Friday 27 July 2007

Fitness aids that aren't fit

We had an email last week from a good guy called Isaac warning us about something he’d seen. Apparently you can go to various stores and buy a device called the Ab Energizer. This is a belt that you put on that sends electrical impulses into your stomach and promises a range of truly remarkable results as a consequence.

The advertising for the AB Energizer says:

“No pain! No work! No sit-ups! The Ab Energizer is the first multi-electronic exercise belt. Simply wrap the Ab Energizer belt around your body and with the press of a button you're exercising.”

Apparently if you use this thing you will lose inches from your waistline and you will reduce your body fat. It will help you develop the most amazing abdominal muscles. You will, no doubt, become much more attractive and will be irresistible to the opposite sex. Of course, all of this will happen without you undertaking any actual exercise.

You begin to see some of the problems here?

This is just another example of the nonsense we face these days in Botswana. Ridiculous claims are made about something, whether it’s a device for losing weight, a herbal cure for our various ailments or some ludicrous mental health programme from a bunch like the Scientologists.

I get the sense sometimes that international companies marketing worthless products like the AB Energizer think they can get away with things in places like Botswana that they wouldn’t dare to try elsewhere. There is some evidence for this. Isaac suggested that we look at the following web site:

This is a report from the Federal Trade Commission, the body in the USA that looks after the interests of Consumers, amongst other things. After investigating the miraculous properties of the Ab Energizer they decided a number of things.

Firstly two judgments against the distributors of the Ab Energizer totalling over $80 million, which they based on number of units the companies sold. However, tragically this isn’t actually going to be paid because the companies that sold them don’t have any money.

Then the companies have been forced to promise never again to lie about the alleged benefits of the device, and better still, that they mustn’t ever make promise about any similar device. They can’t start selling another similar device in the next store and hope to get away with it.

Then it gets even better. The order prohibits “the defendants from making unsubstantiated claims regarding the safety or efficacy of any product, service or program, and from misrepresenting test or research results for any product, service, or program.”

The report goes on and on, basically forbidding the various directors of the companies in question from ever marketing any product that promises weight loss or fitness improvement. It’s an utterly comprehensive judgment and I think it’s fantastic.


This is a judgment in the USA. Not here. It has no impact on us, other than perhaps to give us a clue that elsewhere in the world there’s been an investigation into the claims made and some serious people with authority and legal teeth have decided that it’s all lies and that something should be done about it.

However, when you look closely at the report you see something even more worrying. This ruling was made in April 2005, more than two years ago. Two years after the American distributors were told to stop marketing the device we are still exposed to it. I did a quick internet search and found a whole series of outlets offering it for sale.

Remember, this is a device that does not work, a device that in many cases actually burned the people using it and did I mention that it simply doesn’t work?

Why do we put up with this? Is it blissful naiveté? Are we simply unaware of these things? Are we actually sometimes unwilling to face the truth?

There IS a desire in all of us sometimes to deny what we really all know. There are no easy solutions to complex problems. It’s simply not possible to buy a device that you strap on that turns you into a body builder. It’s simply not possible to buy a herbal remedy that will boost your immune system and make you super-healthy. It’s simply not possible for a charlatan preacher to help you achieve prosperity, happiness and salvation, particularly if he demands your money.

On that last point let me repeat the official Consumer Watchdog rule about preachers. “Never trust a preacher who drives a better car than you.”

Back to the Ab Energizer. The good news is that we DO have some protection. Section 15 (1) of the Consumer Protection regulations states that a supplier fails to meet the minimum standards of performance if they quote “scientific or technical data in support of a claim unless the data can be readily substantiated” or if they promise “outcomes where those outcomes have no safe scientific, medical or performance basis”.

So if anyone out there has fallen victim to the Ab Energizer or any other unscientific claptrap get in contact and we’d be delighted to help you write the letter of complaint to the Consumer Protection Unit. Let’s see if they can be as forceful as our American cousins!

This week’s stars!
  • Our friend Isaac for being a good neighbour to us all and alerting us to this device.

Friday 20 July 2007

What colour is tourism?

Last Friday many of us will have read an article by Tshireletso Motlogelwa in Mmegi entitled “The black man’s burden”. This recounted his experiences on a trip he took to Durban, paid for by the Kwazulu Natal Tourism Board.

