AAT exclusive, AfCFTA, COMESA, EAC, East Africa, ECOWAS, fraud/corruption, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Telecoms

Common Markets & the Race for Power in Africa: a Podcast Interview

Africa is a continent of 1.2 billion people.  From a consumer potential standpoint it matches China or India.  Yet historically, it has suffered from the lingering shadows of its colonial past, in addition to its current fractures, hostility, and ever-present corruption.

The continent is emerging fast, however, and is quickly accelerating into the 21st Century marketplace both from an investment and growth opportunity. From the digital revolution and increased free trade, to innovation in various industries, Africa may be the next market frontier to unfold into accelerated multinational presence.

In this podcast episode (available gratis on Apple, Spotify, and Sheppard Mullin‘s web site), Michael P.A. Cohen is joined by Africa competition and markets expert, Andreas Stargard, as he shares his insight to help multinationals navigate the African landscape.

What we discuss in this Podcast episode:

  • What do the Africa markets look like from a multinational business opportunity perspective?
  • Which countries in Africa have established markets? Which ones have growth potential?
  • How and why has China’s investment and influence across Africa intensified over the last couple of decades?
  • What type of digital revolution is taking place in Africa?
  • Is there a huge opportunity for mobile money on the continent?
  • How is free trade shaping up across the African continent? How do the AfCFTA’s goals tie in?
  • What Free Trade cooperation agreements exist among the East, West and South African nations? Will they succeed?
  • Where is Africa leading innovations?
  • How will African wars and corruption impact its ability to grow a multinational marketplace?

Who’s speaking:

Michael Cohen is the creator of the Nota Bene podcast. He began his career as an Assistant Special Prosecutor, investigating and prosecuting organized crime involvement with the failure of local financial institutions in the early 1990s, and has since practiced globally at several top law firms. In 2015, Michael joined Sheppard Mullin’s storied antitrust practice with a goal of putting his 25 years experience to work to complement the firm’s longstanding antitrust litigation group, helping to bridge government antitrust enforcement in Washington, D.C. to the firm’s strengths in Brussels, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

A co-founding senior member of Primerio, a business advisory firm helping companies do business within Africa from a global perspective, Andreas Stargard is legal, strategic, and business advisor to companies and individuals across the globe.  He focuses on antitrust and competition advice, white-collar counseling, contract dispute and negotiation, and resolution of global business disputes, including cartel work, corruption allegations and internal investigations, intellectual property, and distribution matters.  He has written and spoken extensively on these topics and many others.  Andreas also advises clients on corporate compliance programmes that conform to local as well as global government standards, and has handled key strategic merger-notification questions, including evaluation of filing requirements, avoidance strategies, cross-jurisdictional cooperation, and the like.

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draft, economics, market study, South Africa

Online Intermediation Platforms Market Inquiry: Call for Comments

By Jemma Muller & Gina Lodolo / edits by Charl van der Merwe

The South African Competition Commission (SACC) indicated its intent to formally initiate a market inquiry in the Online Intermediation Platforms Market (Inquiry), in terms of section 43B(1)(a) of the Competition Act 89 of 1998 (as amended) (Competition Act).

In terms of the amended Competition Act, the SACC has the power to conduct a market inquiry at any time, “if it has reason to believe that any feature or combination of features of a market or any goods or services impedes, distorts or restricts competition within that market.

The SACC published its draft Terms of Reference (ToR), allowing members of the public until 12 March 2021 to submit their comments on the scope of the Inquiry.

The ToR envisage a limited scope of assessment, to include only online intermediation services and, in particular, eCommerce marketplaces; online classifieds; travel and accommodation aggregators; short term accommodation intermediation; food delivery; app stores (with the notable exclusion of ‘fintech’).

The Inquiry will be focused on both competition and public interest factors and will aim to consider:

  • market features that may hinder competition amongst the platforms themselves;
  • market features that give rise to discriminatory or exploitative treatment of business users; and
  • market features that may negatively impact on the participation of SMEs and/or HDI owned firms

According to the SACC in the ToR, these platforms have been flagged as they have the potential to self-preference and distort markets through algorithms, which is harmful to businesses who rely on these platforms to reach consumers.

The Inquiry follows shortly on the back of the SACC’s “Competition in the Digital Economy” report (Report), which was published for public comment in the final quarter of 2020. In the Report, the SACC specifically identified market inquiries are an effective tool to address market barriers (especially for Small Medium Enterprises (SME) and historically disadvantaged individuals (HDP)) and to address market feature concerns which may lead to reduced competition.

Allied to this, the ToR goes on to state, in support of the Inquiry, that the use of intermediation services can provide a manner of entry into a market for SMEs/ HDPs, but due to the potential distortions of the market, may also discriminate against them. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic online business opportunities are vital in ensuring economic recovery as well as inclusive growth of SMEs and HDPs.

