Lawrena Okoro is the director, accreditation at the Nigeria National Accreditation Service (NiNAS). In this interview with NKECHI ISAAC, she explains why Nigeria is being used as a dumping ground for toxic, substandard electronics and gadgets.
Recently, a government institution raised the alarm that Nigeria has become a dumping ground for substandard, toxic products like electronics and gadgets, what do you think can be done to address such situations?
You know accreditation is an enabler. For the telecom industry what is needed is a product accreditation scheme, where the products are evaluated and accredited. When such products come in NiNAS would not evaluate the products itself but certification bodies would certify the product and ensure they are not just good but safe.
You now know you can have a lot of good products with hazards associated with it either during or after its lifespan. So, the product certification bodies would have to certify the products good and safe. NiNAS would now accredit those certification bodies. The third link that’ll complete the circle is that the activities of NiNAS are evaluated by the international accreditation community through what is called a peer evaluation process, that’s what completes the circle. So, by that evaluation they also check what we do at NNAS, we also check what the product certification bodies do, while the check us to ensure we’re also conforming to standard so a full circle of confidence is built.
The truth is that for countries that have implemented accreditation the moment it becomes popular substandard products disappear because they know they would not pass through the test within the system. It is thriving because accreditation in Nigeria is undersubscribed. So, as soon as accreditation gains acceptance and becomes popular you will notice they will start looking for another dumping ground.
They know the countries where systems are working because you ask yourself the question why China that manufactures for America, why are they not sending such toxic products there. It is because it will not pass through their system. By the time it goes through certification the product would be identified as unsafe.
What is NiNAS and what exactly is its mandate?
NINAS is Nigeria National Accreditation Service. What we do is to offer accreditation service to a group of institutions that do the work we collectively describe as conformity assessment bodies. They can be in the form of laboratory, personnel certification body or a product certification body. These requirements are not locally done requirements but are internationally accepted requirements. We know them as international standards developed by International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
Once in a while we also have sector specific standards coming together to agree on the specific standards they use which can actually also be national or industrial standards, eg we have the food safety standards. So, what we do is to ensure and evaluate the certification of these conformity assessment bodies to be able to determine whether the service they offer meets the requirements as defined by their specific internationally recognized standards. The standards vary according to the work they do. For the laboratory, we have different standards depending on whether it is a medical laboratory, texting or calibration laboratory.
We also have other types of laboratories that have their specific standards like the proficiency texting laboratories or those that also manufacture certified reference materials. So, their standards vary, and it is developed by ISO. What we do is to ensure that these institutions are adhering to the international standards.
Why is your area of concentration standards?
You see these standards are globally accepted standards. So, when you meet the requirements of these standards it builds confidence in the global community to accept the work you do, be it in the laboratory, personnel or product certification. So, it gains global acceptance. That’s the science or rationale behind accreditation so that you have a product or service accredited once and accepted globally.
What makes NINAS different from other accreditation organizations?
What is different about the work NINAS is doing is that for those agencies, they do their specific areas. They just look at what concerns them, for instance, the recent building collapse in Lagos. Now, COREN will ensure that the engineer is certified, the Nigerian Institute of Builders will look at the builders, whether they meet their specific requirements or not, those for architects would check whether they meet their requirements and certify them as such but what accreditation would do is to look at the architect, builder, engineer and even the cement product used. It is cross-cutting assessment of every input into the system. While the other agencies check to ensure you’ve met their specific requirements, we, however, go above the requirements to check whether you are competent to do the work. So, the missing link now is that ability to demonstrate that I have the requirement and I am also competent.
Accreditation is more like a system thing, it looks through the input, processes, the output, it even looks through how the output is communicated to ensure you are competent to perform that specific task as defined by the accreditation scheme which you have been used to assess because the schemes vary.
Does this make NiNAS the regulator of accreditation agencies in Nigeria?
The beauty of accreditation is that it is a voluntary scheme. It is you setting up a system you feel is performing optimally and calling in a third body to look at it in an impartial way, examine it and determine if you are competent or not. Now regulation is an enforcement whereby if you do not meet a requirement there may be certain penalties that it attracts. Now accreditation does not attract penalty and you’ll agree with me that people perform better when they are allowed to decide on their own to do things right rather than when they’re being forced to do so. When an organization decides to self-regulate by ensuring they are doing things right it is a much more form of effective regulation.
Accreditation is basically driven by a multi-sectoral response. The first driver is that consumers desire to get quality or to get the best out of whatever they’re paying for. Consumers would now use accreditation to be able to determine whether a particular product or service conforms to standard as defined. The second driver is that because of accreditation consumers’ health and safety are assured because accreditation is a system wide thing. It is not just about acquiring thing rather it takes you through a process where checks and balances are being introduced into the system. A system is left better than the way it was before accreditation. It assures the safety of the customers and the health of the consumers.
It also assures greater job satisfaction for the person going through accreditation in the sense that employees are exposed to more capacity building prior to accreditation which leads to better job satisfaction. Beyond that we also look at the terms of business to ensure quality delivery by adding a business edge to it. With accreditation it is easy for consumers to identify it, seek for it and access it because once you are accredited your name is in a global data base and anybody looking for that product or service anywhere in the world or Nigeria knows that they’ll get the information for accredited service once they click on NiNAS site.
Is NiNAS working in collaboration with any other agency?
NiNAS is actually the product of a project and that project was funded by the European Union and the government of Nigeria. It was a project driven by a multiple stakeholder base and the initial onset of NiNAS was started by an accreditation steering committee comprising of key stakeholders. So, there’s a stakeholder base from conceptualization but it is not enough. We’re working beyond that now to reach out to government agencies, private institutions and even the media because people need to understand the concept of accreditation from the concept of trade and most people often misinterpret accreditation feeling they only need it when they’re in international trade. It is feasible even within the economy.
What will the Federal Government do to ensure quality service delivery in MDAs through certification?
The beauty of accreditation and certification is that it is not rocket science. Other countries have used it as a vehicle to deliver quality and not just quality but safe products and services to the people. So, I would encourage government to adopt accreditation as an enabler to what is currently being done by regulation because regulation alone would not deliver quality. We require accreditation to support regulation to be able to deliver quality goods and services to the people of Nigeria.
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