Eyebrows over ambulance deal

The whole process was troubling right from the start, even as Malawi faced a 67 percent ambulance shortage.

And the conduct of some government officials—who we have established pocketed ‘allowances’ from bidders during the procurement process—has raised eyebrows of the Public Procurement and Disposal of Assets Authority (PPDA) and a public sector procurement specialist.

Problem of shortage of ambulances in the Ministry of Health is real

Twice—within three months—the Ministry of Health cancelled procurement processes for the supply of basic life support ambulances.

These decisions—and the ministry officials’ pocketing of funding for inspections from bidding companies—has now attracted the wrath of some potential suppliers who are bitter that they spent on the officials, but have not been awarded the contract.

The ministry, though, has defended itself that the advertisements it flighted specified that bidders had to sponsor the travel of the inspection teams, though adverts we have seen and bid documents do not show any of the claim.

Nation on Sunday has established that the ministry tried to buy ambulances through single-sourcing—a procurement process that the Public Procurement and Disposal of Assets Act only allows if the situation is an emergency or if there is only one supplier.

On advice from Treasury, the Ministry of Health ditched Vision International, the supplier it identified without a tendering process to supply 300 basic life support ambulances.

The ministry then advertised for international competitive bidding for the supply of 300 “advanced and basic purpose-built ambulances”, a process that led to identification of three successful bidders—Vision International, Grand View International and Savenda.

The bidders proceeded to organise inspections of the ambulances abroad as per request of the Ministry of Health.

Though Grand View, according to documentation we have seen, emerged winner, after the ministry received a ‘No Objection’ from the PPDA, a fresh advert was issued 10 days later [on February 25 2019] for international competitive bidding for the supply of 100 ambulances.

This decision has led two bidders to raise a concern on a blackout of information from the Ministry of Health, claiming they met travel and accommodation costs as well as allowances for a team of 13 officials to inspect supplies as part of due diligence.

In a letter we have seen, from Grand View International to Ministry of Health, the 13–member inspection team was flown to both Dubai and Lusaka between November and December 2018 for inspection purposes.

“No doubt you shall appreciate our company has adhered to all your requirements to date and has spent substantial amount of money in complying with your requirement. Your evaluation team had not raised any concerns on our capability nor our product raising fair expectation of tender being awarded in good time.

“However, we note, with much concern, not to be in receipt of any communication from your ministry to date, being six months from date of submission,” reads, in part, the two-paged letter dated April 30 2019.

When contacted for comment, director for the Zambia–based company Bokani Soko refused to comment.

But another supplier, Clever Mpho, who runs Savenda, has threatened to sue Ministry of Health for expenses on international inspection tours that took the team to United Kingdom and Ireland between November and December.

When asked whether he had seen a newspaper notice on May 14 2019 for the cancellation of the tender, Mpho expressed surprise:

“Send me the notice. We can instruct our lawyers to take up the matter in arbitration in United Kingdom. We spent lots to take the entire evaluation teams to United Kingdom. When you reach due diligence it means you have won the tender and now you can incur costs because you will recover that from the tender”.

We were unable to speak to Vision International for their side of the story.

But following the ministry’s change of heart again on the tender, a bid evaluation meeting in March this year identified Movesa and Paramount Holdings as successful bidders and after inspection in April, the ministry settled for Paramount and has since written PPDA for a ‘No Objection’ to award the contract for the supply of the 100 ambulances.

Movesa has, however, written the Ministry of Health, complaining of incurring costs related to inspection.

In a letter signed by M.M Saiim, Movesa claims the ministry did not communicate anything even after arranging for the trip of a 10-member inspection team to Brussels, Belgium, for inspection of ambulances.

The letter says the trip was scheduled for May 4 2019 after an agreement and air tickets had already been distributed to the team, forcing Movesa to pay more for cancellation.

Director for Paramount Holdings, Pralcosh Gedial, also confirmed taking the team to Dubai last month for inspection purposes and considered the exercise normal.

“I have done this before. That’s what government people do. They need to inspect the suppliers to be sure of what they are buying. As a businessperson, you suffer such costs, sometimes you are lucky they give you the business and sometimes not,” he said.

Responding to our questionnaire, PPDA confirmed about Ministry of Health seeking a ‘No Objection’ to award a contract to Paramount Holdings, saying they were reviewing the request.

Then acting director for PPDA Timothy Kalembo said: “In the letter we have received from the ministry, the entity is now seeking to procure 78 ambulances for the K4 billion available in its budget for the procurement of the vehicles”.

In an interview, public procurement specialist Ken Nyirenda questioned the sponsorship of the inspection team by bidders, wondering how fair the process could be when bidders pay for expenses.

“They did not need to go around the whole world for inspection. They could have done so only to the successful bidder who has been awarded the contract maybe. It is against the rules and I think the bidders have a legitimate complaint because such a move raised false expectations. I guess the bidder with a better package; allowances and accommodation may influence the process,” he observed.

Section 7 (26.3) of the bid document also asks the procuring entity to shoulder the cost for inspection purposes.

Nyirenda said the expiry of the bid validity period is information on its own whether one has made it or not. The bid to supply 300 ambulances had a validity period of 120 days, which expired.

Asked if government officials were within the law to seek funding from would-be suppliers for inspection purposes, Kalembo said the PPDA Act was clear that public officers should avoid conflict of interest. He said they will independently investigate if, indeed, it was true that the officials had sought funding from bidders.

In response to our questionnaire, Ministry of Health spokesperson Joshua Malango said: “The cancellation of that tender is within the Procurement Act and we didn’t break any law. We can’t comment on the second procurement because the process has not been finalised and it will be unprofessional for me to comment on a process that is still ongoing”.

Malango also said the bid advertisement specified that suppliers should be ready to sponsor the inspection team.

He argued that the ministry did not give bidders false hopes by inspecting the supplies at their financing when the tender had not been awarded.

“The three companies were written that they have been shortlisted as the successful bidder at the first stage and we needed to visit and inspect what they presented on paper. From there we will come up with the winner and this was clearly said from word go and I don’t think we gave them false hopes because they knew it was part of evaluation,” said Malango.

But the advertisement Nation on Sunday has seen do not stipulate that shortlisted bidders will foot the cost of inspections, nor do the bid documents specify that claim.

The Ministry of Health says the national need for ambulances is 323, but only 173 are available. This is far from the World Health Organisation recommended ratio of 1:50 000.

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