The Inquiry will be the first inquiry in terms of the Competition Act as amended. In this regard, the amended Competition Act empowers the SACC to “take action to remedy, mitigate or prevent the adverse effect on competition”.  This includes imposing structural or behavioural remedies.

It is also notable that the standard of assessment for market inquiries is a lower standard that that required in complaint proceedings. The SACC need only find that certain elements of the market may have “adverse effect on competition” (as opposed a substantial lessening of competition).

In light of these facts, firms in the relevant market cannot afford to remain passive participants in market inquiries and, instead, must consider and respond to the inquiry, as a respondent.

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COMESA, East Africa, new regime

Chief enforcer departs CCC, Mwemba takes on role

February 17th, 2021: TODAY, the COMESA Competition Commission (“Commission”) released the following statement, wishing “to inform the general public that the tenure of office of Dr George Lipimile who was the Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Commission for the past ten years, came to an end on 31st January 2021.

Dr Lipimile was appointed by the COMESA Council of Ministers as the first Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Commission in February 2011. He served in this capacity at the Commission for ten years during which time he played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Commission as the first fully operational regional competition authority in Africa and the second fully functional regional competition authority in the world after the European Commission. Dr Lipimile tirelessly worked towards the enforcement of the COMESA Competition Regulations and Rules. He dedicated his time at the Commission in strengthening the institution with but not limited to:

  • Growth in its staff compliment;
  • Creating sound legal framework;
  • Processes and Procedures for enforcement of the Regulations;
  • Advocacy and technical assistance to COMESA Member States; and
  • Setting up the necessary corporate governance systems.

Further, the Commission wishes to announce to the general public that Dr Willard Mwemba has been appointed as the Acting Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Commission from 1st February 2021 until such time the substantive Director of the Commission is recruited. The Commission wishes to congratulate Dr Mwemba on his appointment as the Acting Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Commission.

Incoming Mwemba & outgoing Lipimile

Andreas Stargard, a Primerio competition lawyer who knows both men from having notified transactions to the CCC as well as socially, says that “an era is now concluded — namely the ‘Genesis Era’ of the CCC, as George was its very first, and thus formative, leader. That said, I am deeply assured by the appointment of Dr. Mwemba to his post as acting Director, as he is of utmost competence and I have no doubt will guide the Commission in the right direction in this new ‘CCC 2.0 Era’ after Dr. Lipimile’s departure.”

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AAT exclusive, COMESA, merger documentation, MergerMania, mergers

M&A Breaking News: Regional Antitrust Enforcer Aligns Merger Rule with European Union Principles

BREAKING NEWS: The COMESA Competition Commission (“CCC”) issued new guidance today in relation to its application of previously ambiguous and potentially self-contradictory merger-notification rules under the supra-national COMESA regime. As Andreas Stargard, a competition practitioner with Primerio notes:

“This new Practice Note issued by Dr. Mwemba is an extremely welcome step in clarifying when to notify M&A deals to the COMESA authorities. Specifically, it clears up the confusion as to the meaning of the term ‘to operate’ within the Common Market.

Prior conflicts between the 3 operative documents (the ‘Rules’, ‘Guidelines’, and the ‘Regulations’) had become untenable for practitioners to continue without clear guidance from the CCC, which we have now received. I applaud the Commission for taking this important step in the right direction, aligning its merger procedure with the principles of established best-practice jurisdictions such as the European Union.”

The full text of the new Guidance is as follows:

PRACTICE NOTE ON THE COMMISSION’S APPLICATION OF THE TERM “OPERATE” UNDER THE COMESA COMPETITION REGULATIONS AND THE “APPLICATION OF RULE 4 OF THE RULES ON THE DETERMINATION OF MERGER NOTIFICATION THRESHOLDS AND METHOD OF CALCULATION”

February 11, 2021

CCC – MER – Practice Note 1 of 2021

The COMESA Competition Commission (the “Commission”), having received several queries from merging parties and their legal representatives in relation to the application of certain merger control rules, hereby issues this practice note on its application of the term “operate” under the COMESA Competition Regulations, 2004 (the “Regulations”) and the COMESA Competition Rules, 2004 (the “Rules”) and its approach to the application of Rule 4 of the Rules on the Determination of Merger Notification Thresholds and Method of Calculation (the “Rules on the Determination of Merger Notification Thresholds”).

  1. Application of the Term “Operate”

Article 23 of the Regulations establishes the jurisdiction of the Commission to assess cross-border mergers where the term “operate” is central to the application of Article 23 of the Regulations which, inter alia, applies where “…both the acquiring firm and target firm or either the acquiring firm or target firm operate in two or more Member States…”.

The Regulations have not defined the term operate. However, paragraph 3.9 of the COMESA Merger Assessment Guidelines of 2014 (the “Merger Guidelines”) states that an undertaking is considered to operate in a Member State for purposes of Article 23 (3)(a) of the Regulations if its operations in that Member State are substantial enough that a merger can contribute to an appreciable effect on trade between Member States and restrict competition in COMESAFurther, the Merger Guidelines state that “…an undertaking operates in a Member State if its annual turnover or value of assets in that Member State exceeds US$ 5 million…”.

