The sachet water business is growing in leaps and bounds but the issue of quality and regulation still remain unresolved. Maxwell Adombila Akalaare writes.
On a daily basis, 16-year-old Mary Azane criss-crosses vehicles, motorbikes and her colleague street hawkers and pedestrians on the Kwashieman stretch of the N1Highway in Accra, selling sachet water to a variety of road users.
She has been doing that for the past three years to cater for part of her expenses in school.
To Mary, a form two student of the St Luke Anglican Junior High School at Kwashieman, sachet water, popularly called pure water, has been a blessing.
“Because I sell it, I have been able to buy some books and dresses for myself and that reduces the burden on my parents,” she said.
Mary is one of the many young and grown up people across the country whom sachet water production has helped, by way of employment.
The sources of employment – the production, packaging, distribution, retailing and selling process – however hectic they might be, have helped cushion the burden of many while easing the rising unemployment burden on the country.
The water needs of many have also lessened.
Thanks to the 500 millilitre bagged sachet water, many people are now able to access and drink filtered and packaged water even in cars just by offering 10 Ghana pesewas in return for one.
The product has also grown many businesses and nurtured many more entrepreneurs, with some taking it as a stepping stone to venture into related areas such as commercial bottling and manufacturing of water dispensers for sale.
“Sachet water production is currently one of the biggest small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the country,” Mr Kofi Essel, Head of Inspectorate Department at the Food and Drugs Board (FDB), said in an interview.
These notwithstanding, issues of consumer safety and disposal of the sachet after drinking still remain unresolved.
Ever since sachet water was innovated to replace iced water, which was then packaged in plain oblong plastics for sale, many people have rushed into its production and distribution.
Unfortunately however, majority of such people have little or no knowledge and experience in the production of water on commercial quantities.
"Sachet water production is becoming more of pensioners' job," Mr Essel told the GRAPHIC BUSINESS.
"You see, because the job requires simple equipment such as water filter machines and source of water, people think they can easily go into it but that shouldn't be the case. Sachet water production goes beyond that," he said.
Although all sachet water producers are, by law, required to obtain and constantly renew operational certificates from the Ghana Standards Authority (GSA) and the FDB, majority of them have not lived up to that expectation, making it difficult for the two institutions to determine the quality or otherwise of their products.
“They rather hide and produce. Some people have this habit of turning their boy’s quarters into sachet water production factories and are producing only in the night.”
“Now, tell me, how do you expect FDB to trace these people,” Mr Essel asked, wrinkling his eye browns in apparent disappointment.
The Head of the Public Relations Department at the GSA, Mr Kofi Amposah-Bediako, said in an interview that such goods are only seen “when they are brought to the market. When that happens, we confiscate and destroy the water,” he added.
In 2011 for instance, over 100 sachet water production factories were closed down by a team of FDB and GSA officials for operating illegally.
And many more could have followed if the two institutions continued with the exercise.
To Mr Amposah-Bediako, however, his outfit and the FDB are doing their best under the current circumstances. But more still needed to be done, he admitted.
THE GHANAIAN PROBLEM
A sizeable number of the sachet water brands in the country, especially those in the hinterlands, are produced, distributed and consumed on the blind side of the GSA and the FDB – the institutions mandated to protect consumers against shoddy goods.
Such brands are normally without the GSA and FDB labels. The said labels, consisting of numbers and symbols, are meant to show approval of the product in question by the two.
Three of those ‘illegally produced’ sachet waters were seen by this reporter at Kantamanto, a slum in Accra and Nsawam. Their sachets had neither FDB nor Standards Authority labels.
Attempts to trace the sources failed as there were no contact numbers on the respective sachets. The sellers could not also help matters. They only pointed to kiosks and stores retailing a variety of sachet water in bags.
“In cases like these, what can you do,” Mr Amposah-Bediako asked in apparent loss of hope.
“You see, people are just not cooperative. Most of these products are produced by people who are known in their communities yet nobody is ready to volunteer information on their actions,” he said.
Beyond the hide and seek that has characterised the production and distribution of the sachet water country-wide, both the FDB and GSA officials said people also needed to be more health conscious with regards to ‘pure water’ consumption.
“Ghanaians are not health conscious. If we were, we would have stopped drinking water that is not approved by the authority and if we do that, producers will have no option than to stop,” Mr Amposah-Bediako said.
Early last year, the country awoke to news of a cholera outbreak in the national capital, Accra. That was unprecedented, given that Ghana is thought to have come of age to be attacked by diseases emanating from improper hygienic conditions.
But it happened. As at the middle of 2012, the outbreak had spread nation-wide, claiming over 60 lives and threatening over 4,000 more people, according to reports from the Ghana Health Service at the time.
Many health officers, including the Public Health Director of the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA), blamed the outbreak partly on the production and sale of pure water.
“Nobody knows how wholesome their source of water is. We don’t also know the health status of the producers and the sellers and that is a problem,” the Director, Dr Simpson Boateng, said in a recent interview.
The department sometimes undertakes unannounced visits to sachet water production sites and according to Dr Boateng, “there are interesting stories from such visits.”
“Some of these sachet waters are produced under very unhygienic conditions” he stressed, declining to give details.
He also faulted sachet water vendors, including hawkers like Mary, for helping spread unwholesome water that results in cholera outbreaks.
“The vendors expose the water to several unhygienic conditions. When they visit the toilet or urinal, do they wash their hands before using their bare hands to give the water to customers,” he asked.
Although Mary, the sachet water hawker at Kwashieman, said
she washes her hands with soap and water after visiting the toilet and urinal,
she failed to show where she stored the soap and water while she sold the water.
When pressed harder, she pointed to her house, about 100 meters from the street, as the place she washes her hands at.
BEST QUALITY CHECK
The FDB and the Standards Authority are overwhelmed as far as the regulation of sachet water production is concerned and their officials, Mr Essel and Amposah-Bediako admitted to that.
But while they struggle to bring sanity into the business, the two are also calling for a conscious effort from the populace towards their individual health needs.
“If you don’t patronise these sub-standard waters, they won’t produce again. In fact, the best quality check is boycott by consumers,” Mr Amposah-Bediako said.
Until that best quality check is implemented by all, many sub-standard sachet water factories will spring up and flourish to the detriment of people’s health.
This investigation was sponsored by Programme For African Investigation Reporting ( PAIR)
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