work with RSB to offer them required technical advice and support," he said.
"In case they lack funding to set up required infrastructure, we will help them to secure financing so that they improve their businesses," Opirah added.
According to information from Rwanda National Dairy platform (RNDP), 61 dairy firms were affected by the decision, and that only seven passed.