It should be noted that at the time the Merger Guidelines became applicable, the prescribed merger notification thresholds envisaged under Article 23(3)(b) of the Regulation, were set at US$ 0. This effectively meant that all merger transactions satisfying the regional dimension requirement of Article 23 (3)(a) of the Regulations were required to be notified to the Commission, irrespective of the magnitude of the merging parties’ operations in the Common Market. In line with the Regulations’ objectives, the Commission sought to only capture those mergers likely to affect trade between Member States and restrict competition in the Common Market. As a result, the Merger Guidelines attached a quantitative definition to the term ‘operate’, as meaning the turnover or value of asset in a Member State to be at least US$ 5 million.

All stakeholders are hereby informed that following the enactment of the Rules on the Determination of Merger Notification Thresholds, the definition of ‘operate’ under paragraph 3.9 of the Merger Guidelines in no longer applicable as the Rules take precedence over the Guidelines. In view of this, paragraph 3.9 of the Guidelines has been rendered ineffective with the coming into force of Rule 4 of the Rules on the Determination of Merger Notification Thresholds. Therefore, for purposes of merger notification in line with Article 23 of the Regulations, all stakeholders should be referring to Rule 4 of the Rules on the Determination of Merger Notification Thresholds which stipulates that:

 “Any merger where both the acquiring firm and target firm, or either the acquiring or the target firm, operate in two or more Member States, shall be notifiable if:

  1. the combined annual turnover or combined value of assets, whichever is higher in the Common Market of all parties to a merger equals to or exceeds US$50 million; and
  2. the annual turnover or value of assets, whichever is higher, in the Common Market of each of at least two of the parties to a merger equals or exceeds US$10 million, unless each of the parties to a merger achieves at least two-thirds of its aggregate turnover or assets in the Common Market within one and the same Member State.”

 2.  Application of Rule 4 of the Rules on the Determination of Merger Notification Thresholds

Rule 4 applies to merger transactions that satisfy both the “Regional Dimension” and “Notification Thresholds” requirements under Article 23 of the Regulations. Rule 4 is cumulative and must be satisfied entirely before a merger is notified to the Commission. Rule 4 is therefore applied as follows:

Firstly, Regional Dimension must be satisfied. This is contained in the chapeau of Rule 4 which requires the merging parties to operate in at least two COMESA Member States. Further, it gives three alternative scenarios under which merging parties can operate in Member States namely:

  1. Both the acquiring firm and target firm can operate in at least two Member States;
  2. The acquiring firm can operate in at least two Member States, while the target firm can operate only in one Member State; or
  3. The target firm can operate in at least two Member States, while the acquiring firm can operate only in one Member State.

Regional Dimension will therefore be met once any of the three scenarios is satisfied and if they are, the next step is to confirm whether Rule 4(a) is satisfied. Rule 4(a) must be satisfied by confirming that either the combined annual turnover or combined annual assets in the Common Market of all the parties to the merger equals to at least US$ 50 million. The option to use combined annual turnover or combined annual asset shall depend on the higher amount of the two total values.

Assuming the Regional Dimension and Rule 4(a) is satisfied, the next step is to confirm whether the merging parties satisfy Rule 4(b). To satisfy Rule 4(b), it should be demonstrated that the annual turnover or annual asset, whichever is higher, of each of at least two of the parties in the Common Market is at least US$ 10 million. Whether to use annual turnover or annual asset depends on the higher of the two. It should also depend on the measure (turnover or asset) used in Rule 4(a).

As an illustration, assume annual combined turnover is higher than annual combined asset under Rule 4(a). This shall mean annual combined turnover will be adopted under Rule 4(a). Therefore, proceeding to Rule 4(b) shall mean confirming whether the annual turnover of each of at least two of the parties in the Common Market is at least US$ 10 million.

The final step in applying Rule 4 is to confirm if the 2/3 exemption rule holds. Given that Rule 4 must be applied in its entirety, the 2/3 exemption rule must also be read in conjunction with the preceding limbs in establishing the thresholds i.e. Rule 4(a) and Rule 4(b). For both the collective and individual thresholds requirements under Rule 4(a) and 4(b), it is the higher value of the turnover derived or asset value held which must be considered. In this regard, the 2/3 rule is meant to apply once the higher value has been established. It would be contrary to the principles and spirit of the 2/3 rule to rely on a different financial criterion to exempt a notification than the criterion used to establish a notification requirement under first two limbs of Rule 4.

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AAT exclusive, agriculture, consumer protection, COVID-19, excessive pricing, Grocery Retail Market Inquiry, South Africa

Healthy foods & price-gouging during Pandemic?

