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Strengthening the protection of consumer rights in Lesotho

Strengthening the protection of consumer rights in Lesotho

The Hub and Spokes programme is helping Lesotho’s government to boost consumer protection.

The Hub and Spokes programme provides trade experts to national ministries and regional trade organisations in the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group of states. 

It is a joint programme of the Commonwealth Secretariat, the European Union, ACP Group Secretariat, and the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie.

Samuel Yeboah, National Trade Adviser on the Hubs and Spokes programme, has been working with the Ministry of Trade and Industry in Lesotho since 2014. One of his most recent projects focused on strengthening consumer rights protections, including disputes arising from commercial transactions.

This is Samuel’s story, in his own words:

Lesotho is a least developed country (LDC) which borders South Africa. The country’s exports continue to be dominated by textile and garments, diamonds, leather and footwear products and water, with main destinations being the United States, European Union and South Africa.

In spite of the limited export base of the economy, Lesotho has seen significant economic growth averaging about 4.4 percent per annum in the past decade, and the government has been thriving to translate this growth into improved living standards for the population.

Relatively low level of awareness on consumer rights and high levels of rural residency mean many consumers are easy targets of unlawful sales. The situation also limits their capacity to use the law courts to defend their rights. Indeed, going to court poses many challenges for consumers, such as involuntary court mediation, high costs and long periods of legal settlement of disputes.

To address this situation, the government of Lesotho through the Ministry of Trade and Industry developed a Consumer Protection Policy in 2013 which seeks to address commercial disputes in support of the country’s economic and industrial development agenda. Following the approval of the Policy by Cabinet, work has been ongoing to pass a Bill together with appropriate regulations that will also provide for the establishment of institutional structures to enhance the protection of consumer rights in the country.

In order to contribute to the process of improving institutional capacity for consumer rights protection, I have as part of my work plan under the Hub and Spokes programme facilitated the delivery of a training programme for the Consumer Welfare Unit (CWU) of the Lesotho Ministry of Trade and Industry. The CWU conduct a lot of the consumer rights awareness in the country however the district officials in particular were not well versed in handling commercial disputes.

The goal of the programme was to enhance service delivery of officials of the unit as well as boosting their knowledge of standard technical requirements for dealing with issues of consumer protection. The training programme, consisting of a five-day workshop held in Thaba Bosiu (August 1-5, 2016) and a three-day workshop held in Morija, Lesotho (November 7-9 2016), covered the following issues:

  • the concept of alternative dispute resolution: definition and types
  • negotiation skills as a critical element in mediation and arbitration
  • understanding the challenges involved in mediating on consumer rights
  • the arbitration and mediation processes – requirements and ethical standards
  • drafting mediation and arbitration agreements
  • strategies for improving and strengthening the mechanisms for coordination among relevant institutions

A total of 21 participants were trained, out of which 10 were female and 11 were male. Participants included officials from the CWU and from the national and district offices of the Ministry. Two legal consultants worked with me to deliver the outputs of the training. The interactive approach used for the exercise proved to be successful and all of the participants were issued certificates of participation.

Mr. Lisema Keketsi, a Consumer Welfare Officer based in Maseru, who participated in the training had this to say at the end: “This is the very first time in my life that I have undergone a training as an officer in the Consumer Welfare Office of the Ministry. This training has opened my eyes on the knowledge and skills that I need to mediate between business owners and clients in situations of commercial dispute. I know the way I approach my work is going to be very different from today. I am very grateful to the Commonwealth Hub and Spokes Programme.”

As a result of the training programme, officials of the Consumer Welfare Unit and district officials responsible for consumer protection issues are now able to demonstrate an appreciable knowledge on the causes and economic consequences of conflict situations that arise among suppliers and consumers, and the various resolution mechanisms available to them.

Our hope is that officials like Lisema are empowered with the theoretical knowledge and practical skills they need to fulfil their duties under the country’s new policy framework. Safeguarding the rights of consumers in this way through institutional capacity building, I believe, has been worth pursuing as a Hubs and Spokes trade adviser.