The Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Handicrafts is in charge of the production of millions of masks ordered by the State for the population. To date, there is no written record of any call for tenders relating to this juicy market, while all the parties involved insist on remaining silent.

What was the amount allocated for the protection masks’ production? What was the actual unit price paid by the State to the free trade companies? How were these companies selected among others and why? These are all crucial questions that remain hopelessly unanswered to this day. And for good reason, a total opacity surrounds this juicy market of masks production ordered by the State and intended for the population and the management of which was entrusted to the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Handicraft (Ministère de l’Industrie, du Commerce et de l’Artisanat -MICA).

“The coronavirus pandemic is under control”, the President of the Republic, Andry Rajoelina, simply declared during his meeting with journalists and some international personalities at the Iavoloha palace, on the night of 31 May 2020, before adding that “the majority of the population of Antananarivo have respected the instructions, in particular concerning mask wearing”. But the Head of State remained silent on the insistent appeals of civil society and ordinary citizens who are voicing their discontent with the instructions and organizations during this health crisis that the country is going through, and more specifically on the lack of transparency. We therefore decided to investigate the mask market in an attempt to provide answers to these questions and thus enlighten public opinion.

Throughout our investigations, no trace of any formal public offer for mask production was found, either at the level of MICA or at the level of the free trade companies from which the State awarded an order for 5 million masks to be distributed to the population. No tender for this contract was also posted, as required by law, either at the ministry’s headquarters in Ambohidahy or on its website Two emails have been sent to the communication direction of this department to obtain explanations but no response has been received so far. Why is this? The answer to this question lies with them.

The Government ordered masks from five free trade companies based in Madagascar. These include Aquarelle and Topic Knits, both members of the Ciel Textile Madagascar group, Akanjo, and Socota Garment Limited. During a meeting on 29 May 2020, an official from one of these companies stressed, on condition of anonymity, that they had never had access to this public tender.

“We were contacted directly by the GEFP (Groupement des Entreprises Franches et Partenaires) who told us that the State needed our services to produce masks for the Malagasy population. We accepted in order to make our contribution to limiting the virus’ spread,” the source argues.

Nadia Chorfi, who is in charge of another company, echoed this view and also passed the ball back to the employers’ organisation.

It is best if you get the details of the information on this contract from the GEFP. We were offered the same conditions as the other companies. We were contacted and accepted the offer to help the Malagasy population and the Government to stop the virus from spreading, while at the same time keeping our business running without having to fire employees”, she said on the sidelines of a meeting on 29 May.

For its part, however, the GEFP is also stubbornly silent, especially regarding the role it played in the process. Our numerous emails and phone calls went unanswered. Why is that? No one has the answer either.

We were able to gather some information from certain companies, but it is difficult to cross-check without official versions. For Socota Garment limited Antsirabe, for example, an official revealed that 400,000 masks were produced on behalf of the Malagasy Government, represented by MICA.

“As with all the other duty-free companies that responded to the Malagasy Government’s call for tenders, the production of a mask conforming to international standards, including the CHU-Grenoble certificate, costs MGA 1,500. On 3 May 2020, the last delivery of orders was made to Ambohidahy, the headquarters of the Ministry. Regarding the State’ payment of our service, it is important to mention that we were paid 50% of our invoice upon receipt of the order and 50% upon completion of the production. For the company Socota, the transfer was made to our account on 26 May 2020. This is to explain to you that the agreement with the State was clear,” he concluded.

The Minister upholds the existence of a call for tenders

Obviously, the official version supports the existence of a call for tender for the production of these millions of masks. It was on the sidelines of a meeting with the press in Moramanga on 19 May 2020 that the Minister of Trade, Industry and Handicrafts, Lantosoa Rakotomalala, affirmed that this document did exist and that a call for expressions of interest was launched among free trade companies.

“The information that a private deal was made between the State and the mask production companies is false. The tender process has been completed,” she said.

On that day, however, the journalists were not able to see in person the existence of the famous documents.

“In the context of the health emergency, the ministry has the right to proceed with a direct contract, which means that the contract is awarded without any competition. This does not necessarily mean that there is corruption, if the size and amount of the contract are respected according to the public procurement code,” Rhega Rakotonirina, an administrative judge, explains.

With regard to the choice of free trade companies to the detriment of Malagasy companies, Lantosoa Rakotomalala also refutes the accusations.

“We awarded contracts to small and medium-sized enterprises run by Malagasy people. As there was a large demand, millions of units for the State, it was necessary to call on the free companies. Let’s not forget that this operation is as much a support for textile companies as for Malagasy employees in this sector. After tourism, textiles is the sector most severely affected by the impacts of covid-19 in the world,” she explains.

