Resale Price Maintenance in COMESA?

Second Non-Merger Investigation Opened by COMESA Enforcer

Coca-Cola’s Africa operations — recently sold in a majority shareholder exit in late 2016 by Anheuser-Busch InBev (which owned 54.5%) — were due for a major overhaul of the company’s long-term strategic plan to grow its market presence across Africa.  Yet, it is now under investigation for restrictive trade practices by the COMESA Competition Commission (“CCC”).

This is a first, of sorts: After the CCC’s original non-merger investigation into exclusive marketing practices of broadcasting rights and sponsorship agreements in relation to football tournaments (AAT reported here) ended — or hasn’t ended — with something of a thud (nothing having been reported by way of conclusion thereof), we and the world’s largest soft drink manufacturer are bracing ourselves for the outcome, if any, of the latest COMESA salvo delivered by the CCC to prove its worth to its Board.  (We surmise so as this latest, second-ever, non-merger investigation may have been prompted at least in part by the fact that the CCC’s budget was recently slashed by the regional body, and that the Commission wishes to reestablish itself in the eyes of the COMESA directorate as a worthwhile agency to fund and to bolster).

The COMESA “restrictive practices” investigation into Coca-Cola’s distribution agreements may come on the heels of its (announced, yet likely neither begun nor concluded) market enquiry into the grocery retail sector, similar to comparable market-wide investigations undertaken in Kenya and South Africa; moreover, the South African Competition Commission has likewise undertaken past investigations into restrictive vertical distribution practices engaged in by Coca-Cola in South Africa.

Actual or would-be soft drink competitors may have also brought claims of foreclosure to the CCC’s attention — likely alleging resale price maintenance, as well as possibly lack of access to key distributors due to Coca-Cola’s exclusive or quasi-exclusive contracts and the like.  According to the official COMESA Notice, the agency is investigating allegations against The Coca-Cola Company’s African subsidiary (Coca-Cola Africa (Proprietary) Limited) in relation to its distribution agreements with downstream entities in Ethiopia and Comoros, both of which are COMESA member states, albeit historically rather inactive when it comes to competition-law enforcement.

According to the antitrust-specialist publication Global Competition Review, the CCC has stated that Coca-Cola’s alleged restrictive conduct worked as planned only rarely in practice.  Yet, the agency’s spokesperson noted that the risk of anti-competitive effects remained real: “Coca-Cola is dominant in these countries, it is important that they do not abuse that dominance through distribution agreements which frustrate competition in the relevant markets”, the spokesperson said, according to GCR‘s reporting.  The magazine also quoted Pr1merio antitrust lawyer Andreas Stargard as saying that the CCC can issue injunctions and impose fines of up to 10% of Coca-Cola’s turnover in the common market for the year prior to the conduct.

Andreas Stargard

Andreas Stargard

Stargard tells AAT further that “[a]ny agreement contravening Article 16 of the COMESA Regulations is automatically void.  In addition, while the CCC is breaking new ground here (as it has not yet successfully brought any non-merger investigation to conclusion to date), the applicable Regulations foresee not only injunctive relief (cease-and-desist orders and conduct-based injunctions forcing the party to ‘take whatever action the Commission deems necessary to remove and/or diminish the effect of the illegal conduct’) but also fines, as cited above.  However, no such fine has yet been imposed in any anti-competitive conduct investigation by the CCC.”

He continues: “Under the COMESA Competition Regulations, the agency normally has an initial ‘consultative’ time period of 30-45 days to evaluate whether or not to launch a full-fledged investigation.  This period may include meetings with the concerned party or parties, any complainant, or other stakeholders.  Thereafter, if the Commission votes to open an investigation, the latter must be concluded within 180 days from the date of receipt of the request for the investigation, if it was brought by a complainant.  Here, the official Notice provides that an investigation was in fact opened, meaning the clock has begun ticking.”

Interested stakeholders have until February 28, 2018 to issue comments.

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Namibia Competition Commission: New Franchise Laws to Address Anti-Competitive Concerns

By AAT Senior Contributor, Michael-James Currie

The CEO of the Namibian Competition Commission (NCC), Mr. Mihe Gaomab II, recently announced that the NCC has made submissions to the Minister of Trade and Industry in relation to proposed legislation which will regulate franchise models in Namibia.

Currently, there is no specific ‘franchise law’ in Namibia and moreover, franchisees are not required to apply to the Minister of Trade and Industry for registration of an ‘approval’ licences. Accordingly, there is minimal regulatory oversight in respect of franchise models.

While recognising the benefits of franchise models, the NCC is, however, concerned that there are a number of franchises in Namibia which may be anti-competitive in that the franchisor-franchisee relationship creates certain barriers to entry.

The NCC has specifically identified the practice, by way of an example, whereby certain franchisors deliberately ensure that there is a lack of competition between franchisees in the downstream market. The rationale behind this commercial strategy is allegedly so that the franchisor may extract greater royalties or franchise fees from the respective franchisees, as the franchisee is assured of a lack of competition.

