consumer protection, new regime, Nigeria

Nigerian competition authorities finally established

The Federal Government of Nigeria inaugurates the Federal Competition & Consumer Protection Commission (“FCCPC”) and the Competition & Consumer Protection Commission Tribunal (“CCPT”) 

By Gina Lodolo

The Federal Government inaugurated the governing board of the FCCPC together with that of the CCPT, in order to ensure that consumer protection is placed at the forefront in giving effect to Nigeria’s developmental goals.  The board was inaugurated by the Minister of Industry Trade and Investment, Otunba Adeniyi Adebayo on the 4th of March 2021.

Section 4 of the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Act, 2018 (“Act”) provides that in the establishment of a Governing Board charged with the administration of affairs of the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, the Board shall “consist of 8 Commissioners made up of a Chairman, a Chief Executive who shall also be the Executive Vice Chairman, two executive Commissioners and four non-executive commissioners”.

According to Section 5 of the Act, the Board members are appointed by the President from the six geo-political zones in the country, subject to confirmation by the Senate. Each Commissioner shall serve for a term of 4 years. The term may only be renewed by the President for a further term of 4 years.

The responsibilities of the FCCPC will be, inter alia, to monitor staff performance, financial reporting and to ensure accountability.  The FCCPC has been established as a policy-making body as gleaned from Minister Adebayo who stated that the agency “as the highest policy-making body, [… is] expected to ensure that the Federal Government’s mandate is achieved”.  Mr. Emeka Nwankpa, Chairman of FCCPC’s board, said that “the board was the first of its kind in the commission [and] appealed to the government to give the team the necessary support in order to function effectively”. Hajia Sharatu Shafi, Chairman of the CCPT board, said “the tribunal would ensure thorough and timely adjudication to ensure that Nigerians get value for their money and enjoy all privileges and protection”.

Minister Adebayo stated that the “present administration has zero tolerance for any form of corruption and this stance must not be compromised in any way”.  Further, “government will punish any corrupt practices perpetrated  by any board members as well as the management team.”

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COMESA, East Africa, economics, Uganda

Uganda misses $5m Common Market payments, gets “suspension”

As the local Daily Monitor reports, landlocked COMESA member state Uganda — ruled since January 1986 by authoritarian president Museveni — has failed to make requisite payments under the COMESA Treaty to the supra-national regional organization. Its arrears date back over two years, according to sources, and amount to roughly U.S. $4 to 5 million. Arrears carry with them a 1% per annum interest rate.

COMESA’s Secretary General has officially reprimanded the Ugandan government and placed the nation on the organization’s “sanction bracket.” Andreas Stargard, an attorney with Africa boutique law firm Primerio Ltd., notes that being sanctioned carries with it the nation-state’s loss of all privileges of COMESA membership, including its key free-trading benefits, during the duration of the sanctions being imposed. “It also means that Ugandan officials are not permitted to address official COMESA bodies, nor are Ugandan citizens permitted to be appointed to, or hired by, COMESA organs. It remains to be seen whether this suspension of Uganda will impact competition-law enforcement in any direct, appreciable way — what comes to mind is merger notification and the impact that Uganda’s being sanctioned may have on cooperation between the CCC and Ugandan authorities.”

The outstanding debt is all the more concerning as Museveni’s administration, in an attempt to cling to power after 35 years, recently reportedly spent large sums out of the state’s coffers on military-grade weaponry to prepare for the chaos precipitated by the recent hotly-disputed elections.

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Antitrust writing awards – call for nominations

Our partner publication Concurrences is happy to announce that submissions are now open for the 2021 Antitrust Writing Awards.

Now in their 10th year, the Antitrust Writing Awards are given for excellent written thoughts in the field. Participation in the Awards process, whether as an author, jury member, or reader, helps highlight the best antitrust ideas of the past year.