The budget amount is unknown

At present, there are no official figures on the actual budget allocated to the fight against Covid-19. In addition to the costs for mask production, the costs for the relevant ministries and for all actors in the special committee to combat the spreading of the virus are also shrouded in persistent vagueness.

No information filtered through, either at the level of the ministry responsible or at the level of the Operational Command Centre (Centre de Commandement Opérationnel – CCO) in Ivato, where we carried out our investigations. Even Colonel Faly Aritiana Fabien, who coordinates projects within the National Office for Risk and Disaster Management (Bureau National de Gestion des Risques et des Catastrophes – BNGRC), and who is also the head of the Ivato CCO and representative of the BNGRC’s Director General, was not in a position to provide this information when we spoke to him on 20 May.

“All we can say is that part of the CCO’s general budget was used by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Handicrafts to finance the masks’ production. This is in addition to the 5 million masks ordered by the State and paid for. But it is important to point out that benefactors have also made donations that they deposited directly at the Ivato CCO headquarters,” he replied.

Dr Sahondrarimalala Marie Michelle, the current Minister of National Education, confirms these statements, when she was still Director of Legal Affairs at the Presidency of the Republic.

“Mask production is included in the CCO’s working budget. As far as I know, about twenty companies have responded to the call from the Ministry of Trade, which is primarily accountable. I can’t give details, because each institution is responsible for the mission it has been given. All I can say is that part of the funding from the partners dedicated to making the CCO operational was devoted to mask production. I cannot say and I do not know the amount of these contracts for the production of masks. Nevertheless, by a simple calculation, we can see that a mask cost MGA 1,500”, according to her explanations, as the only official who was able to speak on behalf of this institution on the subject of the coronavirus.

In short, there is no reliable and workable information on the financing of mask production.

Doubts and suspicions around the distribution of the masks

Apart from questions about the market for the production of the masks, their distribution is another issue. Five million of them were ordered but a large part of the Malagasy population has never seen any of them. Where did these State-funded masks go? Among the population, it is clear that everyone was and is obliged to buy his or her own mask. Even the producing companies, knowing the quantity they had produced, are still wondering: but how was the distribution organized ?

This led one of the most important local textile entrepreneurs to express his apprehension about the way MICA works. “The Ministry summoned us to find out our production rate and asked that all production be centralized in its premises before distribution or export. They talked about producing masks with the Madagascar brand. Did the ministry want to prospect for markets and act as a middleman?” he wonders.

This entrepreneur also pointed out the lack of transparency in the distribution of the 5 million masks that, according to President Rajoelina’s announcement, were to be made available to the population. And the suspicions of a source at the Ivato CCO concur with the entrepreneur’s remark. He took the example of the Capital’s 5th arrondissement, which comprises five fokontany with 80,000 inhabitants. The Ministry of Higher Education was commissioned to organize the distribution of masks in this arrondissement. But this ministry only received 15,617 masks to be distributed in two times, 4225 units for the first time on 4 May and 11,392 for the second, on 5 May.

“The Ministry team has not come back and no distribution has been done since 19 May. Have the 5 million masks been distributed as required? On paper, the ministries have carried out the distributions, but what has actually happened in reality? “, he wondered. “There needs to be tight management control within the CCO, especially with regard to the different ministries, otherwise the health emergency becomes a profit-making venture,” he concludes.

Diverging views on the export of anti-Covid 19 masks

It is now known that Madagascar has exported masks. MICA and textile companies confirmed this. These include exports from international tenders. For the company Socota Garment, 450,000 masks were sent to Mayotte at the end of April. This was an order from the island’s prefecture, which won an international call for tenders from the European Development Fund. Socota Garment had also won contracts in France. “Although we have international offers, we are still waiting for a second order from the State “, Nadia Chorfi, the head of the company, explains.

In general, the State is not involved in the award of these international contracts. But MICA has been criticized for the fact that the country exports, whereas in Madagascar, the free distribution of masks has only benefited a small part of the population. The Minister replied that free trade companies cannot be prevented from exporting, as this is their business and it helps them to cope with the crisis and safeguard jobs.

“Malagasy companies can also apply for an export licence and find international markets freely. We even encourage them to do so, which is why the ministry has not limited the number of companies that can apply,” she explains.

But in spite of what Lantosoa Rakotomalala stated, we are still waiting for transparency from her Ministry, especially regarding the conditions required to be authorized to produce and export masks, as well as the complete list of these companies. Clear and comprehensive information is also expected on the distribution of the 5 million masks and on some companies’ concerns that the state will become the official intermediary in the market for outdoor Covid-19 masks.

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