Botswana intelligence agency "hijacks" supermarket investigation after boss gets shares

Botswana’s shadowy Directorate of Intelligence
and Security (DIS) allegedly “hijacked” an investigation into supermarket chain
Choppies – shortly after DIS boss Isaac Kgosi received shares from Choppies

The investigation into
alleged violations of food, health and safety law went nowhere.

Choppies’s handover of shares
to Kgosi, in 2009, has long been controversial. The Mail & Guardian
reported last year that the DIS boss sold the shares for P16-million when
Choppies listed on the Botswana stock exchange three years later.

Now a well-placed government official
has alleged that the handover took place soon after a massive multi-agency raid
on a Choppies warehouse in Lobatse that turned up evidence of consumer law

The warehouse distributes
products to all Choppies 70-odd supermarkets in Botswana.

The source said that based on
the raid, the trade ministry’s Consumer Protection Office (CPO) sent a dossier
to the DIS recommending action against Choppies for selling food unfit for
human consumption.

The official, who asked not
to be named, alleged that Choppies executives approached the DIS just two weeks
after the recommendation was made.

“The DIS hijacked the
investigations, which were supposed to be led by the ministry of trade – DIS
was just playing a complementary role like other stakeholders,” the source said.
“The matter should have been sent to the Attorney General for Choppies to face
the wrath of the law.”

AmaBhungane was also leaked
documents showing that violations of food health and safety laws – including
the bacterial contamination of foodstuffs – continued at Choppies over a
further three years.
There is no evidence that this had legal consequences.
(See sidebar below.)

The Choppies shares were not
the only benefit Kgosi received in 2009.

According to Botswana’s Sunday
, Choppies chief executive Ramachandran Ottapathu told Botswana’s
Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC) that in that year Kgosi was
handed shares in a company called RBV.

RBV is owned by Ottapathu and
Choppies deputy executive chairperson Farouk Ismail.

The Standard has also reported
that in January 2011, a payment of P300 000 was made to Silver Shadows, a
company owned by Kgosi, from the account of a company called Leviathan – also
owned by Ottapathu and Ismail.

Ottapathu did not deny the transfer,
but said it was “a loan arrangement”. 

“This money was lent on a gentleman’s
agreement basis, on the understanding that Mr Kgosi would pay back when he
could from his future dividends.”

However, at the time of DCEC
investigation into Kgosi’s affairs in 2012, he had not repaid the loan.

Kgosi refused to answer questions about the role
played by the DIS after the May 2009 raid on Choppies. “Talk to the ministry of
trade and industry,” he told amaBhungane.

Ottapatu said: “We have not
bought any favour of a public servant to block investigations against us or
instigated anyhow that we be excluded from complying with the laws of the land.

 “We have consistently maintained our knowledge
of the Lobatse town council inspection report in question. … This was not the
first inspection on Choppies business and not the only council that sometimes
does regular inspection.”

Last year amaBhungane
highlighted the benefits Choppies has bestowed on members of the Botswana
elite, including buying furniture from a firm co-owned by President Ian Khama
and his sister, Jacqueline.

A CPO report leaked to
amaBhungane gives details of the raid on Choppies’ Lobatse warehouse in May 27 2009
by the consumer affairs department, the health department, the Botswana police,
officials of the Lobatse town council and the DIS, acting on complaints that the
supermarket chain was engaging in “doubtful trade practices”.

The warehouse houses ILO
Industries, which package beans, rice and spices for Choppies stores. According to Choppies’ listing
prospectus, ILO Industries is co-owned by Ottapathu and Ismail.

The report said it was closed
for two days during the raid hile the inspection team searched for violations
of Botswana’s Food Control Act, Consumer Protection Act and Public Health Act.

It said officials believed
there were violations relating to the mislabeling of products. They found bags
of rice without expiry dates, while in one case, a different expiry date from
the original was being stamped on rice packs.

It also found products were
not packaged according to regulations under the Food Control Act.

It recommended that Choppies
should be “immediately requested to show cause why action cannot be taken
against it for violating labelling requirements” and that the
Attorney-General’s should be asked for advice.

Other containers were sent to
Botswana’s Bureau of Standards, which found they were slightly underweight.

The report said workers were found removing
weevils from beans with the aid of a fan. Cooking oil was forwarded to the
National Food Control Laboratory for testing.

In addition, some bags
carried a Red Cross label while others, containing beans, were labelled “Maize
Grant of Echo, Humanitarian Aid World Food Programs” and carried a European
Union flag.

Choppies’ explanation, according to the report,
was that the bags were imported from Malawi and their supplier had stamped them
with a “misprint” logo to show they were not for the United Nations.

The report said the UN’s Food
and Agriculture Organisation expressed concern about how bags reached Botswana,
which did not have a food aid programme.

It said that once the origin
of the food aid packaging was confirmed, “appropriate action” should be taken
against Choppies. AmaBhungane was unable to establish what happened

The government source said
the Consumer Protection Office recommended that the DIS seek the advice of the
attorney-general on possible prosecution, but that this had not happened.

The Attorney-General’s
spokesperson, Caroline Bogale-Jaiyeoba, confirmed her office “has not received
any tangible complaint from any client being a department or ministry”.