High ginger, garlic and lemon prices have left a sour taste in mouths of South Africans

By Gina Lodolo and Jemma Muller

The exorbitant and rapid increase in prices of ginger, garlic and lemon, that which spans up to 300%, has been the source of much public outcry and regulatory concern over the past few months. The question remains whether the price increases by massive retailers can be justified or whether they should be considered as excessive?

The Consumer and Customer Protection and the National Disaster Regulations and Directions (the “Regulations”), which came into effect in March 2020, were put in place to consider inter alia when a price is excessive.  They empower the South African Competition Commission (“SACC”) and National Consumer Commission (“NCC”) to investigate and prosecute cases of price-gouging.  Contraventions may result in penalties of up to ZAR 1 million or 10% of annual turnover. According to the NCC, price gouging is defined as “an unfair or unreasonable price increase that does not correspond to or is not equivalent to the increase in the cost of providing that good or service.”

The NCC has launched an investigation under the Consumer Protection Act into potential contraventions of the COVID-19 Regulations against major retailers such as Woolworths, Pick ‘n Pay, Shoprite, Spar, Food Lovers market, Cambridge Foods and Boxers Superstores. According to the Regulations, and in terms of section 120(1)(d) of the Consumer Protection Act, a price increase of a goods, including inter alia “basic food and consumer items”, which does not correspond to the increase in cost of supplying such goods, or increases in the net margin or mark-up on the good(s) which exceeds the average margin or mark-up on the said good in the three month period before 1 March 2020 is “unconscionable, unfair, unreasonable and unjust and a supplier is prohibited from effecting such a price increase”.

The preferred tools of the COVID-19 Regulations relating to excessive pricing seem to be predominantly similar to competition policy and its associated institutions. Upon assessing an increase in pricing to determine whether the increase is excessive, the test would be whether the prices were increased due to cost-based increases (such as reduced supply due to an increase in import costs as the domestic currency get weaker) as opposed to price increases only due to a demand increase (such as more consumers buying ginger as an immune booster during the COVID-19 pandemic). When assessing exploitative conduct, it is more likely to establish that there has been an abuse of dominance when a firm is dominant or enjoys great market power.

It has appeared that the trend in the increase of ginger and garlic retail prices is that the allegedly exploitative conduct no longer originates from only one dominant player as such (eg. only Spar) but rather affects shops in the whole of South Africa. The price increases have sparked outrage with consumers who are driving shop-to-shop in an attempt to purchase ginger or garlic at a lower, or somewhat ‘standard’ pre-COVID-19, price.

As stated above, increasing prices will be seen as excessive when the increase is due only to an increase in demand. Retailers have claimed that the increase is not only because of rising demand but also due to an actual decrease in the product supply.  It is therefore pertinent to determine the extent to which the supply has been reduced in relation to the increased demand. This would require a proportionality balance, as shops would have to prove to the competition authorities that the increase of pricing is only due to the decrease in supply. Extortionary pricing above and beyond that would demonstrate an increase of pricing due to the increase of demand, and as such would fall foul of the  Competition Act and the Regulations cited above.

The rising prices in garlic and ginger have been on the SACC’s radar since July 2020, when it concluded a consent agreement with Food Lovers Holdings whereby the retailer agreed to immediately halt excessively pricing its ginger products at one of its stores. Notwithstanding this fact, the subsequent regulation and enforcement of ginger and garlic prices by the SACC under Regulations has become somewhat tricky due to the fact that the products are not considered to be essential products under the COVID-19 Regulations.

The SACC previously found that the increases in prices were largely attributed to the rise in costs experienced by retailers and they found no evidence of price gouging targeted at taking advantage of the constrained mobility of consumers or shortages during the pandemic. What the SACC found to be concerning, however, were the high pre-disaster margins on products such as ginger and garlic, which have largely been maintained throughout the pandemic by retailers raising their prices for the goods as the costs were increasing. Accordingly, as mentioned above, although the SACC did not find evidence of price gouging, it did find possible contraventions of the Consumer Protection Act and as such, referred the potential contraventions to the NCC to investigate further.

A spokesperson for the SACC, Siyabulela Makunga has stated the following:

We also appreciate the changes in demand for garlic and ginger, but it is our view the price of ginger and garlic have [sic] increased astronomically at retailers. We don’t think that the increased demand in ginger justified the price of up to R400 a kilogram…

John Oxenham, an R.S.A. competition lawyer with Primerio Ltd., notes that “the prosecution of the matter demonstrates the respective authorities’ commitment to priority sectors and an unbridled effort to root out any form of price-gouging.”

To conclude, market power of the implicated retailors has likely been increased due to the reduced availability of substitutes for customers as a majority of retailers have introduced a dramatic price increase. The investigation launched by the NCC is, however, a step in the right direction to protect consumers who have been left with very limited choices in the widespread steep increase in price of ginger and garlic.

