A whistle-blower has petitioned the Inspectorate of Government (IG) to investigate how two foreign firms won deals to supply, install and maintain solar energy in 89 secondary schools countrywide.
The controversy revolves around the bidding process handled by the contracts committee of the ministry of Education and Sports, whose decision to award the $1.4m (Shs 5.2 billion) deal to a British company Farmco International Limited, and Chinese company Shenzhen Topray Solar Company Limited, is being challenged.
Incidentally, the nine-month project which was due to commence in September 2019 under the Energy for Rural Transformation (ERT) project phase III is now four months behind schedule and the row is threatening to jeopardise its targeted completion in December 2020.
The World Bank is funding the projects with the objective of increasing access to electricity in the rural areas of Uganda. According to the petition seen by The Observer, the whistle-blower, who describes himself as a concerned civil servant in the ministry of Education, accuses the contract committee of deliberately frustrating local companies at the expense of questionable foreign firms.
“There was clear corruption and collusion between some members of the committee to award the tenders to foreign firms because they had pocketed bribes of Shs 80 million,” reads part of the petition.
“Shenzhen Topray Solar Company Limited was not even registered in Uganda when it purportedly won the bid because findings from the Uganda Registration Services Bureau (URSB) indicate the company was registered on March 29 and obtained a licence on April 12, two days after the bid submission date.”
Whereas Shenzhen Topray Solar Company Limited indeed exists in China, when contacted, the company was unaware that it had submitted & won a bid in Uganda to install solar panels in Ugandan schools.
Interviewed for a comment, Munira Ali, the IG spokesperson, said she hasn’t seen the petition but promised to crosscheck. The petition contains copies of the bidding process, which show that seven firms expressed interest and they include Sinosolar International Uganda Limited, Shenzhen Topray Solar Company Limited, Farmco International Limited and K-Solutions Limited. Others are CAA Communications and Accessories International, Davis and Shirtliff International Limited and SolarNow Services Uganda Limited.
In a September 13, 2019 communication by Yusuf Mukoka, the secretary of the contracts committee, he informed the bidders that Farmco and Shenzhen had the best bids for lots 1 and 2 respectively. Farmco’s bid of $678,013 was the best to supply, install and maintain solar energy packages to 44 schools in the regions covering eastern Uganda through the north, to West Nile.
Meanwhile, Shenzhen’s $720,481 bid was declared the best to do the same work in 45 schools in central, western and south-western Uganda. However, according to documents tendered by the whistle-blower, Ugandan firms had provided lower bids but had been unfairly eliminated on a purported technicality.
For instance, K-Solutions claimed to have the lowest bids for both lots after submitting bids of $528,929 and $628,801 for the two lots respectively. Federico Querio, the World Bank task team leader, promised to follow up the matter in a letter dated October 2, 2019.
In the ministry’s reply, Francis Ojambo Nakomolo, who wrote on behalf of the permanent secretary, noted that the ministry’s Evaluation Committee increased K-Solutions’ two bids by $213,000 to cover for spare parts, maintenance and servicing of the solar equipment, thereby ruling the company out as the best bidder.
Not satisfied, K-Solutions sought redress from First Lady Janet Museveni, the minister of Education and Sports. “The figures presented by ministry officials are fictitious and intended to justify awarding the bid to higher-priced foreign firms,” reads part of the petition dated December 11.
The Observer could not reach out to K-Solution officials but a source in the ministry intimated that Alex Kakooza, the permanent secretary, has promised to revaluate the matter before coming up with a final decision.
It remains to be seen whether the minister of Education and Sports will step into the matter but if recent steps in the ministry are anything to go by, the minister may institute an investigation.
In a similar scenario in 2018, President Museveni directed the sacking of several senior ministry of Education officials implicated in procurement scandals arising from corruption and fictitious procurements, among others.
This came on the backdrop of the ministry’s contracts committee decision to frustrate local companies by setting standards that can only be met by foreign firms such as the multi-billion deal to purchase furniture for schools across the country, in which the committee was accused of getting kickbacks in return for awarding the contract to a foreign firm.
The president also directed the disbandment of the ministry’s Contracts Committee for mishandling the process for procuring furniture for selected primary schools.
Those sacked include Daniel Nkaada, the ministry’s former commissioner for basic education, Philly Mpaata, a quantity surveyor with Uganda Teacher and School Effectiveness Project (UTSEP), William Hasoho, a procurement specialist at UTSEP, and Thaddeus Lugolobi. Others were Ambrose Ruyoka, a ministry official attached to the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) project and Gillian Okello.
Meanwhile, members of the ministry’s contracts committee which the president ordered to be disbanded were Ismail Mulindwa, the commissioner in charge of private schools (chairperson), Alfred Kyaka, an assistant commissioner in charge of secondary education, Claudia Arwako, Cuthbert Muyala and Faith Nyamwenge.
While sacking the officials, Museveni noted: “persistent lack of seriousness by elements in the public service is a major hindrance to efforts to empower Ugandans…The award of all tenders under the said procurement to foreign firms upon eliminating our local enterprises from the process was a blatant violation of the government’s own ‘Buy Ugandan Build Uganda (Bubu)’ policy and, therefore, unacceptable.”