Asked why the Lobatse council
had not laid charges, a council source familiar with the affair sent
amaBhungane a text message reading: “That was a small fish for Isaac Kgosi to

Kgosi has made no secret of
the shares he received from Choppies. In a statement in 2014, he said that “in about
2009, before Choppies became a public company, I was approached by Farouk
Ismail and Ramachandran Ottapathu with an offer to purchase shares in the

He was offered 750 shares each from Ottapathu’s
and Ismail’s holdings, which he would pay off from dividends accruing on the
shares “until [the acquisition] was fully discharged.” The shares would be
placed in trust pending payment.

“Several other citizens were
approached as I had been, and were sold Choppies shares on the same terms and
in accordance with the same business model,” said Kgosi.

He said the motivation was the empowerment of Botswana
citizens and that the shares had now been paid for in full.

 “I was happy to accept. Shorn of all
prejudice, who would not?” he said.

 Asked what action the
trade ministry took after the 2009 raid, permanent secretary Peggy Serame said she
had taken steps provided for in the Consumer Protection Act, including sealing
the warehouse pending investigations.

“Several questionable food
products were seized for further testing to ensure that specifications, quality
and safety standards are met in accordance with the Consumer Protection Act,”
she said.

Serame said the products, which included rice,
spices, cooking oil, sugar beans, cow peas and peanuts were taken to the Bureau
of Standards and the National Food Control Laboratory for testing and were
found to be safe for human consumption.

She said the Bureau of Standards ordered the
repackaging of underweight products.

She denied that DIS hijacked the ministry’s
mandate. “Action was taken in accordance
with relevant statutes,” she said. “Choppies
was warned against non-compliance with relevant standards.”

The Food Control Act carries a maximum penalty of
a P1 000 fine and three months in jail for a first offence. Legal sources said
that as a retailer, Choppies would be separately liable for each violation.For
a repeat offence, this rises to a P5 000 fine and six months in jailand a P2
000 fine and imprisonment for two months for each day on which the offence

The court may also cancel
or suspend any licence relevant to the offence.

Lobatse mayor Boikhutso
Matenge and her deputy, Oganne Gontse did not respond to questions sent by
amaBhungane two months ago.

Choppies spokesperson Otsile
Marole said the company was quick to address all cases “where clarifications
are sought or faults are found.”

“We have set up a
high-standard quality assurance system for our products to ensure that we do
not offer our consumers sub-standard goods.

“Wherever we discover that a
product is not good for consumers … we quickly recall it,” said Marole.

Botswana supermarket chain continues to sell contaminated food, despite massive raid

documents show that inspectors continued to seize and destroy expired, damaged,
wrongly labelled, rotten, weevil-infested and mould-attacked food items from Choppies
and its sister company, ILO Industries, after the massive 2009 raid on the

also show that Botswana’s National Food Laboratory found evidence of bacterial
contamination in tests on ILO Industries food samples on at least three
occasions in 2011 and 2012.

is no evidence that other than the destruction of the food items, any action
was taken against the company.

trade ministry’s permanent secretary, Peggy Serame, told amaBhungane that after
the 2009 crackdown her ministry warned Choppies to comply with consumer laws.

 “In future we will take action against any business enterprise
party that contravenes the law,” Serame said.

the Food Control Act, anyone found in possession of food liable to seizure
faces a fine of not less than P1 000 and a maximum six-month prison term. In
theory this would apply to each condemned or contaminated item.

court may also cancel or suspend any licence relevant to the offence.

Public Health Act states that “no person shall sell … or bring into Botswana or
… have in his possession without reasonable excuse any food for human
consumption in a diseased or unwholesome state which is unfit for human

what action it had taken under the Act, the health ministry responded that “the
press pursuing issues of 2012 do not improve food safety”.

said it has put measures in place to address the problems.

documents show that between January 2010 and September 2011, the Lobatse
council issued seven condemnation certificates under the Public Health Act or
Food Control Act to Choppies warehouse, Choppies Cash ’n Carry and ILO
industries. They included:

  • a January 11, 2010 certificate listing 29 expired, damaged or dented items;
  • on January 6, 2010 770kg of rice, 300kg of maize rice and 250kg of peanuts were
    listed as rotten, and 400kg of samp, 250kg of popcorn and 100kg of black-eyed
    peas as weevil-infested;
  • on February 22, 2010 18 separate items were listed as weevil-attacked, including
    845kg of popcorn, 643kg of cow peas and 271kg of black-eyed peas; 
  • on July 27, 2010 more than a tonne of Choppies rice was listed as mould-attacked
    and 200kg of waste bean as weevil-infested, among 29 condemned items; 
  • on
    August 12, 2011, 20 items including sweets, cold drinks and packs of meat were
    listed as expired, damaged or “petrified”.
  • on September 1, 2011 more than a tonne of chicken spice, 775kg of chip spice and
    750kg of braai spice were among those condemned as lacking an identification
    label, manufacturer’s name, place of origin or list of ingredients.

The leaked documents
also show that in 2011 and 2012, the health ministry’s National Food Laboratory
tested a range of spices packed by ILO Industries and found them wanting:

  • a report of August 17
    noted the bacterium E.coli in samples
    of BBQ spice, chicken spice and steak and chip spice, and the bacterium Colistridium perfringens in BBQ spice.
    Both can cause food poisoning.
  • A report of March 19
    2012 noted E. coli in braai spice and Cl. Perfringens in the braai spice,
    crushed chillies, chicken spice, steak and chop spice and paprika. “Proper quality control
    measures must be put in pace at production … as these organisms must not be detected in the spice,” the
    laboratory notes.
  • A report of May 2 2012 noted E. coli in the crushed chilli sample,
    which also showed a high mould count.



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