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What consumers should do if businesses violate their rights

Metal shopping cart filled with groceries [Courtesy]

At a Twitter Space event I attended recently, one of the speakers noted that the “Constitution of Kenya democratised our political, social and consumer rights. But as Kenyans, we have not fully embraced our consumer rights against bad business practices by corporates.”

The speaker also posited that Kenya’s consumer protection culture is underdeveloped, and that various stakeholders need to play their individual and collective roles to reel in businesses that are taking advantage of consumers in their pursuit for profits.

So who exactly is responsible for protecting the rights of consumers?

Article 46 of the Constitution provides that consumers have a right to safe goods and services; and of reasonable quality. Further, they should be furnished with sufficient information to enable them make informed purchasing decisions and be compensated for losses.

The Competition Act compliments these provisions by protecting consumers from various illegal business practices, including deceitful marketing, strong-arm tactics, and offering for sale unsafe, unsuitable or defective products, among others.

The consumer protection ecosystem has many actors, including regulators like the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK), sector-specific regulators, consumer bodies, and businesspersons. The main stakeholder is the consumer – the purchaser of goods and services.

The reality is that many consumers are exploited since they are oblivious about their rights, obligations and the redress mechanisms available to them. Others, unfortunately, are knowledgeable, but fail to hold businesses accountable.

Expiry date labels

In my experience addressing consumer complaints at CAK, three main issues stand out.

One is that a majority of Kenyans skim over important information when purchasing goods or seeking services. They do not carefully interrogate, among others, terms and conditions, expiry date labels and return policies.

For instance, customers secure loans without fully apprising themselves on the applicable interest rates and consequences of default. Whereas, the language in these contracts should be made more understandable, consumers should also be more forceful and seek explanations about unclear clauses.

Another common occurrence is that many consumers do not retain their receipts and warranties after making a purchase. These are important pieces of evidence which are relied upon when you lodge a complaint and should therefore be preserved.

Thirdly, whenever your rights are infringed, you should first seek restitution from the business person. In over 60 per cent of the consumer cases lodged with us, businesses are quick to restitute consumers and close the matter quickly. However, if a consumer is unsatisfied with the remedy provided, they should lodge the matter with CAK.

Another key actor in the consumer welfare space are consumer bodies. Under the Competition Act, the CAK is mandated to recognise consumer bodies as they champion consumer rights, and investigate complaints lodged by such bodies on behalf of Kenyans.

Consumer bodies can register more success and impact in their role if they diversify their operations to the grassroots. There is need for a more representative approach to their advocacy initiatives if their membership is to grow and their impact felt. Further, many consumer bodies lack sound governance structures which are important for the sustainability and effectiveness of their operations.

The third main actor in this consumer welfare space is CAK. Over the past five years, we have recorded over three-fold surge in the number of consumer complaints lodged. This is attributable to our sustained awareness creation activities across all counties.

While this is commendable, the number of cases we prosecute is still not representative of the reality on the ground. Anecdotal evidence, including from social media platforms, suggests that thousands of consumers are suffering at the hands of rogue business persons.

I also want to pose a challenge to sector-specific regulators to pay closer attention to the consumer protection elements while executing their mandates. While the technical side matters, we are all accountable to the Kenyan public, the consumers of our services.

Let us all, as applicable, strive to dispense with consumer-related complaints expediently, while also ensuring fair administration of justice. This will increase public confidence in our institutions.