Friday 13 January 2006

A New Year for Consumers

Consumer Watchdog had a pretty good year in 2005. We assisted a large number of consumers who were experiencing problems with all sorts of suppliers and stores. We’ve done our best to call suppliers to account and to inform our readers and listeners of the issues we think are important to us all as consumers.

Most importantly though we’ve been campaigning for a number of things that we think are critically important for us in Botswana.

We have campaigned (and will continue to do so) for the introduction of legislation that will protect us from some of the excesses of the micro-lending industry, particularly those that prey on the weakest and the most vulnerable. A lot of good work is being done within government about this but we need action, not just consideration.

We really are going to continue to push for certain regulations regarding lending. All lenders must be forced to disclose the interest rates they charge in a standardised way that prevents them from hiding things and keeping us in the dark.

We also want to see the introduction of laws that will give us some control over the information that is kept on us by suppliers and a guaranteed right to correct this information when it’s wrong. We found ourselves quite how easy it was to obtain confidential financial details of other people from TransUnion ITC. We really do need the sort of law they have in most other countries to protect ourselves from this sort of thing.

So what are we doing next year?

Well, here’s some advanced warning to suppliers of things we’re going to cover in 2006. Maybe if they have any sense they might clean things up before we get to them!

Food safety.

We did some research late this year on the standards of food safety in supermarkets. We did this in conjunction with Nina Hamid from Foodsafe International, our leading food safety specialist in Botswana. The good news is that almost all the supermarkets we visited had reasonably acceptable standards. Some were actually very good indeed. We did find a few minor issues but when we pointed these out to the management they were all fixed pretty quickly.

However we did very quickly find a truly disgraceful situation in a large, well-known supermarket. We won’t say which one it was but it was part of a large chain that rhymes with “car” and the branch in question is at the bottom of the largest hill in Gaborone. The hygiene problems we found were genuinely nauseating. Raw meat left in boxes on the floor of the store room, egg mayonnaise being stored at 33C and mouse droppings all over the kitchen. We had a suspicion we’d find some stores with lower standards but we were surprised to find it somewhere like this outlet. The irony is that we’re probably safer buying lukewarm food from a street outlet than from this supposedly respectable supermarket.

Oh and their excuse for operating a store that is going to kill someone soon from food-poisoning, if it hasn’t done so already? The same old story.

“We can’t get the staff to follow instructions.” Watchdog’s advice is “Then fire them!”

“We can’t afford better standards.” Watchdog’s advice is “Close the store and go away.”

“People in Botswana don’t deserve good standards.” OK, we made that one up but we don’t think it’s far from the truth.

We know that Local Authorities, City Councils and other bodies have the right to check on hygiene but why aren’t they doing so? Why aren’t they closing places down until they can demonstrate that they understand the basics of food hygiene?

We want to do our bit to improve this but this is a situation where law-enforcers have a key role to play. Consumers don’t have the right to burst into a supermarket’s storeroom to inspect it. Law enforcement do and they should be doing so aggressively.

Debt management

Despite all the challenges we face as a nation we remain a success story. However at a personal level we are a hugely indebted country. We borrow left, right and centre and sometimes we seem to go completely crazy.

Let’s get one thing straight. Being in debt is NOT always bad. Almost all of us need to borrow occasionally, whether it’s for a car or a house and there are times when there are no other options. However we keep on seeing people who have borrowed so much that they genuinely risk losing everything they have. We’ve seen people who earn P1,000 a month who have run up debts of nearly P20,000. That’s nearly 2 years worth of salary that needs to be repaid and the moment they default these people will just find that what they owe just grew some more instead of reducing.

We must be realistic though. There will always be people who for whatever reason get themselves in deep water. However we must develop better debt management skills and help our friends, family and neighbours to do the same.

We are going to campaign for a much greater investment in advice from the lenders themselves. Our challenge to the banks, to the legitimate micro-lenders and to the debt-recovery agencies is to take the lead in helping consumers to help themselves. What exactly are we suggesting? Wait until next month and we’ll tell you!


It’s really such a good word and every time we see a P5 coin we should think on it. We’re going to continue our campaign for consumers to mature, take control and responsibility for their buying decisions and to stand up for their rights. We know it’s happening, we hear all the time about consumers who feel a new sense of their rights, who are prepared to assert them and not back down the moment their reasonable demands aren’t met. If we’ve contributed a little bit towards that then we are very proud!

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