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The problem with counterfeits in construction sector

To many Kenyans, owning a home is the goal of a lifetime. To put up one, for those who choose to construct theirs, however, can be a winding process, with unforeseen delays and steep expenses involved.

Once the home is complete, though, the joy is unmatched.

The joy and relief of becoming a homeowner, however, can be short-lived should the house turn out to have structural defects.

From asymmetrical and curved walls to broken pipes and wall leakages, defective fittings are every builder’s dread. This disappointment isn’t uncommon in Kenya, what with counterfeit building and construction materials saturating the market.

In some instances, customers consciously settle for cheaper construction materials to save on cost, ending up buying inauthentic materials and the attendant collateral losses.

There are also cases where unscrupulous traders cash in on lack of buyer knowledge to sell fakes. Either way, the result is the same: loss of money, time and labour.

As the cost of construction in Kenya soars by the day, many builders are unable to resist the lure of cheaper construction materials. Manufacturers, though, warn that counterfeits could cost you more than loss of money. If your house collapsed, for instance, you will lose not only your investment, but people may die in the process. But just how bad is the counterfeits situation in Kenya?

Job Wanjohi, the head of policy, research and advocacy at Kenya Manufacturers Association (KAM), says that about 40 percent of all manufactured goods in the country are counterfeits.

There is no other sector that is as flooded with fakes as the building and construction industry, according to Wanjohi.

How to tell fakes from genuine goods
Are there ways for buyers to tell between fake and genuine building materials? What are the risks of buying substandard building materials? In what ways do they stand to benefit from buying genuine? What does the regulatory environment look like?

Vimal Vaghela, the chairman of the Kenya Plastics and Pipes Manufacturers Association, says that the most straightforward way to identify fake water pipes is through cost, which is usually between 10 and 15 percent lower than the authentic varieties. Buying cheap, he points out, can have devastating consequences.

‘‘Paying Sh200 for a piece of pipe that ordinarily sells at Sh220 may look like a very good deal, but when the pipe bursts inside the wall, say, six months later, you may be forced to pay up to Sh200,000 to break the concrete wall to fix the mess,’’ Vimal argues.

He adds: ‘‘The cost of manufacturing pipes has gone up in recent years. This requires manufacturers to regularly review their price lists. Dealers of counterfeits hardly review theirs.’’

Across the world, warranties are perhaps the strongest assurance by manufacturers that their products are authentic, with commitment to either repair or replace them in case of failure. In the world of counterfeits, however, warranties are frowned upon. Bottom line? Don’t buy from dealers who don’t offer warranty on their products. ‘‘Any genuine manufacturer will give you a warranty in writing.’’

Did you know that you have the right to demand from a manufacturer or dealer a Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) certificate as proof of quality of the product? Vimal says where none is provided, the right thing to do is to reject the product in question. He goes on to say that once authentic pipes and plastics are installed in a construction, builders need not worry about incurring additional costs to service them.

Ordinarily, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) pipes last for more than 50 years while polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes, which are popular among Kenyan builders, have a lifespan of up to 30 years, he says.

Polypropylene random copolymer (PPR) pipes last for about 25 years. Manufacturers concur that greed among some traders is the weak point in the fight against counterfeits in the market. Bobby Johnson, the chairman of the steel sector at the Kenya Manufacturers Association (KAM), says that traders out to make money often ‘‘have no moral responsibility’’ to sell construction materials that meet the established standards.

Buying genuine steel products for construction, he notes, guarantees the customer both durability and structural integrity of the building.

He explains: ‘‘Whether you’re buying reinforcement rods or roofing sheets, authentic products save you costs because they eliminate the need to carry out occasional repairs. You’re also cushioned from having to purchase more materials.’’

Every year, buildings, both occupied and under construction, topple over in Kenya, with many casualties involved sometimes. In each of the cases, officers from the National Construction Authority (NCA) question the integrity of the materials used.

Normally, findings of subsequent inquest will point to steel reinforcements that are too brittle to withstand the weight of the other elements, including stones and concrete –especially where the structure is a story building. Johnson attributes these tragic incidents to proliferation of counterfeit steel products in the market.

‘‘If sub-standard steel is used in construction, the structure is likely to collapse, to sink, sag or bend. This might cause injuries and loss of life. There are also obvious financial losses that the owner of the building bears.’’

KEBS, he says, has specified guidelines on the chemical, mechanical and physical properties of steel to be used for building and construction. But there’s a catch.
‘‘Without subjecting these items to lab analysis, it’s difficult to identify these properties and to tell whether the products are genuine or not.’’

Even so, a buyer could still determine the quality of a steel product by analysing some of the physical parameters such as diameter and length, Johnson assures.

‘‘These standards are available on the Kebs website. You can also request for them from the manufacturer,’’ he says.

Adds he: ‘‘It’s important to check whether the product is branded. Is the manufacturer’s logo clearly visible on the product? Does the item bear the requisite dimensions and markings as specified in the standard? If it meets this threshold, you may go ahead and make a purchase.’’

But how does the local steel industry address the nuisance of counterfeits in the market?

Johnson explains that Kebs and Kenya’s manufacturers of steel products carry out targeted market surveillance occasionally, and share useful intelligence thereafter. ‘‘This helps in the identification and immediate confiscation of counterfeit and sub-standards so as to protect consumers.’’

To deter entry of substandard goods and counterfeits into the country, Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) too imposes specific duties on all imports.

‘‘KAM and Kebs are currently engaged in a joint sensitisation campaign to educate the market on quality of construction materials,’’ Johnson reveals, noting that the regulatory environment (both guidelines and laws) is strong enough to protect local consumers.

‘‘Cases of counterfeits have been on the decline in the last 10 years. The situation was worse before. That said, all players need to keep their eyes and ears open.’’

He, however, insists that there’s need for the government to heighten border surveillance to prevent entry of counterfeits into the country.

He adds: ‘‘Regulators should increase personnel and build their capacity to handle counterfeits. These officers must also work closely with other industry stakeholders to eradicate imitations from the market.’’

A shortfall in demand amid growing manufacturing capacity locally is to blame for the rise of counterfeit pipes in the market, Vimal notes.

‘‘Before, we used to export pipes and plastics to our regional neighbours. Now these countries have their own manufacturing plants. Some of these products find their way here, causing a glut. Manufacturers end up making cheaper, and often inferior, pipes to compete for the available customers.”

Yet builders’ loss of money isn’t the only harm suffered in the industry. Vimal notes that when the market is saturated with counterfeits, brand reputation is eroded, with manufacturers of genuine products bearing the highest cost.

‘‘Most end users will not know whether a product is genuine or not until after they have used it. When they discover the product was a fake after installation, this destroys their confidence in market players,’’ Vimal laments.

To realise sanity in the building and construction industry, he emphasizes that Kebs must ‘‘put its foot down’’ and hold both manufacturers and dealers to account.

‘‘Kebs officers must patrol hardware stores and scrutinise products on sale. Cancelling licenses of those selling counterfeits will rid the market of substandard construction materials,’’ he says.

Says Johnson: ‘‘Don’t’ take the quality of steel products lightly. Not any steel product is suitable for your construction needs. Always hold brands to account. After all, you’re spending money on their products.’’ –