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AAT exclusive, COMESA, COVID-19, East Africa, exemptions, Kenya, public-interest

Antitrust enforcer to allow self-assessment of competitor collaborations amidst pandemic

Following the (thus far rarely used) “Block Exemption” procedure under Section 30 (2) of the Kenyan Competition Act, the Competition Authority of Kenya (“CAK”) has proposed a new set of draft Guidelines as to competitor collaborations during the COVID-19 pandemic, so as to assist with the country’s economic recovery efforts. It specifies five (5) focus sectors, namely Manufacturing, Private Healthcare, Aviation, Travel & Hospitality, and Health Research. The Guidelines are ostensibly inapplicable to firms that engage in economic activity outside these five sectors.

In issuing its soon-to-be finalized guidance, the CAK wishes to provide “direction to undertakings in making a self-assessment as to whether the agreements, decisions or practices which they intend entering into will qualify for block exemption within the Covid-19 Economic Recovery Context without the need to seek the Authority’s intervention.” (A.(4))

A key aspect, in the view of antitrust litigator Andreas Stargard, is the renewed attention given to “public-interest factors” in competition law.

He believes that this concession to non-traditional competition-law theory is “necessitated by the broad economic havoc COVID-19 has wrought, including on historically peripheral-to-antitrust aspects such as overall employment, public health, en masse business closures, and the like, which would normally not be highly relevant factors in the strict sense of conducting a rigorous competition-law analysis.”

Stargard continues that “Condition III of the CAK’s so-called ‘Self-Assessment Principles‘ expressly highlights this element, namely forcing firms to evaluate whether their proposed collaboration with competitive entities is ‘in the public interest, such as creation of employment’,” citing para. 11(vii) of the draft Block Exemption Guidelines on Certain Covid-19 Economic Recovery Priority Sectors.

The CAK’s proposal thus strongly echoes what its regional sister authority, the COMESA Competition Commission (“CCC”) openly discussed as early as July of last year. As we wrote in our assessment of the official CCC staff’s thoughts on competition enforcement amidst the pandemic in 2020:

The concept of non-competition factors (i.e., the public-interest element) was also raised, as there is a “growing debate on whether the pandemic may necessitate changes in [the] substantive assessment of mergers, e.g., towards more lenient consideration of failing firms.”

As Andreas Stargard observes, “just as COVID-19 is truly global, Kenya and COMESA are likewise not alone in their quest to master the difficult balancing act between sufficiently enforcing their domestic or regional antitrust laws versus allowing reasonable accommodations to be made for necessary competitor collaborations in light of the pandemic’s impact. Indeed, other enforcers have also made accommodations for such unusual collaborative efforts, given the emergency nature of the pandemic.”

In the U.S., the federal antitrust agencies have issued analogous guidance for competitors, issuing a joint guidance document specifically on health-care providers collaborating on necessary public-health initiatives. What stands out is the agencies’ express invitation for health-care players to take advantage of the (now-expedited to 7 days’ turnaround time) business-review/opinion-letter procedures.   Mr. Stargard notes however that, unlike the Kenyan proposal of “self-assessment by the affected entities, the American approach still necessitates an affirmative approach of the enforcers by the parties, seeking official sanctioning of their proposed cooperation by submitting a detailed explanation of the planned conduct, together with its rationale and expected likely effects.

By way of further example, in Canada, as the OECD notes, the government “has developed a ‘whole-of-government action’ based on seven guiding principles including collaboration. This principle calls on all levels of government and stakeholders to work in partnership to generate an effective and coherent response. These principles build on lessons learned from past events, particularly the 2003 SARS outbreak, which led to dedicated legislation, plans, infrastructure, and resources to help ensure that the country would be well prepared to detect and respond to a future pandemic outbreak.”

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AAT exclusive, cartels, collusion, East Africa, Kenya, leniency, leniency / amnesty, Price fixing, Whistleblower reward

New Antitrust Whistleblower Reward Scheme: Are ‘Paltry’ Rewards & Anonymity Enough?

As of January 1st, 2021, Kenya’s competition-law enforcer, the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK), started benefitting from its new “Informant Reward Scheme” (IRS). The IRS encourages “confidential informants” — often also referred to as “whistleblowers” — privy to inside information about antitrust offenses to come forward and report the illicit conduct to the Authority.

The IRS incentivizes informants with promises of anonymity as well as — rather modest, as we will see — monetary rewards: the CAK vows to maintain the confidentiality of the informant’s identity, and provides for up to Sh1,000,000 (approximately US$9,100 at today’s Fx rate).

Andreas Stargard, a competition lawyer active on the African continent, has delved more deeply into the CAK’s enabling “Guidelines” document, trying to ascertain the precise contours of the IRS program. He reports as follows:

AfricanAntitrust.com: “Who is eligible to participate in the IRS?”

Andreas Stargard: “What we know from the implementing Guidelines, and also from Director General Kariuki‘s speech on the IRS, is that only third parties or those individuals playing merely a remote and peripheral role in relation to the anti-competitive conduct are eligible to benefit from the IRS. This means that a 3rd-party customer, or a non-executive employee such as a secretary or copy clerk of the offending company, may report wrongdoing under the IRS.”

