CONSUMER rights conscious, Tsitsi Chimuko, takes a close look at a can of beans she has just bought in an upmarket chain store in Harare, approaches members of the shop staff to complain over the lack of proper labelling with Chimuko expressing fears the beans could be genetically engineered.
The manager, with a smile, insists that it is just as good as any other beans and the exchange continues to no avail.
Across town, in the higgy-leddy piggy-leddy of high density hustles and bustles, James Chitimbe of Mabvuku, openly sells dried fish and fresh pieces of meat right in front of a large supermarket chain store.
Oblivious of the dangers of food poisoning and contamination associated with such open-air services, Chitimbe thinks business is brisk and profitable.
Little Tony Nyamhunga (8) (not real name), living in one of the leafy suburbs just outside the capital, suddenly developed life-threatening allergies after drinking so-called “modified” milk imported from a neighbouring country and some peanuts he was given at home.
The list goes on indicating the current vulnerable status of Zimbabwean consumers.
Experts, in separate interviews, note that with a highly depressed economy and porous regional border posts, consumer rights movements are not flexing their muscles and being robust enough, pressing the government to increase public awareness about food quality, safety and hygiene, thereby putting emphasis on local products and increasing efforts to overcome poverty and destitution.
They further argue that it is hard to guarantee food safety in countries such as Zimbabwe where most products are now sold in ever-mushrooming open markets and on the streets of major cities and towns, trickling down to the communities.
“Real consumer protection requires robust monitoring services as far as rural areas, with sufficient resources to identify and punish wrongdoers,” said National Assembly Member and legislator for Mutasa South, Irene Zindi (Zanu-PF).
“Not enough has been done in terms of government lobbying, education campaigns to say they have had success. There is need to mobilise citizens’ movements to create well-documented websites in order for consumers to wield more power,” said another legislator for Mabvuku-Tafara, James Maridadi (MDC-T).
Freeman Bhoso, a development consultant based in Mutare, said for a movement to be empowered, goods and services must be visible on the market.
“The capacity of the country’s economy to produce is currently very weak, industry-wise and it is difficult for consumer rights movements to strictly monitor what is on the shelves and even though substandard goods are finding their way on the shelves,” said Bhoso, adding that the capacity to flex muscles is therefore just on paper and not visible.
According to the Consumers International (CI), consumer protection is based on guidelines adopted by the United Nations which recognise eight essential rights – the right to safety, to be informed, to have satisfaction of basic needs, to redress, to provide consumer education, to a healthy and sustainable environment, to choose and to be heard.
Furthermore, consumer rights covers sectors that are diverse and always change over time, including food security, the environment and access to telecommunications and financial services.
Deputy director of the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, Rose Mpofu, said in a recent interview consumer rights movements need to be empowered.
“For an organisation to be able to flex muscles in areas such as food safety and porous border posts, it requires policing powers, which are derived from an Act of Parliament.
“Consumer Council of Zimbabwe does not have a Consumer Protection Act to support its activities, hence the little flexing of muscles,” said Mpofu.
In Zimbabwe today, it is hard to battle unfair trade practices, fraudulent, defective and unsafe industrial and food products given the depressed state of the economy and where the simplest rule of law is hard to apply.
In such cases, usually public education and implementation of the existing food safety legislation is the best remedy and in normal and stable economies, consumer associations must use robust approaches widely.
“To a greater extent, CCZ has campaigned a lot for food safety, quality and hygiene and lobbied through relevant authorities for the implementation of the existing food safety legislations,” Said Mpofu.
She insisted that CCZ is always educating consumers about the importance of food safety, for example, through the consumer focus desk education that they carry out throughout their offices in Bulawayo, Gweru, Masvingo, Mutare and Harare.
“We also hold workshops on food safety, where we involve the participation of local authorities, food vendors and various development partners to discuss the best ways to ensure food safety and hygiene, considering our porous borders”, she said.
In South Africa, the National Consumer Forum has just released a study on the role of supermarkets in promoting sustainable consumption. The report contends that if South African supermarkets make an effort to recycle packaging and reduce their carbon footprint, there is considerable scope for promoting local products.
“Any consumer rights movement in the form of a parastatal is compromised, meaning that its powers are limited and cannot effectively fight to protect the rights of consumers”, said John Chitekuteku, a development consultant based in Harare.
“A lot of products, foreign and local are finding their way into the shelves of supermarkets and shops because of the porousness of entry points and nothing is done to prevent the situation,” he said, adding that this is causing allergies and even diseases like cancer and those linked to respiration.
However, CCZ says that it has managed to lobby for the removal of some products from the market.
“CCZ has asked for certain products to be withdrawn from the market, for example, some bottled water and ‘Musimboti’ drink which did not meet certain standards,” said Mpofu.
She claimed that they have also prevented many products to enter the market if they do not meet quality standards through participation at the Food Standards Advisory Board.
Some observers note that CCZ’s campaign programmes do not put emphasis on local products such as indigenous foods.
“Indigenous foods are now being encouraged, in the face of the dangers of some imported foods, but so-called consumer rights movements do not emphasise promotion of local foods which are healthy and sustainable,” Bhoso said.
CCZ says Zimbabwe has good legislation regarding food safety and so the local producers are well-monitored through this legislation, unlike the imports which are sometimes smuggled into the country without proper checks having been done.
Just recently, tonnes of imported Brazilian chickens injected with some bizarre substances to preserve them were impounded by authorities.
On promotion of local products James Maridadi MP for Mabvuku-Tafara said: “This should be galvanised by a strong food security programme that ensures that the food security system is highly protected and overally revive the agricultural sector.”
This is a major area posing a danger in the food sector. There are no known organised public awareness meetings on the health implications of genetically-modified foodstuffs and active websites offering legalinformation as well as consumer advice.
“Awareness campaigns can also be effective, especially when consumers’ associations team up with government ministries to control influx of genetically modified foods because currently there is not enough information about such food,” said Mpofu.
The Zimbabwe Bio-Ethics Committee or Safety Board is fully operational and does not allow the commercialisation of genetically modified organisms and foods (GMOs) in the country. Only four countries in Africa, namely South Africa, Burkina Faso, Kenya and Egypt, are implementing bio-safety laws which allow them to commercialise GMOs.
Government officials note that by standing firm against GMOs the government avoided manipulation and deception that could have resulted in vulnerable communities being used as guinea pigs.
Despite this ban genetically modified foods have persistently found their way through the country due to the porous border posts.
The World Health Organisation notes that of the 57 million global deaths in 2008, 36 million or 6,3% were due to non-communicable diseases, principally cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancers and chronic respiratory diseases. About 80% of these deaths occur in low and middle income countries.
Meanwhile, the recent launch by government of the Information and Media Panel of Inquiry is a welcome initiative to the consumer-starved reader and listener in terms of improving the state of the information and media sector.
Only time will tell whether the findings from the inquiry will be implemented effectively to change Zimbabwe’s media landscape and help facilitate much improved flow of information to consumers who are the end users of all products. Otherwise, the Zimbabwean consumer is currently vulnerable.