The NCC views this practice as well as a various similar practices as potentially anti-competitive as the structure of certain franchise models may result in collusion between franchisees.

Unlike a number of jurisdictions, including South Africa, however, collusive conduct is not prohibited per se and a franchise agreement or model will, therefore, only amount to a contravention of the Namibia Competition Act if there is (or likely to be) an anti-competitive effect which cannot be justified or outweighed by other pro-competitive or efficiency arguments (i.e. rule of reason arguments).

The rule of reason analysis also extends to ‘minimum resale price maintenance’ (MRPM) under Namibian competition law. Again, unlike the position in South Africa, MRPM is not a per se prohibition (i.e. there is rule of reason defence available to a respondent). MRPM in terms of the South African Competition Act is a controversial topic as in many instances, the very success of a franchise model is dependent on uniformity in pricing across all franchisees. Furthermore, issues such as protecting brand reputation are also generally acceptable commercial practices which may amount to a contravention due to the strict application of the MRPM provisions under South African law.

In Namibia, franchisors therefore have somewhat more flexibility when recommending minimum resale prices than their South African counterparts. It should be noted, however, that the NCC is monitoring franchise models closely to ensure that franchisors do not overstep the mark by implementing a franchise model which has as its object or effect, the lessening of competition in the market.

CCC Begins Conduct Enforcement & Activates Its Exemption Regime for Potentially Anti-Competitive Agreements

Parties Start Discussing Business Practices with COMESA’s CCC

As AAT reported recently — see “Growing Pains: From One-Trick Pony to Full-Fledged Enforcer?” — the COMESA Competition Commission (CCC) has begun to move from being a pure merger-control administrator to becoming a full-fledged antitrust enforcer.  The CCC issued a Notice calling on firms to notify the CCC of any agreements (both historic and forward-looking) that may be anti-competitive, for the purpose of having such agreements ‘authorised’ or ‘exempted’ under Article 20 of the COMESA Competition Regulations.  (More details on that regime are in our June article, referenced above.)

Eveready products (sample)

Eveready products (sample)

AAT has now learned that several companies have taken the agency up on its Exemption proposal: Andreas Stargard, a competition practitioner with Primerio Ltd. observes that the CCC’s announced “leniency ‘window’ to incentivise firms to come forward and obtain an exemption” has closed at this point in time, although he expressed doubt that the relatively short one-month period was sufficient and will likely be extended.  Says Stargard: “We are seeing several parties, both global & local companies, who are beginning to take the CCC’s non-merger enforcement seriously.  These undertakings are considering to obtain advance clearance of their business practices under the Commission’s Notice procedure.”  One such example, he adds, is Kenya’s financially embattled Eveready East Africa: it has reportedly sought CCC approval of its agreements with international manufacturers for the importation and distribution within the COMESA common market of their diverse products, ranging from batteries to fountain pens to CloroCOMESA old flag colorx-brand chemicals.  The Commission has invited “general public and stakeholders” for comments according to its formal statement.

In light of these developments, Stargard advises that:
“multi-national firms operating within COMESA or jointly with a COMESA-based importer or other domestic business partner should consider engaging counsel to evaluate their practices, and if they may fall within Article 16 of the Regulations, consider approaching the CCC for an authorisation letter.”

 

Mobile phone provider loses antitrust appeal

malawi

 

 

Mobile phone provider loses antitrust appeal

Airtel Malawi Limited, a company incorporated under the Companies Act, engaged in the provisions of mobile phone and telecommunication services in Malawi has lost its appeal against the decision of the Competition and Fair Trading Commission regarding its application for authorisation of an exclusive distribution arrangement.

In a letter dated 28 May 2013, Airtel applied to the commission for the authorisation of an exclusive dealership agreement with its distributors in respect of the sale of its recharge vouchers and other products. This application is in line with section 44 of the Competition and Fair Trading Act Cap 48:09 of the Laws of Malawi.

Due to the fact that Airtel’s exclusive dealership agreement with its distributors contained a clause to ensure that the Distribution Sales Accountants are employed exclusively to undertake Airtel’s sales activities, the Commission refused its approval. The Commission provided its reasoning in a letter to Airtel dated 1st August 2013, specifically stating that the clause “would negatively affect competition in the distribution of mobile products particularly in rural areas.”

Airtel filed an appeal at the High Court Commercial Division against the Commssion’s order that required the company to remove or amend the clause in issue. Airtel submits that the Commission cannot reasonably expect it to appoint Distributor Sales Accountants who will be engaged in accounting for the sales of Airtel’s competitiors in the market.

Delivering his ruling on the 10th of February 2013, Justice Mtambo upheld the decision of the commission and found the justification for the rejection of Airtel’s application for the approval of distributorship agreement to be reasonable. Justice Mtambo went further and stated that, “it is after all the Appellant who is attempting to regulate the business affairs and conduct of its distributors who are independent businesspersons just because the Appellant has dominance on the market.”

 

The court also ruled that it was within the mandate of the Competition and Fair Trading Commission to require companies that use exclusive distribution arrangements in the distribution of their products or services to amend their standard agreements.