The present Call for Nominations concerns 3 types of publications:

  • Best Articles: Articles published or accepted for publication in 2020, in both academic journals and professional magazines.
  • Best Soft Laws: Most innovative non-enforcement tools issued by competition agencies in 2020, such as guidelines, market studies, white books, etc.
  • Best Student Papers: Articles written or published in 2020 by current students of law or economics.

Deadline for submissions is Monday, April 5, 2021. You can submit your article here: https://awards.concurrences.com/

Winners will be announced at the online Awards Ceremony on Wednesday, June 30, 2021, and accept their Awards in the presence of the Board and Steering Committee Members. To see the full list of Jury members, click here.

The Antitrust Writing Awards is a joint initiative between Concurrences and the George Washington University Law School.

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cartels, collusion, COMESA, Kenya

Single Brush Stroke Stops Paints Cartel in its Tracks

Three years after an intricate East-African antitrust saga involving global European and Asian paint manufacturers, the industry is in the region’s competition-law news again.

Upon receiving allegations of cartel-like practices between paint makers and undisclosed distributors in 2018, the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) launched an investigation into the suspected companies. The investigations later uncovered that four firms, namely: Crown Paints, Basco Products Limited, Kansai Plascon and Galaxy Paints (Companies) were guilty of collusion and price fixing which subjected the purchaser to unreasonably high prices for various paint brands. The CAK has since revealed this to Parliament and handed down its finding on the alleged ant-competitive behavior.

Crown Paints has a flagship brand called DuraCoat, which includes paint products for both interior and exterior finishing (painting and waterproofing). Dura Brands’ exposed collusion with the other three companies sparked fears that consumers have been buying these products at largely inflated prices. This is particularly significant given that Crown Paints is listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange and is a heavyweight in the local paints market, with subsidiaries in Uganda and Tanzania.

Ruth Mosoti, Primerio Ltd.’s Kenyan competition practitioner, notes that the “CAK ultimately found that all four companies were in direct contravention of section 31 of the Competition Act, which addresses restrictive trade practices that prohibit companies from colluding with one another in order to determine product prices, as well as control when and to whom they will offer pricing discounts. CAK alleges that these are all anti-competitive behaviors that are to the detriment of the consumer as well as other, outside competitors.”

The authority making preliminary findings that the parties were involved in anti-competitive agreements on price fixing, discount structure and transport charges.” – Stated by the CAK in its latest report tabled before parliament.

In line with section 36(c) and (d) of the Act, the CAK is entitled to impose financial penalties “to remedy or reverse the infringement or the effects thereof” which may span “up to ten percent of the immediately preceding year’s gross annual turnover in Kenya of the undertaking or undertakings in question”.

Of the four Companies, Basco Products Limited was the only company that did not challenge the CAK’s preliminary ruling and paid the penalty amount of Sh20.799 million for the infringement. The company further agreed to abstain from committing any similar breach in the future. While the other companies initially appealed the decision handed down by the CAK, AAT staff have now learned that up to 3 of the accused firms have opted to settle, having withdrawn their appeals.

COMESA

It is also pivotal to note that on the 25th of February 2021, the COMESA Competition Commission (Commission) issued a cautionary note specifically pertaining to the consequences of forming barriers to trade.

The Commission made reference to Article 16 of the Regulations which prohibits “all agreements between undertakings, decisions by associations of undertakings and concerted practices which: (a) may affect trade between Member States; and (b) have as their object or effect the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition within the Common Market”.

The abovementioned contravention is evident in the case at hand, with the Commission going on to state that it “…will work closely with the national competition authorities in the Member States to ensure that offenders are detected, investigated and punished”. Furthermore, there is particular focus on “hard enforcement through screening, detection, investigation and punishment of offenders”.

The detrimental consequences arising from the conduct of these firms is not only prejudicial towards the customer due to the fact that price-fixing also excludes rival organizations that do not agree to the collusive setting of prices from competing in the same market. Therefore, the steps taken by the CAK and COMESA are paving the way to a healthy and competitive marketplace.

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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, 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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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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