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Let Kenyan consumers take power

We are again engaged in endless debates in bustling bar rooms and virtual chat rooms about who our next leader should be. What qualities should he or she have? How do we ensure that we avoid the failures of the past (and present)? Which party really stands for the people? Here’s a thought: forget the politicians for a moment; let the consumers of Kenya take charge.

According to economists, consumers are the monarchs of the marketplace. In a market economy it is neither big companies nor governments that call the shots. Customer tastes, expressed as shilling votes, direct the use of resources. Companies’ profits and losses are the rewards and penalties of the marketplace. Consumers are firmly in the driving seat.

Say what? In Kenya, things appear to be a little different. Consumers could be forgiven for feeling more like vagabonds than monarchs, kicked here and there by big business and big government. To get good treatment from a bank, you have to be a high-net-worth customer; otherwise you are looked upon as part of the rabble that crowds the banking halls and stains the floors, generally creating a nuisance. Lawyers are known to pay scant attention to most clients’ cases, and have a reputation for running off with their money. Many manufacturers produce goods of a quality that has stayed at the same lamentable standard for decades – and then run to invoke patriotic fervour when better-quality imports threaten them.

And the consumer of services provided by government institutions? Don’t even go there. Don’t even start the stories about how long your landline stayed out of order, how many power cuts you faced last week, and how long it is since your street was lit at night. Those are horror stories, not really suitable for a Sunday morning audience.

Kenyan consumers, like Kenyan voters, have always been taken for granted. They are meek, gullible, ignorant and easily impressed. That is a dangerous combination. It is what has caused the paradox of businesses producing appalling quality yet raking in obscene profits. They treat you like dirt, but you keep giving them your money. They are counting on one thing: that you aren’t going anywhere.

Consumers need to take the crown back. They hold all the cards. No business, no organisation can survive if its customers do not wish it to. All the votes you need are in your wallet. All you need is to understand how to use those votes and maximise their power.

For one thing, we need more choices on offer. All monopolies must be dismantled, and the fresh winds of competition must be allowed to blow through the marketplace, sweeping the dust of inefficiency away. Monopolies are a licence to abuse, and we must take that licence away. Consumers must understand this and lobby for it. Look at the effects of new competition, in industry after industry: telecommunications, alcoholic beverages, internet services, apparel, and many others. Once, Kenyans had limited choice at high prices; today, at least in some industries, they enjoy a variety of offerings and packages at prices they can afford.

In advanced economies, consumers have formed large-scale associations to protect their interests. These associations have millions of members, and do many things for them: they conduct research into the best products on offer and produce buying guides; they lobby government to introduce structural changes into industries; they condemn and boycott producers who turn out inferior quality or harm the environment; and generally make a very constructive nuisance of themselves.

In these countries, even the public sector has been forced to respond. In many countries public institution like railways, power companies and telephone operators have been forced to publish customer charters: clear, binding statements setting out what standards of service the customer has a right to expect. In many cases, these charters have real bite: if a train on the London Underground is more than 15 minutes late (other than through unavoidable circumstances) for example, customers can claim a full refund of the fare paid. If your phone line is not reconnected within a short period, many national operators now undertake to pay penalties to you. Can you imagine the bracing effect on our state corporations if such charters were enforced here? Overnight they would be forced to modernise their processes and systems, to avoid haemorrhaging money.

To see the effects of customer power, consider a Kenyan industry: horticulture. Not so many years ago, Kenyan horticulture was a rag-tag affair of vegetable and flower exporters, churning out produce of highly variable quality and often engaging in questionable activities regarding employees and the environment. Today, the industry is highly organised and focused on product quality, supplying some of the big names of Europe. Great strides have been made in employee policies and social responsibility. But why? Simply because consumers in Europe demanded it. Quality, traceability and policy requirements all forced our producers to take a hard look at their processes and practices, and comply or lose the business. They complied, and are the stronger for it. The only tragedy is that it took foreign consumers to enforce the changes.

Kenyan consumers need to climb into that driving seat. They must take their rightful place in the market economy. The time for tolerating shoddiness is past. What can you do? If a product is consistently poor, stop buying it. Look for alternatives, and encourage your friends to do the same. Don’t always look for the lowest price; it costs you (and the country) more in the long run. Stop going to a shop if the assistants are surly and the proprietor unavailable. If a service provider has let you down, make a racket. Write to the boss, write to the papers, call a radio station. If many people in your area are affected by a problem, get together and form an association. Lobby vehemently and persistently. Organise marches and protests (non-violently, of course) outside the offices of the culprits. Embarrass them repeatedly until they do something. Hit them where it hurts. But please, please don’t accept and acquiesce. The meek are not blessed in the kingdom of the market.

These things work: have you noticed how many CEOs respond personally to customer complaints raised in the national media these days? Or the (very) gradual improvement in customer service standards in some of our better companies? Give it more impetus. The best organisations view customer complaints as an opportunity to take leadership. The worst ones see it as a damned nuisance, and need to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

There is a bigger prize at stake. If we can learn to fight for our rights as consumers, we may learn to fight for them as voters. If we can see, as consumers, how we can lead economic development, we may see, as voters, how we can (and must) transform our political development. The point is to recognise the power in your pocket, and use it. The ordinary people of this country are the users of services, the beneficiaries of efficient organisation and, more commonly, the victims of failure. Let them take power now.

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