How Can The Consumer Become King?

Gbenga Sesan

Today is the World Consumer Rights Day, we’re calling for everyone to have access to digital marketplaces they can trust. Rising digital inclusion has brought unprecedented opportunities across the world, but too often consumers are unable to access fair and open internet services.

If anyone got a dollar each time someone said, “technology has changed everything” or “the future is digital”, they would be billionaires by now. Mobile devices are now available to 66% of the world’s population. In 2018 alone, some projections estimate that almost $270bn will be spent wooing consumers; will they – we – get commensurate benefits? Beyond being the target of advertising, how can consumers and organizations that support their interests get a better deal in the digital world?

Let me start with this: we must kill assumptions. In the years preceding the arrival of mobile phones in Nigeria, a policymaker was quoted as saying that “telephones are not for the poor” and though he has since accused the media of misquoting his original “poor people don’t own phones” statement, it is still as bad. When we assume that the “poor” either cannot pay or that they need a different type of experience, it revives the “half a loaf is better than none” mantra. We limit the opportunity for that newly connected consumer to decide what is useful and then prioritize towards the adoption of products or services.

Less than two decades after this statement, Nigeria has over 142 million mobile phones. Almost 95 million of these mobiles are connected to the internet and these consumers, in Nigeria and beyond, are increasingly connected to opportunities for engagement between consumers, producers and anyone else in the product ecosystem. For example, social media rants are the new consumer feedback, and this provides a unique opportunity for feedback monitoring.

Given these opportunities, we must go ahead to remove the silent “but” after the popular phrase “consumer – or customer – is king”. The but may be replaced by because giving reasons why consumer experience must become better in a digital world. For example, a consumer that trusts a service because the provider will not violate their digital rights is more likely to add more value to the company’s bottom line than another customer who only remains an advert target. The story of the Japanese train station kept open to enable one student to travel to school is a great example of doing the right thing by consumers, even if it is not the obvious thing.

The equivalent of the Japanese train station in the digital world would be a company that insists on protecting the rights of its consumers even when it does not appear to make sense at first. The goodwill generated from what is now seen as an act of kindness will help the company. Service providers should not easily give up on consumers; they must look for solutions that serve as many interests, with as little negative impact, as possible.

One such solution would be to ensure people have uninterrupted rights of access to digital services. In the 2017 edition of the Digital Rights in Africa report featuring 21 African nations, Paradigm Initiative discusses the trend of network disruptions – including outright internet shutdowns – and recommends that, given the likelihood of the repeat of 2016 and 2017 violations because of elections in 2018, “a viable route to at least reduce the incidents of internet shutdowns in Africa, and stemming digital rights abuses, may be through partnership with internet businesses. Telcos, ISPs, social networking platforms, content producers and all other internet businesses must take on a greater and more visible role if governments in Africa are to take digital rights seriously.” Unfortunately, the countries experiencing the worst digital rights violations are also those on the disadvantaged end of the digital divide. The 2017 edition of the State of Broadband report features ITU estimates showing that “internet penetration in the developing world is projected to reach 41.3% by the end of 2017, while internet user penetration is projected to reach only 17.5% in the least Developed Countries in 2017.”

This new trend of consumer rights violations poses a threat that must be urgently addressed by stakeholders – businesses, government, the private sector and international organizations. When next a government requests that a service provider should deny a contractual service – as has been the case in countries that have experienced digital rights violations such as internet shutdowns – companies should not take the easy road. If they don’t give up on consumers, in the long run, their position will be stronger.

Consumers International’s work, with members and partners around the world, can help create positive change for consumers in the digital world. Creating a #BetterDigitalWorld involves all of us, from companies to governments, digital rights organizations to consumer organizations. This World Consumer Rights Day is an excellent opportunity for us to work together to ensure that all newly connected consumers have the power to choose digital services that are safe and fair.

Written by: Gbénga Sèsan, Executive Director of Nigerian organization Paradigm Initiative, examines how the rights of newly connected consumers can be secured.

About Paradigm Initiative

Paradigm Initiative is a social enterprise that builds an ICT-enabled support system and advocates digital rights to improve livelihoods for under-served youth. ‘Gbénga was listed by CNN as one of the Top 10 African Tech Voices on Twitter and by Ventures Africa as one of 40 African Legends Under 40.

Culled from: Consumers International