Director -general of Consumer Protection Council (CPC), Mr. Babatunde Irukera, in this interview with Peter Ekele , sheds more light on the efforts of the Council to protect consumer rights through several initiatives, the patients’ bill of rights, challenges and lots more.
What initiatives are you bringing on board to enhance the protection of rights of the consumers?
We have a range of initiatives based on the statutory mandate of the organisation. The key areas we are focusing on as a Council are market wide interventions, a more robust complaints resolution process and a more effective means of consumer education, essentially making consumers more aware of their rights. How we are doing each of these things is that we are thinking of partnering with industry so that we will look into their channels for communicating with consumers. We are also getting some support from UNIDO to develop a Consumer Charter and to also do some sensitisation around the National Quality Infrastructure Project. I think these are the two areas that would enhance consumer experience and, with respect to the complaint resolution process, we are also looking at collaborating with industry to change the current resolution model process where, literally every complaint comes to the Consumer Protection Council. This process is taking time and is not the best way to maximize resources. So, what we are doing is to automate and we are very advanced in that process. It would allow more people complain through multiple channels and we are insisting that companies should plug into our automation technology so that we can send complaints to them almost instantaneously and then we monitor the whole process to make sure complaints are resolved within a specific period of time. Only complaints that don’t get resolved at this level that consumers would bring to us to resolve. These are the key things we intend to do. The other is to institutionalise quality and consumer service. In that regard, the CPC is starting a training school working with UNIDO to develop the curriculum to make sure that companies are actually sending their people there for training on how to handle customer issues.
At what instance does a consumer lose his or her own right?
Well, I don’t think a consumer ever loses his or her rights. At every step of the way, the consumer right is the consumer right. Whatever grievances or dissatisfaction a consumer experiences in the transaction between that consumer and the goods or service provider, it creates a right in that consumer. However, if the goods or service provider has provided everything, respected the consumer and provided exactly what that consumer asked for in the right specification and the right quality, and the consumer becomes dissatisfied for some other reason which is external, let’s say, a consumer wanted a black car and he or she is supplied a black car to the exact specification and the black car is not malfunctioning but after a few months the consumer decided that he or she prefers a red car then, there is really no violation of rights by the service or goods provider. But when that is not the case, then every step of the way we will take on every complaint and we will seek to resolve it.
There are still people out there who do not know how accessible the Consumer Protection Council is to the consumer. How accessible is the Council to the consumers?
Well, the Council is very accessible to the public. But I agree with you that there are still many people who do not know. Right now, we receive complaints on multiple channels, we have hotlines where people can call in and we also harvest complaints from Twitter and Facebook. We are expanding those channels now. Hopefully, one of the things that would come with our automation process is full service application that people will download and complain from, and we are working to make sure that the interface is very user friendly so that people can literally complain. And when these complaints come to us, the process won’t just end with us, we will immediately share those complaints with companies that are the target of the complaints so that they can quickly step in. It is only when they don’t resolve, like I said, that we would proceed to resolve.
What are you doing in the health sector to enhance the health of patients in terms of the quality of medical service and drugs?
That is a very important question. I think that is the most important thing that we have done in 2017 and we have almost concluded that. We expect that to go out soon and what we have done is to work with key stakeholders in the healthcare sector, including doctors, nurses, radiologists, laboratory technologists and pharmacists with the aim of coming up with a statement of patients’ rights, so that both the health care providers and the patients become more accustomed or familiar with their rights. That way, the patients are able to demand for their rights better and then the healthcare service providers are able to recognise what their real obligations and duties are to the patients. We believe this would dramatically improve the quality of care that patients receive.
Do you have synergy with the Standards Organization of Nigeria (SON)?
Yes we do. We have synergy with the director general of SON and there is an on-going correspondence between us. As a matter of fact, SON, NAFDAC and CPC are working to create a strategic intervention in key areas such as curbing the existence of adulterated products because that seems to be a very big problem. We are also looking at working on food fortifications and a few other issues.
Within the short time you have been at the helm of affairs in the Council, are there challenges in terms of operation and what are you doing to address them?
Quite a number of challenges. First, the physical infrastructure is poor, not just at the head office. What we have done in respect to physical infrastructure is that we are in the process of moving out of our Port Harcourt office, we have just relocated our Bauchi office and we have just opened a new office in Kano. We are also in the process of relocating our head office in Abuja to a better apportioned facility. With the limited tools for the work, we are also automating to simplify the work and promote efficiency. We have purchased other things like hardware and computers, but we still have a significant need for more. Resources continue to be a challenge, but the Federal Government has been very gracious. They have demonstrated that consumer protection is the priority of this administration at the highest level. So we have gotten some attention, we have gotten some intervention and we have gotten significant review to budget so that we can do a better job of protecting the consumers. Other challenges bordered on internal capacity and a demotivated work force, but that changed when I arrived. The workforce is more motivated and we have expanded our training, both internal and external. Workforce continues to be a challenge, sometimes not from a competent stand point, but from a capacity stand point because you must remember that with what we are doing here, we have less than 300 people in about nine different offices and we are taking care of about 774 local government areas in 36 states and a population of 180 million people. So you can imagine what the capacity gap in that regard is. However, I think we are doing quite some work on concluding the inter-regulatory collaboration that we require with other regulators so that we can be effective in each of the sectors.
So, are you getting cooperation from any?
Yes we are. In fairness, what we are proposing is significantly different from what the previous understandings were. And so it is understandable that the magnitude of change is such that requires some credible and deeper engagement than it has been previously. We are near concluding drafts with the CBN and NCC. We have completed the terms of reference and moved to drafting the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with NITDA and we have spoken to NAFDAC and SON.
At the end of the day, what legacy would you want to leave behind in CPC?
Well, the legacy I would like to leave behind is much less about the institution but much more about the market. What I would like is that we should have fewer complaints in the CPC not because the capacity can’t carry the complaints, but because we have been able to really move the reform to the market place. We would like a market place where consumers know their rights much better and they demand these rights, one where the goods and service providers respect those rights more and the quality of both the service and the goods has improved to a significant level, comparable to even the most sophisticated environment.
I want the Nigerian consumers to understand that this whole thing is about rights and that consumers have rights. When people provide service or goods to you, they are not doing you a favour. Ensuring your satisfaction within reasonable and acceptable parameters is a matter of your right, insist on it.
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