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Energy efficiency expert Theo Covary of the EU-SA Partners for Growth project unpacks a new study that compares the current method of testing regulated electrical products for safety and environment (energy performance) to a more flexible alternative approach to determine the best approach for South Africa
A study was recently undertaken to look at conformity assessment in South Africa’s electro-technical supply chain – which comprises local and imported products – following industry calls for the adoption of a more flexible method.
The study, funded by the European Union (EU) and endorsed by the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS) and the Department of Trade Industry and Competition (dtic), highlighted that the “big conformity assessment debate” is between two distinct approaches.
In South Africa, the Third (3rd) Party approach is used – with the technical performance of apparatus ascertained by an impartial accredited test laboratory to demonstrate that it fulfils specified requirements. This is also the preferred approach in the US.
The EU, on the other hand, applies the First Party approach – also known as the Supplier’s Declaration of Conformity (SDoC) – where the supplier or manufacturer must demonstrate that the apparatus fulfils the specified national requirements through internal testing, engineering design specifications or other internal source documents.
In comparing their respective benefits, SDoC simplifies the product registration process – having the advantage of being more flexible, reducing market product placement times and lowering compliance costs for suppliers. Conversely, the 3rd Party conformity approach is more comprehensive, and in theory, provides for a higher level of independence to mitigate against any real or perceived risks of non-compliance. It is, however, a more onerous approval process – invariably resulting in increased testing costs and, in South Africa’s case, up to 120 days to issue a Letter of Authority (LoA).
Here, the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications Act (5 of 2008) empowers the NRCS, an agency of the dtic, to administer and maintain mandatory specifications. The NRCS acts in the interest of public safety, health and environmental protection, and issues compliant products with an LoA that is valid for three-years – without which no regulated product may be sold in the South African market.
The NRCS’ electro-technical department uses a two-step process in conformity assessment – the first of which is the pre-approval of a product prior to market entry, which involves an application to the Regulator, supported by a test report from an independent and accredited testing facility. The second step – Monitoring, Verification and Enforcement (MVE) – includes monitoring to ensure compliance; sampling products for testing at an accredited laboratory; comparing test results to product application specifications; and applying sanctions for non-compliance.
Whether adopting the 3rd Party or SDoC approach, numerous international studies have found that effective market regulation is only possible if pre-approval and MVE are simultaneously present. Without the latter, compliance levels average 40% – increasing to 80% when both are effectively in place.
In South Africa, the market surveillance activities that are needed to guard against “golden samples” and to keep low-performing grey imports out of the market are currently lacking – hampered by inconsistent site inspections, insufficient accredited test facilities and the inability to apply fines as penalties for non-compliance. The NRCS is aware of and is working to address these long-standing challenges.
It is therefore no surprise that the industry is frustrated.
The existing system can be costly, and at times, approval times greatly exceed international norms and business requirements. Moreover, those companies that do comply, are still not assured that their products will be adequately protected against non-compliant imports. This has led to a mistrust of the conformity assessment process and calls for moving to the SDoC approach.
Such calls are not supported by the research which involved in-depth desktop research and over 25 interviews with experts and industry stakeholders in South Africa, the EU and the US – together with two case studies of the EU and the US markets, and a comprehensive interrogation of industry concerns.
In South Africa, where relatively weak market surveillance means that suppliers’ declarations of conformity cannot be easily verified, the LoA procedure provides a “gate” and pre-market entry filter. Whereas this system might still be open to abuse – particularly where the industry provides the NRCS with “golden samples” – it does at least establish a formal and independent screening process.
The priority for the NRCS management and the dtic should thus be to intensify and accelerate systemic, procedural and legislative improvements – working with industry to create combined solutions. Some, like the new online registration database for assessing energy efficiency, are already coming onstream, and similar enhancements should be urgently and jointly explored by government and business.
Theo Covary (PhD) is an energy efficiency expert. Since 2010 he has been involved in developing and implementing the residential appliance standards and labelling programme which is regulated by the NRCS. From 2017 to 2020 he was the programme’s project manager based at the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy.