‘Regulators should be assertive in ensuring consumers get value for money’
Akonte Ekine is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of BrandXchange. He is committed to championing customer satisfaction campaigns and creating awareness on the rights of consumers in the country. In this interview with CHIJIOKE IREMEKA, he calls on regulators to be more responsive in ensuring that consumers across the country get appropriate value for their money. He also shares the plans for the 2023 edition of its Consumers Value Awards (CVA) with over 300 brands listed for voting.
From Marketing Communication practice to Consumers Value Awards, what informed the transition?
Thank you, but there is no transition here. We are still in the work of marketing communications because what we aim to do is to promote brand excellence through creating awareness for rights of the consumers.
However, the journey started from my experiences in the marketplace in different sectors of the economy. I once spent my money to buy a brand new car through a bank and just two weeks later, the car developed a problem. I went back to the company in Victoria Island, Lagos, and at their workshop somewhere in Isolo only to be told after acknowledging my complaint that it was a manufacturer’s issue that I have to pay for the repairs.
I went to the insurance company that was brought into the transaction by the bank and behold, they didn’t show interest in the situation. So, I called a lawyer and paid him to do a letter to the vehicle’s seller/manufacturer’s representative and they only said that the lawyer would not make them move. To sum that experience up, I was left dry spending money on the car.
In another development, from Abuja, I was deprived of boarding a flight I booked because of one big man. It wasn’t just me alone; we were two and both of us were denied boarding at the airport. I went to the police station at the Airport. Eventually, on the next day, I made it to Lagos and wrote to the Consumer Protection Council Lagos office but never got a response.
One day, out of nowhere, I got a call that I should bring a witness or two to explain what happened. Unfortunately, the other man said he wasn’t interested because his work wouldn’t allow him to do such a thing. I later found out that he works with Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON), which should make him more interested but alas, he wasn’t.
So, I have a catalogue of experiences like most Nigerians and then, I have also followed Mrs. Sola Salako Ajulo’s work to the point where I think she became a lone voice in this situation and we deserve to have more people involved in the cry for better service delivery in the country. It is not easy earning money in this country and then gets poor service.
So, how would you assess an average Nigerian consumer?
The consumer is the same everywhere, all he or she wants is simple quality service based on brand promises. But the sad part is that the promise makers do not keep to their promises. You even see a situation where people bring in known bad products to the market on the assumption that the consumer has no choice. Sadly, the consumer will buy simply because of price discounts.
Look at the telecommunications sector with series of data plans that assure one of the duration of usage yet a data plan of one month or one day will not stay up to the stated period. Unfortunately, when you try to contact the customer care centre through a voice call, you will be left with an answering machine to attend to you. You won’t even get a good quality call yet you will be charged. It’s more like we don’t have a choice.
The consumer is a hard-working, honest individual who deserves to enjoy the services paid for. Even within the government service providers, you still beg for services, pay for poor services because you are left with no alternative. The consumer deserves more in this country and we want to be one of those contributing to that conversation that would encourage service providers to improve.
Coming to the award, what made you look in that direction as only few people care about consumers’ plight?
As a reputation management student, I know that what a sincere brand appreciates most is consumer feedback through different platforms. And because we have done a series of work speaking from the brands perspective to consumers, we felt we should see the possibility of flipping the coin in a way that the consumers should be the one doing the talks that could bring some form of validity to the promises of the brands.
Let’s say the truth; we are consumers and we all care about our plights, but the challenge is that we seem to have been wired to leave things to some elements, otherwise, why do we look for services that we think should equal our taste and interest?
Also, there are many other people contributing greatly to the consumer narratives; it is sometimes more work in the background than for the media to see. But we are all involved in ensuring that we have a better consumer experience in the country.
How has the feedback from the previous editions of this award been?
First, we thank God for the courage and opportunity to hold the first edition of their award. I will use this platform to thank Mr. Adedayo Ojo for his leadership. Its feedback has been very encouraging from the remarks of the Advertising Regulatory Council of Nigeria, Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC), Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC), National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control Agency (NAFDAC) and Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC). They attended and commended the initiative. We got the 200-capacity venue filled to the brim. It was good feedback and I thank all those that attended as well as others that took their time to vote. We have also been advised to improve on the categories and duration of voting. Those were some of the new things introduced.
Like now, we have opened the portal for nomination for a period of one month and two weeks and we went all out for 13 episodes talking about the portal for nomination on radio and online.
What were the initial challenges you encountered in the course of putting the award together and how did you pull through?
Life is about challenges and so this one is not different. The first challenge was the issue of acceptability. We had people asking why we embarked on this and we made it very simple – we are trying to contribute to a body of knowledge that would enable us to have a better experience.
Credibility issue came up and thus we designed the website for everyone to see the voting process and results as it happens and we did a monthly report of voting based on the voting pattern.
I think we can say that some people have seen the sincerity of purpose in our effort to contribute to the consumer narrative in the country. We are not there yet but we do know that our work might inspire some companies and even regulators to do better.
Right now, you are setting the stage for the next edition. Are there new things Nigerian consumers and brand owners should expect?
Oh yes, the market is very dynamic and we do hope that we can also evolve with the market. The first thing is that we are looking at regulators involved in consumer management based on industry and we would like to call them out.
In fact, in that my flight experience, we later found out that if we had carried the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority along, the story would have been different. How many consumers are aware of the various regulators that affect them daily? So, we plan to bring as much as possible all regulators together on this day for a short conversation, celebration and reward for a good job and therefore, putting them on the spot for better service offerings.
We have seen some state governors playing good roles in ensuring consumer rights experience through legislation and more. We think we should call them out for good, as newsmakers that would make more people know that consumers must get great experience no matter the size of business. From state level to individuals, we are seeing better actions and it is only appropriate to use these individuals as well to create the right conversation through recognition and commendations. Brand owners should look forward to an exciting time at the event but prior to then, they should visit the website and vote and encourage the market people to vote for them as well.
Awards in Nigeria have been reduced to mere jamboree and money-making ventures. What’s your take on this and how is CVA different?
I think we should commend those that have attempted to create conversations around awards. Reason is that they generate engagements on various subjects. Whether it is accepted by the party involved or not, it would always initiate intellectual engagement to a degree and a subject of relevance that would emanate.
So, it is all about perspective. I am not in a position to talk about jamboree or money making because as we speak, we are indebted to media houses on the last edition. So, I am not competent to say anything till we make that money.
However, ours is a different case. First, we are building a sample population like no other and our results are very visible for the public.
In the last edition, Dangote Sugar got about 56 per cent votes, and right at the venue, the representatives from Dangote Sugar were close to what we had. I mean, what could be more gladdening that one person could easily validate your numbers without prompting? So, our major difference here is that we are driven by empirical data, which could be used by interested brands.
This conversation is even about the consumer satisfaction index in the marketplace. We are helping brands and regulators to do what is expected of them, look at the Federal Competition and Consumer Act, 2022. We are only a contributor to big national conversation.
What are the criteria for entry and assessment? Could you speak more on the process?
First is that all brands are eligible for this. It is first the responsibility of a consumer to nominate brands based on experience. After that nomination of brands, we are compiling based on categories and then we opened the portal for voting from May 1 and for three months. We expect brands to encourage consumers to vote. We are also on our part announcing that voting is ongoing through various platforms.
This is purely a classic case of the consumer being the judge and jury. It is the consumer that is supporting a brand’s claim with a vote and we are only collating and publishing.
Coming to regulations, how would you describe the operations of regulatory authorities in Nigeria, especially the FCCPC?
Let us see these regulators too as consumers so they are as well involved as all of us. But we are all in a challenging environment and I think we will get better over time. There was a time when we didn’t even have where to go on consumer issues, now we have a commission and many other agencies.
We should commend the regulators across board; they are trying. The NCAA is already reviewing the issue around refunds on delayed flight and flight cancellations, among others. I think they are working but not much is open to the public.SON is doing some great work in ensuring safety on the highway through training and monitoring of sellers of tyres among other things while NAFDAC is constantly holding workshops to educate stakeholders. The list is endless so we should commend them for the various jobs and expect more from them.
What other things do you think the government should do to further strengthen consumer rights?
The government is trying, but we should bring it closer to the people. Every local council should have a consumer right office responsible to address relevant issues. See, the Lagos State Consumer Protection Agency is a classic case of bringing it closer to the people. There should be more of such at state and regional levels.
Then brands and corporate organisations should have a standard feedback channel that would give 24 hours to issues of consumers in relation to service offerings.