A smarter genie in the bottle: technology holds the key to Africa’s counterfeit food crisis

By Michael Wilcox - 6 April 2018 at 7:56 pm
A smarter genie in the bottle: technology holds the key to Africa’s counterfeit food crisis

A school just outside Nigeria’s capital Abuja became the site of an unforeseen tragedy in February this year when two 14-year-old classmates, Nahima and Yayaya, died after eating tainted biscuits at a school birthday celebration. Several of their classmates were hospitalised in the same incident, and threats from furious parents forced a temporary school closure. At the time of writing, the girls’ parents await, with little expectation, any announcement that an investigation is underway.

Counterfeit food and drink is becoming an increasingly serious problem around the world, but the deaths of the two girls have refocused attention on how widespread, and deadly, the issue is throughout Africa. Research in Tanzania, for example, has indicated that more than half of all goods, ranging from food, drugs and construction materials, imported into the country are fake. More anecdotal evidence puts the figure at anywhere between 10% and 50%.

As a result, Nigerian retailers sell “milk powder” that contains no animal protein, Kenyan “vegetable oil” can be made of recycled oil unfit for human consumption, and Ghanaian “palm oil” is sometimes laced with carcinogenic colouring Sudan IV. In Uganda, an embalming agent is used to protect meat and fish from flies, and reports of plastic rice and corn powder dyed to look like chili pepper have cropped up across the continent. For the average consumer, the health outlook is a bleak one.

The situation with bottled drinks is particularly serious. A recent study found that up to 70% of bottled water on the Kenyan market may be counterfeit, and a survey by the Kenya Revenue Authority in 2016 showed that some 60% of bottled water and juices on the market are illicit. Even international giant Coca-Cola has been forced to admit that its bottled water products sold throughout Africa are contaminated with microplastics, and the skyrocketing growth of the illicit alcohol market has opened the door to an entirely new industry of amateur “tasters” containing industrial quantities of deadly chemicals. In addition to the obvious health risks, the parallel market is persistently sapping African governments of much-needed tax revenue—and the situation is only getting worse.

African governments are not the only ones battling against the fraudulent food epidemic; some reports from China suggest that the market is almost completely saturated by illicit goods. Over the past decade, scandals in the precipitately growing country have ranged from melamine-laced baby formula, resulting in the deaths of at least six infants in 2008, to the sale of rat meat masquerading as lamb, and have seen China come to be described as a “hotbed” of corruption and contamination.

On a global scale, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has valued cross-border trade in illicit goods at somewhere between $461 billion and $1.7 trillion, a whopping increase of 85% on 2008 estimates. Even the upper echelons of global eateries are far from immune: France and Italy have seen several extra virgin olive oil heists since 2016, and Japanese wagyu and Kobe beef are allegedly “plagued with fraud”. As regulators race desperately to keep up, it seems any product with even a sliver of market value is at risk.

 Just when the situation seems overwhelming, enter the tech sector. A variety of innovations have recently sprung up to try and tackle this issue on a number of battlefronts, from tracing foods’ provenance through Blockchain technology to handheld devices analysing the chemical composition of liquor while it’s still in the bottle. Chinese anti-counterfeiting labeller Walimai utilises blockchain technology to guarantee products are delivered to the consumer without tampering, and Australian startup Everledger uses the technology to ensure the quality of fine wine. As a greater number of innovators clock on to the potential of blockchain technology, the illicit market’s free lunch may finally be running out.

In Africa, blockchain and other cutting-edge technologies have received a governmental nod of approval. The Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) first implemented its high-tech Excisable Goods Management System (EGMS), developed by Swiss firm SICPA, in 2013 to track tobacco, wines and spirits. The pioneering initiative, first of its kind in Africa, has already shored up an additional $57 million in annual revenue for the Kenyan government, and cut down on illicit trade in these goods.

The EGMS scheme has been so successful that the KRA announced a plan to extend it to non-alcoholic beverages, such as juices and waters. It’s a badly-needed move: 368 bottled water brands were suspended in Kenya in 2016 for failing quality tests. Sadly, there has already been pushback against this expansion of the EGMS, after heavy lobbying from the sugar industry. The Kenyan High Court last month quashed the KRA’s planned EGMS extension to non-alcoholic drinks, in part over concerns about the extra costs this scheme would impose on manufacturers, importers and consumers. The court’s ruling is a disappointing step back in the fight to crack down on the counterfeit food and drink epidemic spreading across Africa.

In a battle that’s as much about public health as it is about tax collection, calling for the KRA to reopen a lengthy process of stakeholder engagement and nickel-and-diming over a nominal tax while African consumers dine on a plastic lunch seems more than a little tone-deaf.


Michael Wilcox

Michael Wilcox

I am a London-based researcher specialized in security issues and environmental protection. He is currently writing a book about the role lobbying plays in keeping African leaders in power.

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