This article is part of the dossier: Pushing for public procurement in Africa

By Alex Macbeth
Posted on Tuesday, 19 October 2021 18:59

An aerial view shows the central business district in Nigeria’s commercial capital of Lagos. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye/File Photo

As part of a new series on procurement in Africa, together with Open Contracting Partnership, we have profiled some of the pioneers pushing open data and participation in public contracting. In this first part of a two-part series, we feature some of the key figures advocating for a more transparent and participatory procurement ecosystem in South Africa, Nigeria, and Tanzania.

This is part 1 of a 2-part series

Even for people in countries where corruption has long been widespread, the revelations on the extent of fraud in emergency procurement in countries like Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, and South Africa have come as a shock. They triggered renewed commitments by leaders including from South Africa and Kenya to advance procurement reforms joining others who have commited to more transparency or are modernizing their public procurement systems through e-procurement.

Open contracting is a critical element to building a more just, inclusive and equitable economy. With an over-reliance on paper-based and outdated systems, opacity and a lack of information continue to undermine the efforts of activists, journalists, monitors and disruptors who continue to push for reforms and businesses who could benefit from a competitive marketplace.

The monitor: Zukiswa Kota (South Africa)

Zukiswa Kota is a Programme Head at the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM). The PSAM promotes social accountability in Africa with a particular focus on South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi.

“Meaningful reform in procurement has to be matched by public service reform,” Kota tells The Africa Report. “Both have been arguably slow, long-awaited processes,” adds Kota, citing delays to the 2020 Procurement Bill in South Africa as an example of the inertia holding back the procurement landscape in Africa’s largest economy. Corruption linked to emergency procurement procedures during the pandemic has added urgency to the need for reform.

“Some of the work we’ve championed has involved entrenching open government principles in the way departments respond to their mandates – including introducing open, transparent and responsive systems,” says Kota.  “For several years, we’ve contributed to the Open Government Partnership work [most recent National Action Plan in which we sought to include open contracting], the Open Budget Survey and entrenching accessible, transparent budget processes. This has been a major ‘win’ in the sense that it has shown not only the possibility of civil society–government partnerships, but also really made a difference in fiscal transparency reform.”

Open procurement reforms began in South Africa in 1995 after the fall of apartheid. The website Vulekamali – which publishes budget data related to various government departments – is one of civil society’s biggest successes to date, says Kota. Other important reforms include:

Major challenges remain, however.

One of the key issues is that opening up procurement represents a threat to institutionalised corruption within the establishment. “Procurement is by its nature a political beast,” says Kota. “This is likely a significant barrier all on its own and may serve to hinder meaningful progress at the expense of public funds, people’s lives and access to much needed public services. To some extent – recent revelations from the State Capture Commission of Enquiry as well as procurement corruption cases involving high ranking politicians and public officials is an indication that there are many who stand to benefit from slow or ineffective.”

The digital disruptor: Victor Vincent (Tanzania)

Victor Vincent, 30, is the founder of Zabuni, an app that links government and private sector contractors with suppliers throughout Tanzania.

Information about government procurement was previously spread across several platforms and hard to access. Zabuni fills the information gap by providing new suppliers with access to government and private sector tenders. More than 4,000 suppliers had registered with Zabuni as of late April 2021. That number has grown 50% in the last six months to more than 6,000 suppliers, according to Zabuni’s founder and CEO Vincent.

Since its inception in late 2019, Zabuni has published 8716 tenders. Most of these are in English; a handful are also in Swahili. As of 2021, suppliers pay a small “maintenance” membership fee, Vincent tells The Africa Report.

More than 650 procurement entities use or have used the Zabuni app to search for the right suppliers in the last two years. In 2020, the app started publishing Open Contracting Standard Data with support from Dutch foundation HIVOS.

The supplier: Cecilia Kavura (Tanzania)

Cecilia Kavura, 33, works for CK Safety Solutions, a company based in Dar es Salaam that supplies safety materials in real estate, manufacturing, oil and gas, and the mining and construction industries.

Cecilia has used digital tools like Zabuni to compete for tenders in her sector. “Zabuni has given me a platform where I can view and apply for different job contracts,” Kavura tells The Africa Report by email. She argues that technology has played a “pivotal role” in helping women integrate into the business and procurement landscapes in Tanzania.

While access opens, challenges remain. Kavura laments that procurement entities do not often provide feedback to suppliers. “Local banks are also absolutely not supportive of startups,” says Kavura.  “Usually they have very difficult requirements for financing. We usually get support from regional banks.”

The investigative journalists: Dataphyte (Nigeria)

Dataphyte’s investigations into corruption in the procurement landscape in Nigeria have forced government agencies to issue retractions and have been a foundation of the push for procurement reform in Nigeria. The Dataphyte editorial trust includes a lawyer, an economist, a human rights activist, a lecturer and the director of the Centre for Democracy and Development.

Since the inception of emergency procurement procedures in April 2021, Dataphyte has revealed several bombshell irregularities across a number of Nigerian procurement entities. One Dataphyte investigation revealed inflated prices and nebulous details in a contract to supply masks to a ministry. The Federal Ministry of Water Resources allegedly tampered with a published contract worth 325 million Naira (approximately US$850,000) on the NOCOPO website following an information request from Dataphyte, according to the latter. Another Dataphyte investigation reportedly found that more than 1,000 payments by state-affiliated organizations failed to provide a simple payment description, amounting to 173 billion Naira (approximately US$450 million) worth of payments between January and April 2020.

Alex Macbeth writes about global procurement for Open Contracting Partnership, a US-based organization that promotes open data and transparency in public procurement.