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Consumers deserve better protection from government – Barr. Ayojimi

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Barr. Muyiwa Ayojimi is a Consumer Lawyer and Corporate Governance expert, who has practiced for well over two decades both in the public and private sectors. He is involved in advisory roles and services to leading global brands in at least two of the world’s top five consumer products’ companies.

These advisory roles both domestic and cross-border, have focused on corporate transactions in the Insurance and FMCG industry, having advised on some of the most significant and biggest transactions in the Nigerian Capital Market on mergers and acquisitions, recapitalization and corporate restructuring.

He is the CEO of CONSUMERTRICS Nigeria – a consummate consulting firm and Co-convener of the Centre for Consumer Concern Initiative.
He is an Associate of both the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators of Nigeria and the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators Nigeria.

Barr. Ayojimi is a member of the Society for Corporate Governance Nigeria, a Member of the Institute of Management and a Notary Public of Nigeria. In this interview with Business Hallmark”s Olusesan Laoye, he revealed the need for both the state and Federal governments in Nigeria to focus on how to protect consumers and ensure equality products.

Excerpts:

There has been agitations that consumers are being neglected here in Nigeria as if they don’t have any right, how do you think the rights of consumers in Nigeria could be protected?

I see consumer protection in the country from three broad angles of the consumer, the economy generally and then regulation/agencies. The Nigerian consumer is yet to find a more potent expression as their voice is always, almost lost or suppressed at the expense of contending economies of scale priorities of providers of products or services.
You cannot discuss the consumer and leave out the economy. There is a fine line between the two. For the consumers, they have, in certain ways, slowed down the economic progress by showing limited support for locally produced goods and services. A compelling illustration is the enduring preference of the Nigerian consumer for foreign-made products over locally crafted e.g Aba or Abeokuta products. Despite efforts to encourage the consumption of domestically produced goods through measures like imposing bans on specific imports and enforcing stringent foreign exchange policies, these attempts have proven ineffective in dissuading Nigerians.

This inclination will persist because of what can be ascribed to Nigerians long-standing scepticism about the country’s manufacturing and service sectors, which have inundated the market with sub-par or lousy products and services. The consumer believes that foreign made products have passed the scrutiny of regulatory standards and established consumer protection mechanisms, unlike the Nigerian products.

This preference, in turn, adversely impacts the elements of production in domestic industries, including labor, due to reduced consumer demand. The absence of a structured platform for consumers to engage with suppliers and manufacturers means they are often unaware of improvements in product quality, and manufacturers remain uninformed about the reasons for declining consumption and patronage.

We have some regulatory agencies in Nigeria expected to help consumers, do you think they are up to the task?

You are right, there are agencies in Nigeria today with consumer protection oversight. We have the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and the Lagos State Consumer Protection Agency. The Laws establishing these agencies have not only promoted fair competition, ensure restitution and compensation for buyers of defective goods/services, ensure that consumers have accurate information to make informed choices based on their preference, the spread and impact of their mandate will ineffectively protect consumers given the level of funding and strategic structure gaps in the agencies.
My assessment is that consumer protection in Nigeria as at today is an ‘after-the-fact’ process, call it reactive engagement unlike an ‘end-to-end’ process as established in other climes. If there is a time the consumer’s trust in product and service requires a boost, it is now when the purchasing power of the Nigerian consumer is low and demands value for every naira being spent.

Can you share your consumer advocacy and advisory journey and; how effective has the campaigns been?

Consumers represent the most significant economic demographic and serve as the focal point for all marketing endeavours. Without a consumer, there is no commerce and that’s why I fused together the consumer and economic activities.

Topmost on our advocacy journey using the platforms I represent has been awareness trainings, programs to consumers about their rights through the print and electronic media; partnership with brands on their obligation to consumers to disclosing the price of their goods or services, ensuring goods corresponds with samples and descriptions, adequate product labelling and trade descriptions and the need for product and service information to bear clear and understandable language.

The regulators can not do it alone. We have had recourse to undertaking free webinars on issues around consumer governance for corporates. An orientation and re-orientation of people to understand that they can be consumers at any level and so must treat every consumer with respect. The customer service at the bank should know that one minute, it’s a service to a customer, the next minute that customer may be attending to him or her during lunch or after working hours, at an eatery. They both should understand how they feel when not being properly treated when service is poor or sublimate.

