Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Consumer Protection Law is on the table

(First appeared in New Era 18 March 2015)

Two weeks ago I was contacted by a consumer complaining about a freezer that they purchased a freezer and it is already broken after a few weeks. The customer was very upset as the store wished to come and fix the broken freezer and not replace it. Unfortunately for the client there is no consumer act in place and the store has the right to fix the freezer rather than replace it. The problem for this consumers was the misunderstanding between the term “warranty” and “guarantee”.  Most of us would expect that when we purchase a product, the warranty – or the written guarantee - issued by the manufacturer of a product will include a provision to replace the product within a specified period of time. The problem comes when we do not read the fine print when doing the purchase. In this consumers case the warranty issued by the manufacturer promised to repair or replace it if necessary within a specified period of time. The store was thus correct in first offering to have the freezer repaired and only if that did not fix the problem, will they replace the freezer. Unfortunately the Consumer Court cannot do anything to assist the consumer and she will have to accept that the “new freezer” is now a “fixed freezer”.

The good news is that consumers in Namibia will soon have recourse through a Consumer Protection Bureau that will be established under the Ministry of Trade and Industry. In addition, a Consumer Advisory Board will be established with “at least half of the members to be individuals with recognised experience or expertise in advocating for consumers, studying issues related to consumer protection, or with demonstrated commitment to regulation of marketplace activity in the interests of consumers”. The draft law has been shared with consumer advocates, business associations and other regulatory organisations for their inputs at a two day workshop.

The law also goes hand in hand with a National Consumer Policy which has six objectives, namely 1) to create market transactions that strive to obtain a fair balance of power between sellers and consumers; 2) protect vulnerable consumers from marketplace conduct that takes advantage of unsophisticated, less educated or infirm consumers; 3) provide an incentive for honesty and fair dealing by all sellers; 4) promote efficiency and transparency in the Namibian economy and marketplace, thus increasing economic development; 5) ensure accessible, transparent and efficient redress for consumers; and 6) promote consumer participation in decision-making processes concerning the regulation of the marketplace in the interests of consumers. The law is based on “UDAAP”, meaning prohibition against unfair, deceptive and abusive acts and practices.

By “unfairness”, it refers to when an unfair balance occurs between the rights of the consumer and the rights of the seller. It also will allow for more control of the transaction by the consumer. The “deceptive” refers to sellers who are misleading consumers about the actual price of goods or the actual discount amount, advertising products not intending to be sold as advertised, representing that goods are of a certain origin or brand when they are not, and similar conduct are all considered deceptive sales practices. “Abusive acts or practices” are based on the seller taking unreasonable advantage of a consumers’ ignorance, vulnerability or dependence on the seller.

All these ideas laid out in the policy and draft law are to be welcomed in assisting Namibian consumers to be protected in the marketplace. I just hope that the Ministry and then the Parliament will act in good speed in getting the law into practice.

A bird in hand is worth two in the bush

(First appeared in New Era 4 March 2015)

This week I must start my column with feedback from last week when I wrote about the chickens supplied by Namibian Poultry Industries. The company contacted me through their marketing company and invited me to visit their business and get more information regarding the processes used in bringing chicken to the market. Unfortunately, I have to travel out of the country for work and will only be able to take up their offer after the 10th of March. But be assured, dear loyal reader, I will write about it once I have visited the facility and bring you a more informed column in this regard.

The past few months I have seen a greater awareness of consumer protection from not only companies but also the government regulators in various sectors. I must congratulate the Communications Regulatory Authority of Namibia (CRAN) for their speedy reaction to the MTC N$2 data saga as well as their prompt intervention with the NBC and DSTV regarding the digital television switch over. I am not sure what the eventual result will be regarding the digital decoders and the NBC channel on the DSTV decoders, but I certainly hope both companies come to an agreement to ensure that all Namibians have access to the national broadcaster and our own localised news items. On a personal note I must add that I am not an avid television viewer, but since getting married and having a new-born in the house, I too have become a little addicted to watching the little black box.

One of the consumer issues I have been watching the past few weeks is the drop in oil prices and what the impact will be for our pockets. In early January, the forecast was that consumers could expect a breather as the lower oil prices have led to a decrease in petrol prices which should lead to price drops in other sectors of the economy. This was borne out with our local maize supplier announcing that the price of maize meal would drop by a few percentage points in February. This hope was however soon dashed as they announced late last week that the maize price would be going up by 17% due to the present drought conditions in the country. (The price increase will happen in March 2015.)

Looking into the crystal ball I foresee that more and more prices will increase in the short to medium term as the rain forecasts still indicate another year of drought.

I wish to encourage all consumers to get ready for a tough year ahead and you should look at ways that you can reduce your monthly budget items. In our household, we are already investigating more ways to use our waste water for example in our home garden. The wife and I are looking at a small home (box) garden with some of our favourite spices as well as planting onions in recycled plastic bottle containers. These measures will not make a huge impact, but will allow us to still indulge in some of “niceties” we like to buy.

