React Cert Africa (RCA) Beyond 5 years of auditing and certifying growers

React Cert Africa (RCA) is a Kenyan certification body providing certification solutions to businesses across Africa using local expertise. The company is being chaperoned by Joyce Gema who has over 20 years’ experience in implementing and monitoring sustainable certification standards in agriculture, textiles and manufacturing sectors; having worked in over 14 countries in Africa. Buoyed with this competence, she set up RCA to provide local certification solutions at source to and market actors.
Joyce Gema the founder and Managing Director of React Cert Africa together with the company’s scheme manager and lead auditor Mr. Caleb Kiptoo had an exclusive chat with Hortfresh Journal about their 5 years’ journey and why it’s important for growers to be certified.

Congratulations on achieving 5 years it’s quite a landmark achievement. Tell us how has been the journey since you began operations?

Joyce Gema:It has been a remarkable experience. The idea to set up the company was first mooted in 2013 having previously worked in a verification body. The challenge was to set up a local certification body competing with the best in the global market. Sometime local SMES are shy to participate in markets that are dominated by international organizations. However, for us, this was a motivation not a constraint.

In 2013, we secured a grant of Sh. 3.2 million from Solidaridad an NGO, to meet some of the costs associated with setting up a certification body. The scheme of choice was UTZ as Solidaridad mainly works in coffee and the funding was tied to our participation in the coffee certification program. We came up with the management system and made an application to RVADutch Accreditation Council in Netherlands. The application was accepted; we trained auditors ready for takeoff as UTZ audit body because starting with a single scheme was the most sensible approach for a new organization.

Unfortunately, the Westgate mall terrorist attack happened just when we were about to undergo the ISO 17065:2012 accreditation audit which made the RvA management rescind their decision to work in Kenya. This was a big blow for us as we had already spent the startup capital preparing for accreditation against the UTZ scheme. We had to go back to the drawing board as no amount of risk-based planning would have prepared us for the impacts of this external factor on our ability to pull of the business. In 2014, we regrouped, dusted ourselves and went back to the drawing board. We had no capital but, the vision was not about to die because of financial limitations.

We decided to boot strap investment by financing the process, bit by bit from our internal resources, Prepared a business plan which took us two and a half years to raise the capital needed to restart the process. The accreditation body that we approached next was the South African National Accreditation Services (SANAS) which was not approved to offer accreditation against the UTZ scheme. We therefore choose to start with the GLOBALG.A.P scheme which meant reinventing our management system, recruiting and training a team of auditors with new skills sets and experience and payment of licensing fees and accreditation fees over and above these operational costs. We started off with the Fruits and Vegetables scope after conducting a market needs analysis.

In late 2016, we made application for accreditation and were audited the first quarter of 2017. Unfortunately, we failed on this first attempt as we had overlooked several important procedural steps that were a pre-requisite to the accreditation. The lesson for us here was that you cannot always foresee every eventuality on a first attempt. Something you just dive in, learn lessons and adjust as you go. An expensive lesson that was as, we had to again pay accreditation

With all that notwithstanding, we have been ISO 17065:2012, accredited since September 2017. What we would like to share is the fact that when you are bootstrapping a startup, the challenge is always that you needs to have enough time and capacity (knowledge, skills and competencies) to work through all the processes. Unfortunately, the level of skill needed to set up a certification body is very high and expensive to acquire. We could not afford to hire therefore we decided to learn and do it ourselves then. This equal having two full time jobs as you must work your regular job to raise the funds while also working overtime to set up the services. I would compare it to learning to self-representation in a complex legal matter without the requisite legal training.

The journey before 2017 is the most interesting because for business to succeed one must be persistent and full of grit. We consider grit as the most important quality to the success of any business. Most startups fail because the founders get knocked down several times and eventually lose the willpower to wake up and continue the journey. The ability to always rise, dust yourself and keep moving no matter the circumstances, because you believe enough in your dream is one of the most important ingredients that has seen our business celebrate its fifth anniversary. Notably, no one among friends and acquaintances thought starting a certification body is a good idea or that we could pull it off. We began by auditing 4 clients in 2017 and have consistently grown our client base.