The challenges faced over the years have ranged from lack of education of an average consumer to understanding basic product and service terms and conditions to access to easy redress of complaints and ability for both the consumer and corporates to live up to contractual obligations. Another challenge is the fact that legal redress on consumer issues take long in conventional courts as other cases and so, the consumer abandons their claims even when their right is infringed.

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What are your takes on the consumer space in many states of the Federation, particularly, Oyo State?

There is no consumer spacing agency in the States, including Oyo State that you mentioned. The appendages of the Federal Government agencies relating to protecting consumers are either not existent in the States or do not even have the manpower to enforce consumer protection. They merely exist on paper as regional/ state offices.

There should be a concern for the States, particularly as their economies have started to attract the needed economic growth for consumer trust in these set up to follow suit. Where consumers are confident of products and services, the economic growth will be sustained.

My worry for Oyo State, and others in the country is that the consumer awareness and vulnerability index in these states is too low. What mechanisms does the government have put in place to check dumping of leftover/expired products and inordinate services from cosmopolitan areas, for example into Ibadan? There is pressure and desperation everywhere now and the government needs to look out for the consumer.You remember in 2009 during the Akala administration when people woke up to see destitutes at Iwo Road round about or was it Molete? And the governor at the time accused the then Lagos governor of having brought them into the state. This happens to goods and services every day in the state. There are certain promotional activities that happen in the Oyo state and even let me say categorically in virtually all the states of the Federation on a daily basis, that can impact the health of the consumers. No one is checking such arbitrariness.

The States honestly should start considering seriously setting up their own consumer governance framework to interface with consumer concerns. Infact, any serious government should do that. In reality, consumers often possess significantly less influence and information compared to producers or service providers in the marketplace and so government should create that balance of opportunity.

What do you think the concerns or agitations of an average consumer should be?

A consumer doesn’t want to doubt a product. Manufacturing companies should prioritize producing high-quality, durable products to safeguard their brand reputation and avoid potential legal repercussions. Likewise, service providers should treat consumers with respect and provide maximum satisfaction, recognizing the significance of fundamental human rights. The consumer appreciates having products that are clear and easy to understand. A choice of ways of communicating to be available whenever needed to make contact and for these to be designed in an inclusive way so that they are clear, easy to understand and meet consumers need.

The consumer wants someone who will take the time to listen, who is flexible enough to let the conversation take its natural course, and who is sufficiently trained to resolve their complaints. Recently, corporates celebrated customer service week. While it was done with so much enthusiasm, I would have thought that a better way to celebrate customers would have been to reverse the role and see how customers mimic feedback to the organization. Infact, the organizations should have showcased the number of issues received and resolved between the last celebration to date.
Above all, the consumer wants value for their money and safety in the use of such product and this is very important.

What should government be doing, particularly to cushion the effects of consumer yearnings?

The primary objective for the government on consumer protection is to be honest and trustworthy, in the processes of approving products and services. The process should not only be revenue generation, there should be continuous surveillance and monitoring, which to me is also very crucial. Also, initiatives need to be developed to educate consumers about their rights, advocate for them in case of violations, and shield them from potential infringements without any concealed interests. This would serve as a strong incentive for local, reputable producers and service providers to maintain exceptionally high commercial standards and discourage negligent businesses that prioritize short-term gains over reputation. Additionally, it would eliminate entities producing sub-par goods due to competitive pressures.

Nigerians are willing to pay for quality products and services, even when locally made, as long as they are affordable and reliable, provided there is trust.

The theoretical notion that market forces alone will ensure safe and quality products and services at reasonable prices does not align with practical reality. By the time market forces kick in, many consumers have already suffered harm, deception, injury, or deprivation. Local consumer rights protection laws can mitigate some of these issues, and the enforcement of such laws can further prevent these ills. Establishing an independent organization that facilitates consumer advocacy will address these problems and reinforce trust in locally made goods and services.

In summary, we need more platforms dedicated to safeguarding consumers’ rights, advocacy services that are cost-effective or free, increased awareness of consumer rights, even if businesses are surcharged or mandated to report on a threshold perhaps for tax rebates. This is the key to building trust and confidence among consumers.

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