AAT: “What about insiders with executive authority, then?”

Stargard: “Similar to Western countries’ antitrust regimes, those individuals can still report illicit conduct by their employers, but they would have to resort to the Kenyan leniency process as opposed to the Informant Reward Scheme.”

AAT: “Understood. Are there other, similar whistleblower schemes in existence?”

Stargard: “Yes. We recently held a very timely webinar with leading international and African experts on the topic of whistleblowing, which I moderated. A recording of it is available on the web. Whistleblowing has become an important piece of the enforcement puzzle for many governmental authorities around the globe, not only on competition issues. In Kenya, specifically, President Kenyatta recently doubled the rewards for tax-fraud whistleblowers, who are now entitled to receive up to Sh5,000,000 ($45,000), and the country’s revenue service implemented the so-called iWhistle portal to allow informants to report tax fraud anonymously.”

AAT: “Speaking of money, what is your take on the amount of the offered reward under the terms of the IRS?”

Stargard: “Frankly speaking, one million Kenyan shillings is a paltry sum. I cannot comprehend how reporting a competition-law violation such as a price-fixing cartel that may cost the Kenyan economy and its consumers billions in losses is deserving of 5-times less reward than an informant reporting an individual’s tax fraud to the revenue service, which may cause significantly less injury to the government purse than an international cartel of corporates…”

AAT: “Strong words.”

Stargard: “I’m serious. Compare and contrast the meager sum of not even US$10,000 maximum IRS reward with the potential 5-year prison sentence liability for executives convicted of collusion! There is simply no comparison…”

AAT: “In a perfect world, what would you change about the Kenyan whistleblower scheme?”

Stargard: “If I had had any input into the process of devising the IRS Guidelines, I would have ensured that the maximum reward amount be commensurate with the economic harm and financial damage done by cartels — in short, I would raise the IRS reward to an un-capped straight-up percentage portion of the fines recovered by the CAK. The more, the better for everyone.”

AAT: “Do you have any parting words or final observations on the IRS program for our readers?”

Stargard: “Well, for starters, it is not too late to implement changes to the regime. The CAK (and the legislature, to the extent necessary) can easily increase the maximum reward, as I proposed earlier. I am certain that it would yield better results than the current Sh1m cap, which can easily be ‘outbid’ by an already-corrupt employer, seeking to ‘buy’ its employees’ loyalty! So, Mr. Kariuki, if you’re reading this interview, I’d strongly suggest considering an increase in the reward.

Secondly, from our international experience, we know one thing about ‘secret’ informant schemes: One key element of any successful whistleblower regime (besides ensuring adequate rewards) is the strictest maintenance of confidentiality of the informant’s identity. I realize that section ‘F’ of the Guidelines assures the public that anonymity will be guaranteed and that the CAK will ‘take utmost care to ensure that the identity of the confidential informant is not disclosed.’ However, as an attorney, I can only say that the proof is in the pudding. We will have to wait for the first proceedings pursuant to IRS-provided reports, in order to determine whether or not the whistleblowers’ anonymity will indeed be preserved successfully in practice. That said, I look forward to advising clients on the many issues that are likely going to arise from the Scheme!”

AAT: “Thank you for your time and insights on this new development!”

CAK Director General Wang’ombe Kariuki
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ACF, COMESA, commissioners, Kenya

Kariuki gets World Bank advisor post

Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) Director-General Francis Wang’ombe Kariuki, MBS, will serve on the panel and contribute to its annual publication, the “World Development Report” for the upcoming calendar year. An archive of the Bank’s prior Reports is available for review here.

The Kenyan WallStreet publication quotes Kariuki as saying:

“The appointment takes cognizance of the fact that competition law enforcement has a role to play in poverty alleviation and that data is a highly-prized asset among companies, which can be leveraged for [either] development or socioeconomic harm. … Private firms may use data to deter the entry of upcoming firms, thereby limiting or preventing competition to the detriment of the consumers, specifically eroding their purchasing power and choice.”

Kariuki is a former COMESA Competition Commission Board member and a founding member and first chairman of the African Competition Forum.

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Uncategorized

South Africa’s Price Discrimination Provisions: Interpretational Guidance to Section 9

African focused competition lawyer and regular contributor to Africanantitrust, Michael-James Currie, has kindly made available to all Africanantitrust readers his dissertation titled “SOUTH AFRICA’S AMENDED PRICE DISCRIMINATION PROVISION: AN ANALYTICAL FRAMEWORK IN RELATION TO THE GROCERY RETAIL MARKET”.

In his thesis, Currie explores various economic and legal principles which are of particular relevance to ensuring that section 9 of South Africa’s Competition Act is interpreted in a manner which is sensible and does not lead to unintended consequences which might harm consumers or dampen pro-competitive conduct.