What are some of the certifications React cert Africa is offering?

We have grown our portfolio from GLOBALG.A.P Fruits and Vegetables to Flowers and Ornamentals, GRASP, Food Safety Management System, Environmental Management System and Quality Management system. The ISO based standards are a new offering and we are in the process of finalizing the accreditation process, which requires us to have audited and certified at least 5 organizations per scheme before we are granted full accreditation. We also work with EHPEA in Ethiopia and KS 1758 in Kenya. Our plan is to become a one stop shop certification body, offering certification to over 10 schemes.

Why Certification and why does it exist?

Joyce Gema: Some people view certification as a non-tariff barrier to trade. While there may be justification for that kind of view, the purpose of certification is to meet the needs of communities across legal jurisdictions, trading amongst each other and not bound by the same national laws. Globalization as a force has brought people closer, we all live in jurisdictions that are governed by different laws but consumer products and services from across the globe. We consume services like social media, where supplier is not governed by the laws of the country where we reside. This means you cannot enforce your rights within your geographical boundaries against international actors and yet, you do need some kind of mechanism that assures you of how the supplier operates.

Certification services are a voluntary business to business or business to consumer mechanism that allows interaction by consumers or buyers with the company management systems to give them confidence and assurance on how goods or services are produced. This confidence enables global trade. If there was no system in place to provide assurance, how then would global trade grow and thrive between these crucial partners?

As companies source products further away from where their consumers, they need to have some sort of oversight as to know what is happening in those jurisdictions. It is not always that governments can issue a certificate guaranteeing that everything you are consuming is safe, ethical and moral.
Certification gives the market some sort of order and assurance as to how goods are produced and without that confidence we lose the ability to trade. It has evolved as a mechanism that bridges the gap that exists in the global trading system by creating an additional and sometime alternative trade governance mechanism to national laws and where they do not exist or are not enforced.

Mr. Caleb Kiptoo: Auditors implement complex and multidimensional criteria while undertaking their role as facilitators of compliance to different certification schemes. In some jurisdictions, consumers are tuned in and aware of challenges associated with social, environmental, climate and natural resources utilization while producing goods and services that they consume. Consumer campaigns, social media, mainstream media, researchers are but a few of the active stakeholders in consumer awareness campaigns. Standards and labels have evolved as mechanisms of demonstrating responsible business practices.

What would you say sets apart React Cert Africa from others?

Joyce Gema: We are local company, female founded, managed and led and that is what sets us apart. We take a strong gender lens in our work. Unfortunately, gender sometime is viewed quantitatively, by counting how many men or how many women. Gender is beyond that to the qualitative aspects of meaningful involvement and participation. We believe in transformative change, which eliminates barriers that constrain access to opportunities for both men and women. Anyone can be a gender champion. I have met men who are very strong gender champions and women who do not believe in equality and equity.

The most important investment that we continually make is in our auditing teams. To work as an auditor, you need to have a very high level of knowledge, skills and competencies. Industry knowledge and experience is particularly important, skills like interviewing, decision making, facilitation, root cause analysis and accompanying technical knowledge in key topics like integrated pest management, health and safety, hygiene, food safety among others. Auditors have to complete a set number of courses every year to maintain their status. Every scheme has a set of criteria that an auditor has to meet in order to remain relevant in the field.

How did you cope with Covid-19 situation?

Mr. Caleb Kiptoo: It is obvious that there were measures put in place by Governments and organizations to manage Covid-19. Audits are best conducted in situ which means travel restrictions had a significant impact on our business. Remote audits were adopted but the quality and competence to deliver high quality remote audits was limited as there was no prior experience of remote audits at the scale, we found ourselves. Thankfully, through the facilitation of bodies like FPEAK, KFC and the rest, we were able to navigate the landscape and continue to offer services largely through a hybrid of physical and remote audits. While we remain one of the small Certification bodies, we did respond by offering our clients a Covid discount to help them continue offering certified products.

What are your future plans?
We anticipate good tidings – to be a leading certification body in Africa. The continent is in our agenda and horizon and a multisectoral approach our tool for future growth.

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