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.

By Andreas Stargard

Upon receiving allegations, in 2018, of cartel-like practices among paint manufacturers and undisclosed distributors, the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) launched an investigation into the companies suspected of breaching competition rules. These investigations later uncovered that four firms, namely: Crown Paints, Basco Products Limited, Kansai Plascon and Galaxy Paints were deemed guilty of collusion and price-fixing, subjecting the purchasers to unreasonably high prices for various paint brands. The CAK has since revealed its findings to the Kenyan Parliament.

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 had been buying these products at artificially inflated prices. This is particularly significant given that Crown Paints is listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange and is a heavyweight in the local Kenyan paints market, with further regional subsidiaries in Uganda and Tanzania (all COMESA member states).

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. The CAK alleges that these are all anti-competitive behaviors that are to the detriment of the consumer as well as other, outside competitors.”

In its Annual Report to Parliament, the CAK noted: “The investigations with respect to three other paint manufacturers and distributors were concluded in July 2019 with the Authority making a preliminary finding that the parties were involved in an anti-competitive agreement on prices, discount structure and transport charges.”

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 a penalty amount of Sh20.799 million. The company further agreed to abstain from committing any similar breaches in the future. While the other subject companies initially appealed the decision handed down by the CAK, AfricanAntitrust.com editorial 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 (CCC) issued a cautionary note specifically pertaining to the consequences of forming artificial barriers to free trade, such as collusive practices and other horizontal agreements hindering competition.

The CCC — in its recent bid to become a fully-fledged competition enforcement agency that investigates not only merger activity (as it had done primarily so far) but also pursues hard-core antitrust offences such as cartels — made reference to Article 16 of the Regulations, prohibiting “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 Kansai paint allegations described above would fit the bill, but we shall see what cartel matters the CCC will pursue going forward, and in which industry segments… The CCC has stated 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”.

Akzo rejects CCC notification request, claims no ‘failure-to-file’ in paint deal

Paint giant goes on offensive against COMESA request for retroactive merger filing

By AAT Editors

As AAT first reported here on Sept. 26, the COMESA Competition Commission has launched its first failure-to-file investigation into an M&A transaction (here, likely, a licensing deal), specifically involving Dutch commercial paint giant AkzoNobel and paint brand “Sadolin“.

sadolin.jpgToday’s news, reported in local Ugandan media, is that AkzoNobel’s Director for Decorative Paints in Sub-Saharan Africa, Johann Smidt, made strong comments at the “relaunch” of Sadolin Uganda, claiming that Akzo’s reassignment of the Sadolin brand name & distribution network to Crown Paints East Africa falls outside the CCC’s purview.”  This sentiment was echoed by Crown’s CEO, Rakesh Rao, saying that “[w]e do not have a merger going on; we are a fully independent plant, so COMESA does not come into the picture at all.

Competition lawyers caution that, on occasion, a business person’s notion of what constitutes a “notifiable transaction” can be at odds with the legal definition thereof, says Andreas Stargard,  an antitrust attorney with Primerio Ltd.

“Whilst they may not be a classic ‘merger’ or ‘acquisition’ in the eyes of the business people, certain types of exclusive licensing agreements or even patent or other IP [intellectual property] assignments may very well fall within the purview of competition regulators, including the COMESA Comp Com.,” said Stargard.

The facts surrounding the transaction itself are by all accounts, fairly confounding.  As best as one can interpret the media reports, the former AkzoNobel license agreement was one with an entity called “Sadolin East Africa” (SEA).  However, upon the purchase of SEA by Japanese company Kansai Plascon (AKA “Plascon Uganda” in the region), Akzo cancelled the agreement and has now entered into a new replacement license with Crown Paints (AKA Regal Paints).  It is the cancellation and reassignment that, according to two letters sent by the CCC on September 19th and 25th, requesting that the companies make retroactive merger-notification filings to bring them into belated compliance with the COMESA merger regime.

For now, we know that Akzo remains defiant (presumably basing its critical position on advice of legal counsel), with its local director stating that “whatever we have done to date has been within the laws of this country and this region”.

While some of Akzo’s statements were presumably vetted by antitrust counsel, others are at odds with a “good” antitrust story and appear to be less-carefully made proclamations: Akzo has said that “we believe that we are going to improve competition because we have a new player who is introducing a new product and an existing player, who is Sadolin and we will continue to be here,” yet its director also noted “that the war of words between Sadolin and Plascon had eaten into their market share and that this had influenced their quick agreement with Crown paints”.

As attorney Stargard observes, “it is usually not considered to be an effective antitrust defence to claim that a competitor has ‘eaten into your market share’, and that your actions that are now under investigation were motivated by said competition…”