Competition law as a tool for promoting consumer welfare & maintaining a competitive market in Kenya
By contributing author Elizabeth Sisenda, LL.M (London) LL.B (CUEA) PGD Law (KSL)
The core aim of enforcing competition law revolves around balancing between beneficial market power and market power that is detrimental to consumer welfare. Market power can be defined as the ability of a firm to raise and maintain price above the level that would prevail under competitive market conditions, without being destabilised by consumers switching to other products/services or new competitors entering the same market. Often the actual price is above cost leading to high profits for the firm with market power. In practice, the pursuit of market dominance can be a great incentive for investment, cost efficiency and innovation. Therefore, the acquisition of a dominant position through superior product or customer services, better pricing, innovation, efficiency and investment is not illegal. Only the abuse of dominance is prohibited. Where a firm exercises market power, competition law functions to protect the openness of the market by ensuring that the dominant firm does not impose unfair trading conditions for actual or potential competitors, or abuse its intellectual property rights. It also intervenes to prevent direct harm to consumer welfare through conduct or transactions that limit output or production artificially in order to price-fix.
Merger control is another important function of competition law and policy, that is designed to prevent positions of market power from being established through acquisition, unless there is a strong economic efficiency rationale that will mitigate for the loss of competition between the merging firms. A company should therefore earn market power and not simply buy out competitors.
Thus, an important ideal of competition policy is to promote a contestable market for as long as it promotes consumer welfare, and a feasible market structure for a particular sector of the economy. In a contestable market, the sunken costs required to join the sector are negligible and other entry barriers are so low that the threat of new entrants is sufficient to check the conduct of the incumbent firm with market power. The costs of exiting the market are also negligible.
In relation to competitors, competition law cannot intervene on behalf of a particular firm in the market, without taking into account the broader effects of the conduct in question on competition in the relevant market. A firm would have to show, on the face of it, that its competitors in that market are engaged in concerted or collusive practices. For instance, competitors can tacitly seek to exercise market power through anti-competitive agreements that enable them to concentrate the market. This often results in one or more firms becoming large enough to be in a position to affect the market’s outcomes in a manner that causes consumer welfare or public interest to be compromised.
Under these circumstances, competition law intervenes and investigates to ensure that there is no unwarranted concentration of economic power in a particular market through collusive agreements between competitors. Unwarranted concentrations of economic power exist where there is cross-directorship or sharing of a senior employee or executive between two distinct firms providing substantially similar goods or services, and whose combined market share is more than 40%. Competition legislation regulates this conduct because it often results in board decisions being made that could lead to collusion among the firms involved, such as price fixing and dividing markets, thereby lessening competition.
For instance, in Kenya, the cement sector has been under investigation for unwarranted concentrations of economic power. Although there are a number of cement-producing companies in the market, the dominant multinational firm – Lafarge Limited, has a 58.6% stake in the leading producer, Bamburi Cement Limited and a 42% shareholding in another leading company, East African Portland Cement Limited. Market concentration concerns have arisen because Bamburi Cement Limited, which has a market share of 39%, has had cross-directorship with the 3rd largest producer in the market – East African Portland Cement Limited to an extent that may dampen competition. Kenya’s cement prices have been the second highest out of six eastern and southern African countries including South Africa, Zambia and Tanzania between 2000-2014 according to a sector report. In 2014, the Kenyan government recommended that Lafarge dilute its shareholding in East African Portland Cement Limited. However, it was not conclusive whether price fixing was going on.
On the other hand, Kenya’s cement sector may experience increased competition from imports as a result of the East African Community (EAC) reducing the common external tariff (CET) on cement from 35% to 25% through an EAC gazette notice of February 2015. Cement has also been removed from the list of sensitive products that require protection until domestic industries can compete according to the same gazette notice. Although local cement producers are protesting the move, consumers stand to gain, as the liberalized market will lead to lower prices of the commodity, and possibly have a positive impact on the construction industry.