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Created on 12 February 2013 Written by Simon Corden
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Fight for your Rights...but you have to know them first!

In a four part series, The Service Mag looks at consumer protection in Rwanda, How to Complain (and get what you want), Smarter Shopping and what to do if all else fails when things are not getting resolved.

Part 1 - Consumer Protection Law in Rwanda
In this first article, Simon Corden a Trading Standards and Consumer Protection expert from the United Kingdom explores a consumer’s legal rights in Rwanda.

The UK has over 50 Acts of Parliament and countless Regulations that provide the legal framework for consumer protection. Each local authority is required to enforce the legislation through 100s of highly trained officers across the country and even into other parts of Europe. Enforcement includes advice, guidance, and inspection of trade premises, testing of goods and services, and handling complaints from the public or other traders and trade bodies. Hi-tech test houses and specialists exist to provide expert testimony when required and a network of Public Analysts offer these services within easy reach. Legal metrology standards are maintained at local levels and traceability to all International Standards such as mass, length, time are readily established.

Discovered non-compliance can result in warnings, enforcement notices, and institution of legal proceedings and prosecution through the courts. Ultimately, this can lead to a financial penalty for the business or a fine and or imprisonment for a culpable individual, like a company director.

MINCOM
As contributor to The Service Magazine, I wanted to understand the safeguards that Rwanda has for its consumers. My starting point was MINICOM, The Ministry of Trade and Industry. On their website, I found plenty of information including sections on:

•    Laws and Regulations
•    Standards
•    Planning documents and Reports
•    Decisions and Orders
•    Strategies.

Access to the source legislation is available online. Law No36/2012 of 21/09/2012 relating to competition and consumer protection consists of 59 Articles and its purpose is described as:

This Law aims at encouraging competition in the economy by prohibiting practices that undermine the normal and fair course of competition practices in commercial matters. It also aims at ensuring consumers’ interests promotion and protection.

It’s a diverse piece of legislation that covers anti-competitive behaviour and consumer protection. Familiar with statutory interpretation, I find familiar sections relating to Definitions, Scope, Prohibitions, Power of Investigators, Sanctions, Commencement and so on. In simple, easy to understand terms starting from Chapter V, the law to protect consumers in Rwanda is set out. It’s comprehensive. The obligations of enterprises are described together with very specific requirements for:

•    The display of prices – on individual items, on adjacent shelves or in a notice
•    Labelling requirements for certain goods
•    Prohibited practices – for example advertising that encourages risky or behaviour that is dangerous for heath and safety of persons
•    Compliance with a contract – including a requirement that goods must be as described and fit for the purpose required by the consumer at the point of sale
•    Sellers’ liabilities – the requirement for Guarantees, after sales services for durable goods, requirements for product safety and quality.

In a few words, it’s all there!

Deeper into the MINCOM site I find about the quality standards for certain foodstuffs, electrical goods, pharmaceuticals and construction materials; further controls and specifications for goods and services sold in Rwanda.

In the Reports section, the Ministry states how many traders have been trained on the law (6708, in 2001-2012) and how many premises were inspected for compliance (4064 in the same period) with individual inspection reports available on request. It has been difficult to get a total number of businesses in Rwanda and I understand the issue, with literally countless sole traders, partnerships, and cooperatives selling every kind of commodity in all locations – street selling, small boutiques and alimentations. But I estimate the number of training sessions and inspections have only touched a small proportion of the total number of traders and therefore the majority of consumer transactions are essentially concluded without regard to the finer detail in Law No36/2012 of 21/09/2012 as described above.

 

RBS

 

Another area which is perhaps unclear to a consumer is who does what? Let me introduce the Rwanda Bureau of Standards – RBS. The Bureau of Standards exists to author, approve and apply standards relating to goods and services. Standards are an agreed set of criteria that specify key characteristics. Standards can be applied across the entire world for things such as weights and measures so that a kilogram weighs the same in Butare as it does in Buenos Aires.

 

Standards can be global, international, national, but it is normal that standards for trade cover many jurisdictions. Here are some examples:

RS 30: 2004
 Sorghum flour - Specifies requirements for sorghum flour for human consumption

RS 87:2005
 Carbon steel bars for the reinforcement of concrete  - Specifies requirements for carbon steel bars for the reinforcement of concrete.

RS 453: 2009 
EAS 549:2008
 Road vehicles - Special warning lamps - Dimensions
This International Standard specifies the dimensions of special warning lamps for road vehicles, in order to ensure interchangeability and accurate positioning

RS 553:2011 
ISO 9001:2004
 Quality management systems - Specifies requirements for a quality management systems.

Note the different applications – RS (Rwanda Standard); EAS (East African Standard); ISO (International Standard)

RBS verify and test measuring equipment used for trade, in particular they ensure the accuracy of fuel measuring pumps and since 2008 have also tested over 8000 weighing scales and balances. They remove any that do not comply with the appropriate standard. The Bureau also conducts market surveillance and inspections, checks on imports, visits to hotels and restaurants to promote sanitation practices.


What does all this mean?
In one sense, it reinforces the reputation of Rwanda, compared to its neighbours: the rule of law. However, there’s a long way to go in terms of national implementation, popular understanding and therefore widespread compliance let alone the existence of a fair trading environment and general raising of standards. The laws exist, the enforcers exist, the technical facilities to check and test and standardise exist, but I still feel something is missing.

So, for example despite the common sense approach of Caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) how can a consumer exercise their rights if they don’t know they have any? How can a hapless trader be held responsible for trading unfairly if they are unaware of the law? Ignorant of the maxim Ignorantia juris non excusat (ignorance of the law is no excuse).

My evidence for this is that all too often I visit catering establishments with unclear pricing, witness poor quality food preparation and judging by the toilets, a low regard for food and personal hygiene. Rarely do I see adequate pricing information in shops and supermarkets. Instead I am often surrounded by over-zealous sales assistants whose body language suggests they suspect me of potential thievery! On asking for a price they then have to ask whoever is operating the till. Unfortunately, I hear many other stories where people who try to return faulty goods, or attempt to get a refund and therefore reinstate trust with their supplier founder on the rocks of indifference, unhelpfulness and even bullying from the very people they have just paid good money to. It’s not good for business, attracting and keeping tourists or nationals.

Maybe I'm not a lone voice...In 2009 Institute of Policy Analysis and Research – Rwanda (IPAR) commissioned research on Poor Customer Service and its Impact on the Rwandan Economy .

Key Findings
•    Rwandan customer service is seen as the worst in the region.
•    1 in 4 tourists have a negative customer service in Rwanda and the perception may be getting worse.
•    Customer service quality varies across the sectors and is linked to skills, with white-collar generally better and blue-collar sectors – notably transport – weak.
•    Due to lack of competition is the main reason why consumers continue to visit businesses with poor service.

Key Problems
•    Most cited problems are: unhelpfulness/inattentiveness, slowness and rudeness.
•    There is a Rwandan cultural norm against complaining.
•    Consumers seem to lack awareness of what they have a right to expect. Those exposed to customer service in other countries are much more demanding.
•    Organizational cultures do not seem to encourage a focus on hard work.

There’s no recent data to assess the current situation and reckon not much has changed. My opinion is based upon mostly anecdotal information, so I ask the readership to share their experiences.

Please leave a comment below, or
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In the next article we’ll be looking at the various formal means that you can register a complaint about goods and service bought in Rwanda and identify who in Government can help you and how.

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