Before I let rip I think I should make my position on tourism clear. It’s staggeringly obvious that it’s of critical importance. I’m not exaggerating just so I can make some ridiculously self-important, journalistic point. It really is. Sit back for a moment and experience the Consumer Watchdog Introduction to the Importance of Tourism to Botswana’s Future.

As a nation we have relied largely on the income we make from diamonds for most of our independent history. They have helped us build schools, hospitals and roads. They have helped us reinforce a reputation for democracy, freedom and relative prosperity. They have helped us to employ well over a hundred thousand government employees. Oh hang on, forget that last one, it’s not exactly something to shout about. But diamonds HAVE been a remarkable blessing.

But there’s something we have to say quietly. Something we can’t let the world know about diamonds. Something that is almost a taboo.

They are worthless.

Think about it. To what practical purpose can you put a gemstone quality diamond. Err… nothing apart from decoration. Now of course there’s a huge demand for that. We all decorate things, whether it’s our houses, our wives or a birthday cake. But decoration is inherently worthless.

Now of course I’m not saying we should stop digging them up, should stop investing in our local diamond industries and above I’m not saying we should stop selling them. I’m not completely deluded, but the lesson our nation is slowly learning is that diversification is essential. We need to find other ways of funding all the great things we do as a nation.

Tourism must be one of the solutions.

So there’s our lesson, stating the absolutely obvious that we clearly all know already. Tourism is essential.

So why was I surprised to read the article last week? Because I think some of the things that were said seem almost determined to impede the efforts we are making to boost tourism.

One little mentioned aspect of tourism is that a significant proportion of tourists in any country are locals. Contrary to the image many of us have, “tourists” aren’t all foreigners. Tourists can be you and me. Tourists can be the guys who live next door to us who’ve gone up to Khama Rhino Sanctuary for the weekend. They can be those of who’ve saved up for a trip to the Delta. They can be those of us who delight in spending a Saturday night with the kids up at Arne’s Horse Safari, just three quarters of an hour from Gaborone city centre.

So why was my fellow Mmegi writer upset? What had gone so wrong? He seemed to have two major problems.

Firstly that most of the staff in the hotel were black. But then aren’t almost all of the working people in KZN black? Aren’t almost all South Africans, and indeed almost all Batswana, are black. So why would it be surprising that most people in fair-wage-paying, hard-working, feeding and educating the kids jobs turn out to be black?

Of course in South Africa in particular there is a legacy of horrible discrimination. Of course it will take a generation to right these wrongs. Of course these things take a while to overcome. But the thing that strikes me is that these people have jobs. They are earning a living by working hard. They are doing what our parents told us to do. Get a job, work hard and make some money and find opportunities to make a better life for yourself. Yes, I know it’s VERY boring but every so often our parents WERE right about something.

The thing that struck me last time I was with the family at Sun City (Yes, I know it’s slightly trashy but my kids love it and, just between you and me, I rather enjoy it too) is that of course most of the staff were black. But more importantly so were most of the customers! Middle class customers of every skin colour were there spending their hard-earned cash on some ridiculous self-indulgence and having a great deal of fun.

The other point that was made was that the hotel he stayed in served enormous portions of food that somehow were “at odds with the whole ethos of Setswana culture”. I’m sorry, would he rather have been given small portions? Would he rather the staff called for a doctor to estimate the exact size of his stomach before serving him?

Hotels and their restaurants are in the business of satisfying customers. Satisfying them. Of indulging them. Let’s be honest. They are in the business of exceeding our requirements. Would you want to go to a cinema and see a film that only JUST satisfied your demand for entertainment? Of course not. We want to come out of the cinema feeling excited, thrilled and emotional. It’s the same for hotels, restaurants and pretty much all tourism experiences. Don’t we want tourists, whether local or foreigners, to go away from Botswana tourist spots thrilled at the experience, promising to tell their friends how overwhelming the experience was?

Surely we want to overwhelm our tourists, whether it’s some hugely rich foreigner or just you and me? Isn’t that what tourism is all about? Shouldn’t we be indulging tourists as well as ourselves?

This week’s stars!

