Education ministry fails to crack down on uniforms cartels

The Education ministry has ignored the advice of Kenya’s competition watchdog to develop guidelines stopping school heads from forcing parents to buy uniforms from particular suppliers.

The guidelines are expected to dismantle cartels that have thrived on opaque arrangements with school administrators and drive down prices as the lucrative segment opens for competition.

Most school administrators demand that uniforms be bought at specific outlets, limiting choices for parents seeking bargain prices.

Besides helping to drive sales volumes, parents and insiders say, this strategy has been abused by some traders to charge exorbitant prices amid concern that some school administrators may be benefiting from the proceeds of the exaggerated costs.

The Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) says the Ministry of Education has failed to act on an advisory from the watchdog regarding the guidelines on procurement of uniforms in public schools.

The advisory was issued more than five years ago. Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha on Monday failed to respond to the Business Daily calls and messages over the issue by press time.

“The CAK investigated this matter and determined that it was not within its jurisdiction as per the provisions of the Competition Act No.12 of 2010 since schools are not deemed to be in trade,” said the CAK in response to the Business Daily queries.

“However, we noted that the practice had the potential of distorting forces of supply and demand from signalling the market price. We, therefore, advised the Ministry of Education to issue guidelines or policy directives to schools across the country regarding procurement of school uniforms without compromising quality.”

A spot check at several uniform outlets in Nairobi showed that most schools had issued admission letters with instructions on where to buy them. Some of the admission letters even had maps of the physical locations of the uniform outlets.

The supply of school uniform is a multi-billion shillings business as thousands of students join secondary schools every year.

Prof Magoha announced this month that the 1,225,502 candidates who sat the 2021 Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examinations will report to secondary schools beginning May 3.

Many parents of the continuing pupils are this week also expected to finalise shopping for uniforms as schools reopen this week.

Amid the mad rush to shop a parents’ lobby group said it had received many complaints from parents across the country concerned about skyrocketing prices and the quality of uniforms bought under the exclusive arrangements.

The National Association of Parents urged the Education Ministry to provide guidelines allowing parents to buy uniforms from any retailer to put an end to the school uniform supply monopolies.

“A parent should have choices and prices must be reasonable. Our parents must be protected against profiteering by rogue suppliers and school heads and management,” the lobby’s chairman, Nicholas Maiyo, told the Business Daily in an interview.

Some of the parents said they had to pay up to Sh1,500 extra per item of uniform in the shops designated by schools.

“Schools are preventing us from buying cheaper uniforms from any shop. We hope the authorities can intervene and make sure every parent is given the chance to shop around for affordable and quality uniforms,” said Elizabeth Ondichu, a mother of four in Nairobi.

The school uniform industry caters for millions of pupils from both private and government schools.

The rise of private academies, which often require parents to buy expensive, branded garments from one agreed supplier, has also increased the financial burden for many parents.

Mr Maiyo said one school told a parent to only source a trouser retailing at Sh1,500 in a city shop which the parent had sourced for Sh750 at the popular Gikomba market.

“At a time the government is moving to ensure the country has universal free primary and secondary education, it is painful to have cartels colluding to reap from us hapless parents,” said Esther Mumbi, a mother of three, while shopping in a city shop within Nairobi’s central business district.

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