Acute cash shortages have created serious headaches for consumers in Zimbabwe who are now grappling with price distortions and price gouging at a time when disposable incomes are dwindling. The Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ), the country’s consumer watchdog, has been blamed, in some quarters, of failing to adequately assist consumers. Business reporter Kudzai Kuwaza (KK) spoke to the CCZ executive director, Rosemary Siyachitema (RS), on various issues including challenges faced by the CCZ, cash shortages and calls for Zimbabwe to adopt the South African rand as the country’s major currency.
KK: Some point out that your organisation has not done enough to protect consumers as per your mandate. Do you think this is a fair assessment?
RS: CCZ has done enough as per its mandate with the available resources we have managed to get. It is the way of the world. There are some who will think you are doing a good job and there are some who will think otherwise. You can only do what you can with the resources that you have at hand. We have done as much as we can when you consider that the environment that we are in is a very difficult one. It has been a very difficult environment since 2006. We have been lurching from one crisis to another.
Our organisation still continues to carry out consumer education to enable consumers to make informed decisions. Outreach programmes have been carried out in all regions in Zimbabwe, whereby CCZ representatives carry out awareness campaigns. We also handle complaints and disputes between consumers and service providers. CCZ has continued to lobby for consumers.
KK: What are the challenges you face as the CCZ in carrying fulfilling your mandate?
RS: I think the country as a whole has not really appreciated what consumer issues are all about. If you look at our neighbours South Africa, they have resources that are more than adequate to be able to cover the whole country. We have never had sufficient resources, not only financial, but also to employ enough personnel to go as far and wide as we would like to.
You will find that our work is centred in town yet our biggest market is in the rural areas. We have never had the wherewithal to cover the whole country. We are also not able to go deeper into consumer issues that cut across the whole economy. You cannot be a jack of all trades if you are working with such a small staff complement.
KK: One of your functions as CCZ is influencing government to enact laws to protect consumers. What laws have you helped to enact as an organisation?
RS: CCZ has managed to lobby for the following laws:
Patients’ Charter, which seeks to create an environment of mutual understanding, participation and humane treatment of patients. Consumer Contract Act, which protects consumers against unfair contracts. Competition Act, which encourages and promotes competition in all sectors of the economy. Small Claims Court, which is accessible to low-income groups who cannot afford legal fees. Class Action Act, which makes provision for consumers to jointly seek legal redress.
However, these little pieces of legislation are scattered all over and we have found them to be inadequate in addressing the whole issue of consumers. This is why we have been working on the Consumer Protection Act for more than five years. We have done all the groundwork. We travelled around the country and they gave us their input and we also consulted other stakeholders. We are on the brink and we hope it will soon be passed into law. If it does come out, it is something we should celebrate because it is very comprehensive. Anyone with a consumer issue or complaint will find an answer within the Consumer Protection Act.
KK: Some retail outlets have introduced a three-tier pricing system, one for cash, one for swiping and one for EcoCash, creating distortions in the market, what are you doing to help curb this challenge?
RS: CCZ was the first to take note of this issue sometime in October last year and we have continued to inform the relevant authorities about it.
KK: Have you proffered any possible solutions to the problem of price distortions?
RS: CCZ has encouraged relevant authorities to increase the point-of-sale machines so that every retailer or service provider will have the same pricing as they will be using the same mode of transaction.
KK: What is your view of the prevailing cash shortage in the market that has resulted in consumers spending the night in queues?
RS: There is no reason for people to be spending the night in queues for cash when they can easily access goods and services by using mobile money transactions and point-of-sale machines without the need for cash. As CCZ we are encouraging consumers to embrace plastic money and move away from a culture of holding cash which has resulted in the shortage and also overpricing by retail outlets.
KK: Do you subscribe to the view that the South African rand should be used as the trading currency in Zimbabwe?
RS: It does not matter which currency we use, the problem is not the currency but rather the issue of us not being able to produce enough goods for our market and also for exports so as to sustain the economy.
KK: The issue of consumers being forced to buy products of a certain amount before they can be given a cash-back has been one of the reasons attributed to retail outlets making huge profits. Are customers, in your view, being ripped off in their desperate hunt for cash?
RS: Yes, consumers are being ripped off their cash when buying goods from retail outlets, thus the continued effort of CCZ to make sure that our consumers embrace a cashless society and informatively know the advantages it has other than carrying cash.
CCZ also continues to encourage its consumers and service providers to make use of point-of-sale machines to access goods and services to avoid consumers being ripped off as they try to get cash.
KK: You have pointed out previously that the increase in fuel prices has triggered the increase in prices of goods and services. Is that the only factor that triggers price increases in your view?
RS: There are various factors that we have pointed out over the years which have led to the increase in the prices of goods and services. The closing down of industries is the major one as it has led to a rise in importation of raw materials and finished goods which also contribute to the increase in the prices of goods and services.
Transportation and logistical costs have also contributed to the rise in prices as the National Railways of Zimbabwe is failing to provide railway services which are way cheaper.
KK: There have been concerns that Statutory Instrument 64 which prohibits the import of more than 40 products has led to local producers increasing prices to the detriment of consumers. What is your view on this?
RS: Local production of goods has always been expensive because of the unavailability of raw materials which trigger a high production cost. Local producers do come up with prices based on production cost so as to make a profit, thus the ban of imports according to Statutory Instrument 64 cannot be held accountable for high cost but rather high production cost.
KK: As a representative of consumers, are you satisfied with the standards of products on the market and what can be done to improve the quality of products of the market?
RS: CCZ is satisfied to a lesser extent by some of the products and services on the market. Thus the organisation continues to advocate for better standards of products and services from providers and also encourages them to adopt the necessary technology which will enable them to better their services and products protection.
KK: What have been the major achievements of the CCZ?
RS: CCZ has successfully lobbied for specific consumer legislation in Zimbabwe such as the Patients Charter, Consumer Contract Act (1994) and the National Incomes and Pricing Commission Act (2007).
CCZ has continued to lobby on behalf of consumers through complaints handling to create a fair relationship between consumers and service providers. The organisation has been able to carry out consumer education and represent consumer interests continuously. The organisation has also been able to develop social and economic indicators that guide our standard and quality of life for consumers in the country.