  • Tom Piper, for always leaving me a little bit happier than before he arrived. Rest In Peace Tom.

Friday 13 July 2007

The fatal weakness of mankind

It seems like there isn’t a week when we aren’t contacted by someone who has ended up in trouble because of problems with contracts.

Whether it’s someone in a mess with a store credit scheme, a warranty that has gone wrong or even a contract they can never walk away from, contracts seem to be a minefield for consumers. You put one foot wrong and it all blows up and hurts you.

A few weeks ago a consumer contacted us because of a huge problem they had got themselves into after buying things on credit from Supreme Furnishers. This customer had gone to Supreme a year ago and bought a microwave oven, a TV stand and, he thought, a queen-sized bed all on a 2-year credit agreement. Shortly afterwards he contacted Supreme because the bed hadn’t turned up. Supreme told him that they had no record of him ever ordering a bed from them and only had details of the other items.

The customer then had a slight temper tantrum and told Supreme to take everything away. Bad move. They came along, took away the goods he had bought and he thought everything was settled. Well, he did until this year when he went to a bank to get a loan only to be turned down when the bank found he had been listed by Supreme with ITC. When we contacted Supreme they told us that when they picked up the goods the customer signed a “Voluntary Repossession Order”. This stated that he acknowledged that he owed Supreme for the outstanding credit scheme payments, minus any resale value Supreme could get for the items. The customer had just assumed that by returning the goods he could just walk away from the whole situation.


Think of it from Supreme’s point of view. The customer had voluntarily entered into a contract and Supreme delivered what was ordered. Shortly afterwards Supreme were instructed to take back items that were now second hand. The law prohibits them form selling them as new so their market value is much less. Supreme had spent money making or buying these items and are now severely out of pocket. They’re going to want that money back, one way or another.

You simply can’t just walk away from a contract.

Whether it’s a car loan, a store credit agreement or a tenancy, you can’t just walk away. There has to be a proper end to the contract.

Now most contracts have some way of ending them or at least some fixed lifespan. Store credit schemes usually last a year or two, car loans perhaps a little longer, home loans a lot longer. Whatever type of contract it is you can usually end it, either by just reaching the end of the term of the contract or sometimes by paying off the debt early.

Incidentally the Supreme situation ended very well because Supreme acknowledged that they hadn’t communicated with the customer as well as they perhaps should and have VERY generously written off the whole debt. However don’t think this happens often. This was a very remarkable result and Supreme showed considerable maturity in taking this one “on the chin”.

The lessons are very simple. A contract is a contract. You can’t just walk away without some consequence.

However, there ARE obligations on suppliers when it comes to contracts. They should be reasonable. They should have terms that are not exploitative and allow some flexibility for those unplanned situations. They should also be clear and easy to understand.

Unfortunately this isn’t always the case. We’ve heard many times of organisations that seem to have something to hide in their contracts. There are contracts that claim to be “irrevocable”, contracts with all sorts of hidden charges or simply those that are impossibly difficult to understand.

Our advice is simple. Caveat emptor. Buyer beware. Let me put it more simply. Here are some simple rules regarding contracts.

Do not ever sign a contract you don’t understand.

Do not ever sign a contract that you haven’t read several times.

Do not ever sign a contract you haven’t shown to a trusted friend, relative or colleague.

Do not ever sign a contract you weren’t allowed to take away to read at leisure.

Do not ever sign a contract that you are pressurised to sign on the spot.

Any reasonable supplier will allow you to take a contract away with you before you sign it. They won’t apply any unreasonable pressure to sign it. They will be happy for you to take it to someone you trust for their opinion. A reasonable supplier will allow you to enter into the contract with the full knowledge of what you are going into. A reasonable supplier will have nothing to hide.

Any supplier that doesn’t allow you to exercise these rights has something to hide and you shouldn’t do business with them.

Just remember that contracts are between two parties. Yes, suppliers have an obligation to play fair but remember that you must enter a contract rationally. Don’t deceive yourself. As Adam Smith said in The Theory of Moral Sentiments 217 years ago, “This self deceit, this fatal weakness of mankind, is the source of half the disorders of human life.”

This week’s stars!