Currie utilises the grocery retail market as a basis to explore the applicability (and suitability) of the price discrimination provisions in so far as the objective to protect a specific class of competitors is concerned (rather than protecting competition).

By drawing on economic principles and European and US precedent, Currie provides a well articulated and reasoned analytical approach to section 9 coupled with practical interpretational guidance in what is likely to become a very useful resource.

To access Currie’s dissertation (for free), please follow the link below:

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Uncategorized

South African Competition Appeal Court Upholds Tribunal’s Excessive Pricing/ Anti-Price Gouging Decision re Babelegi

By Michael-James Currie

[Michael-James is practicing attorney and recognized by Best Lawyers South Africa for competition law/antitrust. He can be contacted at m.currie@primerio.international]

In June 2020, the South African Competition Tribunal (Tribunal) handed down two seminal decisions (Babelegi and Dis-Chem) in relation to “excessive pricing” during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Tribunal found that both respondents had engaged in excessive pricing in relation to the sale of facemasks.

Together with John Oxenham and Charl van der Merwe, we authored an article for the Oxford Journal for European Competition Law and Practice titled COVID-19 Price Gouging Cases in South Africa: Short-term Market Dynamics with Long-term Implications for Excessive Pricing Cases. In the Article, we examined several aspects of these cases and concluded that it was highly unfortunate that these cases were the “test” cases not only as the first (and to date only) contested price gouging cases in South Africa, but more importantly they also the first excessive pricing cases to be assessed under South Africa’s amended excessive pricing provisions (which came into effect in February 2020).

Our primary concerns were that while the Tribunal stressed that the Covid-19 pandemic presented a unique challenge, the urgent manner in which the case was tried, and the clear objective to deter suppliers form exploiting consumers from excessive pricing during the pandemic, led in our view to a decision which appeared to be justified largely upon notional (but overly simplified) theories of market power as opposed to robust and objective empirical evidence and economic principles ordinarily associated with excessive pricing cases. We did, however, in the Article acknowledge that:

We do not express views on the evidence underpinning the two cases. Further, had the Tribunal conducted a more robust economic analysis akin to traditional excessive pricing complaint, and fully assessed each of the factors that it ought to take into account, the Tribunal may have arrived at the same outcome.”

However, “by constantly referring to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Tribunal significantly lowered the threshold for establishing ‘dominance’; adopted a very limited ‘complaint period’; did not define a relevant market and rejected a comparison between prices of the respondent firm and other competitors during the same period. Further, this assessment was conducted on an urgent basis with limited economic evidence.”

Some of the more pertinent issues which emerged from the two cases are set out below:

  1. Although the cases were referred after the Minister had published anti-price gouging regulations (which essentially prohibits non-cost associated price increases for essential goods), the price increases relevant to the complaint occurred prior to the Regulations being enacted and hence the Regulations were not of application (this was acknowledged by the Tribunal).
  2. In the case of Babelegi, it was common cause that Babelegi’s market share pre-Covid 19 was less than 5% (yes 5%).
  3. The cases were heard on an urgent basis. Excessive pricing complaints are inherently complex and require robust and credible economic evidence. The respondents had a few weeks at most to prepare this economic evidence – despite the fact that the alleged excessive prices were no longer in effect.
  4. The complaint period was only one month (which hardly seems appropriate to assess and allow ordinary market dynamics – even in the most competitive market environments – to correct a market failure).
  5. The “excessive prices” were not considered with reference to other competitors’ prices. Rather, it was limited largely to an assessment turning on whether the price increase was “reasonable” during the crisis in circumstances were there were no associated underlying cost increase.
  6. Market power, and hence dominance, was inferred merely by virtue of the fact that the respondents were able to charge an excessive price (which is circular and, at least in the case of Babelegi, only very few units were sold at the excessive price which points away from an exertion of market power over any durable period).

While Dis-Chem initially elected to appeal the Tribunal’s decision, this was subsequently abandoned. Babelegi, however, went on appeal and, in November 2020, the Competition Appeal Court (“CAC”) handed down its decision and upheld the Tribunal’s finding in Babelegi. The CAC did, however, waiver the administrative penalty.

For the most part, the CAC’s approach to the case does not differ materially from that of the Tribunal’s.

Perhaps the most striking paragraphs of the CAC’s decision are, however, found towards the end of the judgment which makes one question how the CAC arrived at its conclusion in the first instance. After the CAC had already concluded that Babelegi was “dominant” during the complaint period and charged excessive prices, the CAC held that it was regrettable that this case:

  1. was decided in the absence of price gouging legislation which should have been applicable during the complaint period.
  2. was brought with haste and imprecision; and
  3. involved a small firm (which is the type of firm which the Competition Act is so very much geared to protect and promote).