The budget speech in South Africa also indicate we can expect increases in “sin” taxes for alcohol and cigarettes and I am looking forward to hear how our own budget speech will further impact on the pocket of the consumer. Seeing as the drought is almost certain, I predict the government having to subsidise meat and other agricultural products which will see their prices increase steadily over the next twelve months.

I would thus advise all consumer to avoid big debt purchases such as vehicles, furniture, etc. which cause an increase in debt levels - the Bank of Namibia also agrees and has increased the interest rate accordingly.

Savings is the big word in consumer advice for the next few months if we want to still have a big, traditional Christmas holiday we can afford.

A prophet is not honoured in his own country

(First appeared in New Era 11 March 2015)

Today’s column heading comes from the Bible and is referenced in Mathew 13:57 – Then Jesus told them, "A prophet is honoured everywhere except in his own hometown and among his relatives and his own family."

The past week I was fortunate to visit Botswana for work-related activities. During my visit I was fortunate to visit various tourism establishments as well as the major shopping malls around the capital of Gaborone. This was also an opportunity to discuss with colleagues the differences between our two countries, as well as the “areas of quality” which we wish we had from our neighbour. The first topic was of course the cleanliness of our country and especially of Windhoek as the capital. The second, and surprising topic to me, was the respect our neighbours have for the service industry in Namibia. As this is one of the main reasons for this type of Consumer Court column, it was very intriguing to find out how they experience our service industry. The common variable among the compliments was the time it took to receive food at restaurants. In Namibia we tend to get a little bit irrational if our meals are not at our tables within 20 minutes of an order while in certain establishments in Gaborone it sometimes took as much as one hour.

All of us there agreed that we wished there was more Consumer Protection in our countries and we discussed our colleagues in South Africa with quite a bit of envy. It was therefore very gladdening to my heart to receive an envelope with an invitation for the Ministry of Trade and Industry to attend a “Workshop on the Development of a Legal Framework for Consumer Protection in Namibia”

The workshop, which will be attended by key stakeholders, will be setting the “parameters of the legal and policy content for Namibia’s current efforts. The participants will also consider the structure and substance of the Draft Policy and Legislation to ensure coherence between the draft framework and the consumer environment in Namibia.”

Looking through the agenda for the two day workshop, I am glad to see that the Ministry is looking at all aspects proposed by consumer activists of the past nine years. However, when reading the invitation letter I noticed that invitation letter had a BIG mistake in its layout. It seems some administrative error had crept in between the signing of the letter and the photocopies that were prepared for individual participants. The first page was correctly addressed to each participant, but the second page repeated the last two sentences of the previous page. This “copy and paste” exercise will hopefully not be the manner in which we are approaching the consumer protection act.

After all, to quote myself from a column written on 28 February 2013: “…Three years ago, on March 15 2010 (World Consumer Day), the then Minister of Trade and Industry Dr Hage Geingob, promised in a speech read on his behalf that a Consumer Protection Act will be submitted to Parliament within one year. Since then Dr Geingob has moved on to become Prime Minister and is poised to become our next President in 2015. With Consumer Day again being celebrated on March 15 this year, there is however still no sign of the promised Consumer Protection Act (CPA).”
Hopefully this proposed workshop will see us bringing the legislation to light within the foreseeable future.

For your information, consumer organisations have decided to make helping consumers choose healthy diets the theme of World Consumer Rights Day (WCRD) on March 15.

I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate our President, H.E. Pohamba, on being honoured with the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. Not only has he been honoured as a leader abroad, but our own people have to recognised and thank him for his leadership at the helm of our beloved land.

“I am writing this just to ask if, as I am a consumer, is it correct to pay N$1.00 for a trolley as practiced by Checkers if you are shopping in Checkers?” This is not good customer service and the consumer should show their displeasure by shopping elsewhere.

Fee-fi-fo-fum – I smell the brine of an Englishman

(First appeared in New Era 25 February 2015)