  • Mogorosi Israel, a government security guard at Parliament, who we’re told is hard-working, trustworthy sincere and friendly.
  • Olga, Moloi and Immanuel from Simsa Gas and Geo Gas for speed, helpfulness and courtesy.
  • Arnold and the team at Supreme for going out of their way to be reasonable.

Friday 6 July 2007

A free lesson for combi drivers

This week I’ve worked hard to develop some educational materials for combi drivers. So many of us are forced to use combis that I thought a little something for free would help them improve their customer and social service skills. Well I can hope can’t I?

Firstly a simple fact. The roads do not belong to combi drivers. There’s a simple reason that roads are called “public roads”. It’s because they belong to the public, not just combi drivers. OK, they probably belong to the government or the various city and town councils but who do THEY belong to? Us. We pay the taxes, we elect the MPs and councillors so as far I’m concerned the roads belong to the entire community, not just a small psychopathic section of the community.

So why don’t you try something new. Respect the other road users that have at least as much of a right to use the roads as you do?

Now some technical educational details.

Have you noticed those cute, brightly coloured things on the corners of your vehicles? They flash if you click those stalks next to the steering wheel. In theory they should be yellow but some of you have white ones and some of you don’t have any at all. They’re called “indicators”. Try using them occasionally.

They can be used (this is very clever actually) to “indicate” the direction you are about to take. Not the direction you took some while ago, not the direction you are taking right now but the direction you are GOING to take. I suppose some of you might be asking yourself “Why would I want to do that?” The reason is quite simple. It’s to give other road users (yes those irritating people who are in your way) an idea of what direction you are about to take so they know and can avoid being hit by you. Yes, by you. Go on, ask yourself. When was the last time someone hit a combi?

Try watching the road ahead of you. Not the backside of the girl you just passed, no matter how appealing it might be. That way you might avoid crashing into the car in front of you that has stopped to turn right. That way you might avoid nearly killing a colleague of mine who ended up trapped between your special collapsible seats.

OK, more on combi drivers.

[Try saying that last line out loud. Yes, I know it’s childish but it amuses me.]

Did you know that Section 114 of the Road Traffic Act states that “No person shall, for the purpose of inviting or obtaining passengers for any public service vehicle, make any noise or sound any instrument, or do anything which causes or is likely to cause annoyance, inconvenience or danger to the public.”

So stop tooting every time you come close to a combi stop OK?

And what about your recent strike? I know I’m not the only one who thought this was just the most nonsensical, un-business-like, self-indulgent and verging-on-the-criminal exercise I think we’ve seen on our roads in ages. You didn’t like the fact that proper buses were dropping fare-paying passengers off at convenient locations? You didn’t like it that a section of the transport industry that doesn’t even slightly compete with you were delivering a good service to their customers? And then you start intimidating good people in cars who went to pick up their friends, neighbours and colleagues? Get a grip OK?

OK, so perhaps I should be more positive, constructive and less critical. I can do it, I know.

I want to appeal to the better nature of combi drivers. I’m sure they have one, somewhere.

Adam Smith, the great economist once wrote: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

I’m think we should appeal to the enlightened self-interest of combi drivers. It’s actually in their interests to start behaving responsibly on the roads. That way other road users might be more tolerant of their occasional mistakes, more likely to be generous to them on the roads and perhaps even more likely to use their services.

I’m sure we all want to see combi drivers making an honest living by working hard and getting people around to and from their homes, offices and shops. But they should take a lesson from the banks, restaurants and most supermarkets. You do this best when you show respect for your customers and the community at large. When you start behaving like responsible, grown-up citizens.

This week’s stars!

  • Kgomotso Baleseng, David “Day” Nkwe and Isaih "Disco" Gobuamang both from the Ministry of Finance who apparently are all is hard working, dependable and trustworthy.
  • Kabelo “KB” Johannes from Security Systems who we’re told is “trustworthy, hard working, loyal, a sweet person, humble and down to earth”.
  • In the week when I’m having a go at combi drivers it’s wonderful to celebrate a taxi driver, Allen Nthahelang Kerutwang, who is “extremely helpful, cheerful and friendly and treats customers with respect”. See, it CAN be done.
  • Doreen Modise, from Air Botswana who is “helpful, cheerful, courteous and a very pleasant person”.