It seems that the CAC found itself in an invidious position. On the one hand, it recognized that charging prices substantially higher than the pre-pandemic level at the expense of consumers need to be guarded against. It did not, however, have the legislative arsenal (such as dedicated anti-price gouging legislation) to neatly deal with this harm. It also begs the question of whether anti-price gouging legislation in South Africa is in fact necessary in light of the CAC’s decision. Presumably any firm who during a national disaster increases its prices above that which is directly proportional to costs will be guilty of excessive pricing. Dedicated anti-price gouging legislation would, although very much welcomed, be superfluous.

In light of the precedential value of this decision, it becomes important to assess whether this decision ought only serve as guidance during a time of crisis. In this regard the CAC did state that during a time of crisis, one needs to adopt a different conceptual framework from that which would ordinarily be employed in excessive pricing cases. This is an important caveat to the CAC’s decision and might limit the precedential value of the decision itself. Although the

Unfortunately, it is less clear, on what basis the CAC departed from the traditional approach to determining excessive pricing cases. Although we all recognize the unique challenges caused by Covid-19, this itself does not seem a legitimate basis to deviate from the objectivity and certainty with which the Competition Act ought to be interpreted and applied.

It is not necessary to canvass in full the Competition Appeal Court’s decision and those who wish to consider this further are invited to read the judgment.

What is noteworthy, however, is that it was common cause that hardly any products were sold by the respondent at the grossly inflated prices and that the prices ultimately dropped to a level marginally above the pre-Covid-19 price (absent any intervention).

It is, therefore, unclear on what basis the Competition Appeal Court elected to limit the complaint period to one month. The concern being that markets which function entirely normally, may nevertheless experience demand shocks (a supplier may go bankrupt reducing capacity in the market, there may be a drought, the exchange rate may fluctuate and so forth). Excessive pricing cases have never been assessed, nor should they be assessed, with reference only to the period during which prices were higher than the prevailing levels. This would defeat the quint-essential assessment of market power – namely whether the market is able to rectify itself so that prices are able to revert to a competitive level. If the market does, within a reasonably period of time, then there should be no cause for concern. While there is no universally accepted time period to consider in this regard, it is noteworthy that in most jurisdictions new entry into the market is considered within a 2-3 year period (to give some sense of the time it can take to restore market defects).

Accordingly, it seems open to a complainant to argue that increased prices during any demand shock are excessive and, provided the complaint period is limited in duration, so as to exclude a time period during which prices may return to competitive levels, such a complaint may succeed.

There is of course a further concern with the approach to this matter. That is, the determination of the competitive level. It cannot be, absent some form of collective dominance theory, that a single firm with less than 5% market share is responsible for setting the competitive level. So, if during the pandemic the competitive price increases across the entire market due to an overall increase in demand, then reference between the alleged excessive price must be considered in relation to the new competitive price.

While the CAC cited with approval the European case of ABG Oil Companies (19 April 1977) where the European Court raised the lucky “monopolist” and indicated that more than one supplier could be dominant vis-à-vis its customers during a crisis, it is not apparent that the analogy is correctly applied in the South African context. If there are ten firms in the market and each have 10% market share and each prices its products at 50% higher than the pre-pandemic price, can it credibly be argued (consistent with the current legislative framework) that each firm is individually a dominant player charging excessive prices? While notionally possible, it should remain only a notion. The reality is that in practice, every firm, even in a highly competitive market, has some degree of market power. The question is therefore over simplified to suggest that a firm is dominant because it has market power. A firm must have substantial market power over a sustained period to raise concerns from a competition perspective.

While the crisis may change the way markets function and operate and even the very definition of the market, it seems that should be as far as any reference to the crisis should go. For example, if a customer is only allowed by law to travel within a 5km radius due to travel restrictions, then it could well be that the geographic market is more narrowly defined. But once you have a defined market, then it seems that the crisis plays a more limited role vis-a-vis assessing a respondent’s market power within that market. If, even on a more limited market definition, a respondent is unable to sustainably implement an excessive price or its prices are not less favorable than other competitors within the same and adjacent markets, it is difficult to conclude emphatically that the respondent is nonetheless dominant and guilty of excessive pricing.

The CAC’s decision provides little guidance on how more traditional cases of excessive prices will be adjudicated if the demand shock is not necessarily a result of a global health crisis but some other more mundane but economically equally applicable in relation to causing a significant and sudden demand shock.

As much as the adjudicative bodies have highlighted that context matters, once one deviates so significantly from legal and economic principles and rationale, the risk of uncertain and subjective decision making increases.

The approach by the authorities and adjudicative bodies, while noble, seems very much a case of fitting a square peg in a round hole. It was unfortunately not the right respondent,, legislative framework or process to follow to provide the necessary clarity regarding the assessment of “dominance” or the interpretation of the new excessive pricing provisions.

While the CAC’s decision in Babelegi does not offend one’s sense of justice, until the CAC has an opportunity to consider another traditional excessive pricing case (whatever that might mean), the precedential value of the Babelegi decision is concerning. Not so much for other price gouging cases, but rather to the assessment of dominance more generally.

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