‘There are massive violations of consumer rights’

The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) recently created a new baby, the Consumer Protection Committee (CPC). NewsDay (ND) business reporter Fidelity Mhlanga spoke to CPC chairperson Sam Watasa (SW) after a recent meeting in Harare. Below are the excerpts:

ND: Tell us about yourself and the work you do.

SW: My name is Sam Watasa, a Ugandan national. I am the executive director of Uganda Consumers’ Protection Association.   I am a commissioner at East African Community Competition Authority and am here as chairperson of the Comesa Consumer Protection Committee. Broadly, my work focuses on consumer protection, an area I have spent over 20 years of my career life in.

ND: You are the chairperson of the new Comesa baby, the Consumer Protection Commission. What are its objectives?

SW: I will provide what are the core deliverables because the objective is largely to achieve a harmonised consumer protection environment across Comesa member States. Among the many deliverables expected from the committee are: The establishment of a minimum level of standards for consumer rights to assist and give guidance to member States; the review of consumer protection laws at national level to ensure harmonisation with the provisions under Part 5 of the Comesa competition regulations; the setting up of working groups to identify and discuss emerging trends in consumer protection in the common market, such as financial technologies; obtaining consensus among member States to enhance efforts towards the establishment of a regional laboratory for testing of products consumed in the common market, among others.

ND: In your presentations at the event in Harare you mentioned that we have extremely low levels of consumer awareness  in Africa. What can be done to address this problem?

SW: Addressing low levels of consumer awareness will take concerted efforts of governments through responsible agencies, civil society organisations, international agencies and knowledgeable individuals. It requires sustainable efforts because consumer protection issues are as dynamic as the economic environment, the market and economic operators. The entry point lies squarely in your ambit as the media; to develop knowledge-seeking behaviour on consumer protection, pass on such knowledge to the public and publish feedback.

ND: What is the work of the commission in promoting consumer law in Africa?

SW: The work of the Comesa Competition Commission is to regulate market conduct of entities to ensure that their operations guarantee increasingly better consumer welfare in terms of the right to choice, quality and safe goods and services.

ND: South Africa is not a member of Comesa. What can be done to address problems affecting member States who trade with SA?

SW: The Competition Act operates irrespective of the country of origin of goods, territorial jurisdiction as long as trading or business operations are traceable in the common market and are identifiable to have a cross-border effect. Accordingly, whether the origin of goods and services is in South Africa despite that it is not a member of Comesa, as long as harm to consumers is established in two or more Comesa member States, the Act is evocable.

ND: Member States have competition commissions. So at what stage can a competition issue be escalated to be addressed at Comesa level?

SW:: Non-compliance with competition regulations becomes an issue of concern where such infringement has an effect in more than one member State. Issues prevalent in one State fall under the jurisdiction of national competition authorities.

ND: The African consumer commissions are mostly domiciled in towns and yet a majority of consumers are domiciled in the rural areas. What can be done to address this disparity?

SW: The choice of location of consumer protection and competition commissions in towns can be explained by the need to co-ordinate and closely work with complementary agencies to achieve reasonable impact for consumer protection. Informed consumers cannot be constrained to report abuse on account of location of the organisation or agency. However, consumer protection agencies and associations can design institutional structures that deliver on effective functional impact despite such location.

ND: Which sectors of the economy do we usually find companies which violate competition laws.

SW: Violation of consumer rights and abuse of market position by entities is across all product sectors. It is, however, most felt in fast-moving consumer goods and sectors where such conduct has attractive returns, but more especially, where competition regulation is weak or non-existent. Where there are no sanctions, misconduct becomes profitable. -Newsday

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