Yesterday, March 15, was World Consumer Rights Day. The day dates back to 1962 when President John F. Kennedy of the United States of America addressed the US Congress and formally raised the issue of consumer rights.
Records show that JFK became the first ever world leader to raise issues of consumerism; hence, the consumer rights movement worldwide commemorates the day annually as a special platform to raise awareness of consumer rights, including demanding the protection and respect for the said rights.
This year’s theme for the day was ‘Building a Digital World Consumers Can Trust’.
There could not have been a better theme than this one, especially at this time when technology has taken over transactions. With information and communication technology (ICT), gone are the days when one would have to carry wads of bank notes to make payments for utilities, groceries or even school fees.
Electronic transfers and point of sale (PoS) devices are doing the trick. It is literally a cashless society.
From any corner of the world, one can have access to their bank account using a mobile phone and automated teller machines (ATMs), among other facilities. Simply put, ICT has simplified the lives of many consumers.
But, hey, wait a minute! Do Malawian consumers deserve to celebrate the dawn of ICT? Can local consumers trust the existing digital world?
I feel the answers are both “yes” and “no”. “Yes” in the sense that there is an effort among service providers to provide such services. On the other hand, “no” because in most cases the services leave a lot to be desired.
Take for example the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) pre-paid billing platform. Every day, it is becoming a headache for consumers to purchase pre-paid electricity units or tokens. Half the time the system is down such that one has to struggle to get the service even through mobile platforms. Many consumers will testify to spending nights in darkness because “there is no network” at Escom.
Commercial banks are not spared either. PoS devices are increasing by the day in most outlets, yet, at the end of the day, many of them are not functional around the clock as is expected.
In some cases, where a customer of one commercial bank uses an ATM of a different bank, it happens that the machine does not dispense cash but their accounts are debited. To have reversals on such transactions, some banks take over seven days! If this is not inefficiency and inconvenience, then what is?
Reading posts on the social media platform, Facebook, one of my friends, Jibu Nyirenda, last week spoke about how an officer at Chichiri Service Centre of National Bank of Malawi told him they “do not respond to e-mails because there are just too many of them [e-mails]”. Apparently, he had made a query via e-mail and wondered why the bank did not respond.
Ironically, this is one of the commercial banks that demand e-mail addresses from its customers as part of know your customer (KYC) drive. Come on! There are “too many” e-mails because the bank does not respond! If those e-mails are responded to, I bet the inbox will be lighter and even the banking halls empty as many customers will have their queries resolved without stepping into a banking hall.
On the brighter side, though, there are positive developments in digital business that give an assurance that all is not lost. Here, I have in mind electronic payments for utilities such as Lilongwe Water Board (LWB) and Blantyre Water Board (BWB). In the case of BWB, I do not remember the last time I visited their offices as I pay through Airtel Money, avoiding the queues in the process while sparing myself the inconvenience and embarrassment of a water disconnection for non-payment.
When all is said and done, it is worth commending the service providers for the initiatives towards a digital or cashless society. Moving forward, though, it is important that service providers improve on delivery to give and guarantee consumers a platform devoid of inconveniences.
With improvements, surely, the country will have built “a digital world consumers can trust’.