THE column heading is taken from the classic fairy tale, Jack and the Beanstalk. The correct saying is: Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman, Be he live, or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.
In our house, it has become common for us to check the ingredients of the packaged foods we purchase. This is especially important as our baby is breastfeeding and certain foods could cause him an irritation or worse. Believe me, when I say that my wife and I are looking forward to the three-month period when she can once again eat sushi and other “forbidden” foods. The most common forbidden products have been rare or undercooked meats including fish, meat and chicken. The past week, I received a video of slaughtered and de-feathered whole chickens being injected with a solution before freezing and felt I had to investigate further.
I posted the link onto the Namibia Consumer Protection Group on Facebook to get some comments from other consumers. This is the information I received from two contributors:
“It is called brine injection, and it is used mainly on frozen products like fish and chicken and not only to add mass and volume but to extend/improve shelf life as well but this is too extreme as there are certain limitations on how much brine is allowed in a certain product. That chicken is ballooning. The same is done here with our own chickens at NPI but not sure how much percentage is brine!”
“The brining process is done by injecting via multiple needles a brine solution (mild salt solution) of anything between 20 and 25 percent of the actual weight of the chicken before freezing it extremely quickly to prevent this water or brine from escaping the meat. For this, you pay the same price as for the chicken and they then get rich of the weight of the brine solution only because it is of absolute minimal cost… All frozen chicken suppliers do this, even here in Namibia.. It is a rip off for which the consumer must pay!”
I called the telephone number of Namibian Poultry Industries (NPI) and was put through to the Quality Assurance Department. The woman who answered, spoke in Afrikaans and then became very rude when I asked more information about the “brine or water” and the percentage injected in their chickens. She informed me that I was misinformed as it was not brine water, and I should look on their packaging for this information. I explained that my Afrikaans was not that good, but that I was inquiring on whether brine and / or water were injected and what these percentages were. She then put the telephone down and I could hear conversations in the background. After about five minutes the telephone was put down in my ear. Talk about customer service?
My question, in relation to what we as a family are eating, and indirectly what my child is ingesting through breast milk, did not seem to be that much to ask. Obviously, more investigation was needed.
So what is brine? Brine is water strongly impregnated with salt and it can also refer to soaking or preserving in salty water. Soaking your meats (such as lean meat, chicken and turkey) makes the meat juicier and more flavourful.
No customer can complain that ensuring the chicken is juicier and more flavourful is in the benefit of the customer, but is that what the customer is expecting when they purchase the chicken. Surely, with the high prices we pay for chicken we should expect that we are buying chicken and not something that adds flavour – and more importantly decreases the amount of chicken we are buying for our hard-earned dollars?
The end result of this investigation is that my family will be decreasing our intake of “protected Namibian chicken” for the traditional Wambo chicken. Not only is it cheaper on our pocket, but also will decrease the “hidden salt” that we put into our bodies without our knowledge.
And let us be honest, I have now learnt how to brine, and can make a juicier, tastier traditional Wambo chicken than before.
Thank You Namibian Poultries.

A rose by any other name - electronic signatures

(First appeared in New Era 18 February 2015)
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” is a reference from William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. Juliet is trying to convince Romeo Montague that it does not matter what his surname is even though her family and his are enemies.
The past weekend it was once again Valentine’s. The day is named after Saint Valentine and little is known other than his name and that he was martyred and buried at a cemetery in the north of Rome on that day. In modern times, it has become a business bonus and extremely commercialised. I even noted a large banking concern had teddy bears and hearts in their expansive foyer as if it was Xmas.
On Valentine’s Day it is tradition to give the one you love a present and also possibly a card with a special message and your signature. Some of us are so unsure about whether our love will be returned that we give a card signed ‘Secret Admirer’.
Your signature is a hand-written (possible stylised) version of your name and is often used to confirm your identity. This unique signature is a very powerful thing. Think about it: It has the power to transfer money from your bank account, to show your undying love on a Valentine card and to vote new laws into place. A signature can turn any piece of paper into a legally binding promise that can be upheld – in other words the bridge connecting a promise made and that the promise is kept.
Presently in Namibia there is no substitute for the original signature on a document. You could fax or email a copy of the document you signed but this will not hold up in a court of law. In plain terms it means that as long as your signature is genuine and the document original, the document is legally binding.
As technology has advanced, it has brought us easier ways for businesses and consumers to communicate and has resulted in most of our documents to shift from snail’s mail (posted letters) to electronic mail (email). In many countries the digital signature is now taking the place of hand-written ones.
In Namibia, we are expecting the government to pass an Electronic Transactions Bill that will catch up to the rest of the world. The Deputy Prime Minister, Libertina Amathila, reported in November 2004 that “… the working committee responsible for putting together the country’s first bill to govern and regulate use of electronic communications and transactions in Namibia says it will soon complete a draft to be presented to Cabinet by year-end.”
Amathila said the legal certainty to be established by such a law is to ensure that one’s rights are protected and that a person can have legal recourse in instances of misuse or criminal intent. The Bill aims to recognise electronic writing, signatures and records which will carry evidential weight, subject to certain conditions, in any legal proceedings.
The law might be ten years in the preparation, but like so many things in the world, Namibia takes long to implement but by the time we do we can learn from the mistakes of others. This leap-frogging means that by the time the Electronic Transactions Bill becomes a law it will include not only the long-awaited electronic signatures but should also clearly spell out what is considered criminal and civilly liable on all forms of social media. (For example cyber bullying, libel or slander as well as extortion and fraud.)
But let us look at what an electronic signature is and what it means for you as a consumer. An electronic signature, or e-signature, is an electronic means that indicates that you accept the contents of an electronic message and more broadly could be used to indicate that you who claim to have written the message is who you claim to be. The most common way to do this is to include your verified electronic signature in all emails and other form of electronic communication.
This will enable all of us, whether consumer, business or government, to easier and faster conclude transactions with one another in a trustworthy manner.
The only danger is that as we make our transactions more dependent on technology, we will have to be even more wary that it is not abused and our identities are not stolen. After all, I want be sure that the gift or card I received on Valentine’s Day is really from my wife. I would really not like to explain the present that I received and thanked my wife for, when it comes from someone else.