Thursday, March 18, 2010

How Care-free Attitude is Source of Consumer Woes

Speak no evil, How unquestioning attitude of Tanzania consumers is source of shoddy services
By Sharifa Kalokola

When Nicodemus Masanji, 50, discovered that he had bought a fake pesticide for his crops, he felt hopeless. For weeks, he watched helplessly as his once fertile three-acre cotton field in Geita District was reduced to worthless grassland.

“I don’t understand what really happened because it was the same pesticide that I have been using for years, except that this time it worked against me,” says Masanji. A month before he bought the pesticide at a local dealership last year, he had a promising cotton yield.

But all was gone in a flash. “The pesticide was fake, but there was nothing I could do about it,” notes the former farmer, who is now selling second hand clothes and Chinese sandals he orders from Kariakoo.

Masanji is disillusioned with the process of seeking recourse against the trader for the losses he incurred. Like the majority of Tanzanian consumers, he sees his case as something “that happens”. He argues: “Even if I were to complain, who would listen to me? Going to court will waste your time and money.”

A recent study conducted by the Tanzania Consumer Advocacy society (TCAS) shows that over 90 per cent of Tanzanians are not aware of their consumer rights.

The majority of the victims cited in the study did not know they had the legal right to demand compensation for market abuses.

And according to the study that was conducted in five regions - Kilimanjaro, Dar es Salaam, Coast, Arusha and Mwanza – most of the affected are women.

“Many people do not know when their consumer rights are violated, and the few who seem to understand do not file complaints against their service providers with relevant authorities,” Bernard Kihiyo the Executive Director of TCAS says.

The study is part of a baseline survey aimed at assessing the extent of the problem, he adds, noting that there are plans to establish a non-governmental organisation to protect consumers from shoddy services, as well as fake and risky products.

Uncritical “We have a lot of work to do to convince local consumers to know their rights, and seek recourse with relevant authorities when their rights have been violated,” he says.

Generally, the idea of complaining against shoddy services or when one discovers that they have bought a fake or dangerous product is not common among local consumers.

“A lot of people tend to be uncritical when it comes to what kind of service or product they get from a supplier,” says Kihiyo. The problem is rampant in the hospitality sector, where most hotels tend to take advantage of ‘uncomplaining customers’ to get away with shoddy services.

“It begins with the belief among too many people that they are at the mercy of providers of services – ironically, here the supplier is given the status of benefactor, or a boss who is supposed to be feared,” observes Andrew Chove, a Dar es Salaam hotel manager.

Several cases of people who are hospitalised after consuming toxic foods or buying fake or expired drugs remain with the victims.

In January this year, over 40 people from two families were admitted to Maweni hospital in Kigoma Region after eating poisoned food. They told the police that they started feeling unwell after having ‘ugali’ for lunch.

Both families had earlier bought maize flour from the same shop. The incident brought back memories of the tragedy that struck Kagunga Village in the same region 10 years ago when 10 people died after eating ugali prepared from poisonous cassava flour. ‘Talking to deaf ears’

There are more similar cases that go unreported. Ms Blandina Ilas, a chef with a Dar es Salaam hotel, says she is still recovering from the side effects of a prescribed malaria drug she bought from a local hospital pharmacy but was not told it contained sulphur, which she is allergic to.

“What I fail to understand is that I bought this from a pharmacy in the same hospital that I had been admitted, and these people could not read the prescription or medical report to see what allergies I have,” says the 32-year-old.

However, she didn’t report the case or file a complaint, even after she was readmitted to the same institution and paid extra costs.

“I don’t believe complaining would have changed much because in most cases you will be talking to deaf ears, and they usually do nothing,” she says.

But consumer rights group, TCAS, says the problem is not simply with providers of services. “When a case is presented to us we fight for the consumer, but we have noted that people don’t complain even in worst-case situations,” notes Mr Kihiyo.

In addition, the TCAS boss blames widespread complacency among Tanzanian consumers on socialism.

According to him, nobody would dare complain against shoddy services during the era of socialism because the government was the sole supplier and distributors of most goods and services.

“Everything was under state control, and it was inconceivable for an ordinary person to complain against a government service provider; apparently, the majority Tanzanians are yet to shed this culture in this free market economy.”

But Dr Semboja Haji, an economic researcher at the University of Dar es Salaam, does not see it that way. He blames the complacency on lack of competition in several sectors. “The problem of consumers fearing to speak out and demanding their rights is not just in Tanzania, but also in many poor nations,” he says, adding:

“We still have fewer service providers in many areas compared to the high number of consumers, who are mostly uneducated.” Corroborating, Dr Fortunatus Sunghwa, a laboratory scientist who lived in Japan for two years, says in the developed world where competition is high “the consumer’s voice is heard.”

“The services there are almost perfect, except that sometimes you encounter long queues on two open counters instead of, say, five available.” A programme officer with TCAS, Jehovaness Zacharia, attributes the “see no evil, say no evil” attitude among most local consumers to their “quest for cheap products and services.”

“Most people want to buy the cheapest thing they can lay their hands on, and at the end it doesn’t come that cheap,” she notes. However, she says the consumer body will use this year’s World Consumer Rights Day tomorrow (March 15), to highlight the rights of consumers; lobby support for those rights to be respected and protected and provides a forum for exposing the market abuses and social
injustices, which undermine those rights.

“This year, our theme is: 'Our Money, Our Rights', and the message we want people to get is that they have both the right to go for cheaper items and to bring up any form of market abuse that undermines their rights,” she says.

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