By Koigi Wa Wamwere
Every government has a responsibility to protect its citizens, not just from external enemies like terrorism but also from internal enemies like exploitation by companies such as phone companies, banks, public service vehicles and oil companies.
When people think of government protection, they must think of rescue from both internal and external enemies like al Shabaab. After all, when one thinks of the collective harm by internal enemies like poverty, corruption, negative ethnicity, hunger, crime, diseases, road accidents and exploitation by companies through excessive profits, more people die from internal than from external enemies.
Tragically, exploitation by our popular companies like Safaricom, Airtel, YU and Telkom Orange is not only never questioned but almost self-willed by its worst victims through misguided admiration. No wonder, a former CEO of Safaricom Michael Joseph once commented that Kenyans have queer calling habits which I suppose include disregard of their exploitation by phone companies.
In America, 100 dollars might buy you 20 minutes of air time to Africa. In Norway, 100 Norwegian Kroner might also buy you 10 minutes of airtime to Kenya. Therefore, when one buys a calling card in America, the card will not only indicate its price but also the exact airtime that is bought by the money. Consumers of airtime are even directed on how to complain if they think the actual airtime they get from the calling card is lesser than the airtime indicated on the calling card.
In Kenya however, I buy a calling card for 100, 500 or 1000 shillings but with no indication of how much airtime I am buying. The calling card does not collate the money I pay with the airtime I buy and when I buy two calling cards of 1000 shillings and measure the airtime I get from each one of them, I don’t get same airtime for the same money.
When I buy a calling card, while the money I pay is certain, the airtime I get from the card is not certain – I am at the mercy of the phone company that sells me the card. They can give me any airtime they wish for the money I pay.
Is this good and fair business? It is not. All business should be open and clear as to the quantity and quality of what is being bought and the exactness of the price to be paid for it.
Compare buying airtime with buying sugar or milk. When I buy milk, I know how much milk I am buying for how much money. Equally, when I buy sugar, I know exactly how money I will pay for a kilogram of sugar. It is completely unacceptable that when I buy sugar, I pay 500 shillings to a shopkeeper without agreement of how much sugar I will get for my money. This means, one time the shopkeeper might give me a kilogram of sugar for 500 shillings while at another time, he may give me half a kilogram of sugar for the same money, which is phone business in Kenya.
This kind of business where there is no agreement of how much of a commodity you get for the price of money you pay is not done in Europe, America or Asia and its purpose is not to give service but facilitate maximum exploitation of the consumer and citizen by phone companies. This commercial anomaly must be forbidden and corrected immediately. Otherwise the state will have abdicated its role as a protector of the citizen and consumer.
Amazingly, Kenyans are mesmerized when they are told of the billions of shillings that phone companies make each year as a measure of Kenya’s so-called annual development.
However, in celebrating the billions that phone companies make each year, Kenyans forget that these billions come from their unbridled exploitation by these companies. When Kenyans fail to complain against excessive exploitation by phone companies and government fails to come to their rescue, the accumulation of billions by these companies is in equal measure with the hunger, disease, jigger-ridden poverty and desperation of these companies’ happy slaves that we read about each day.
Good business is honest and transparent business, not dishonest and opaque business which thrives in the customers’ total ignorance. Surprisingly, because Kenyan elite can afford this exploitation, they see, hear and speak no evil about this unusual exploitation that victimizes every Kenya whether they are government, the poor, the rich, the sick, urban or rural folk or even students.
To correct this excessive exploitation of Kenyans by phone companies, every airtime card we buy must on one corner carry the amount of money we have paid and on the other corner, how much airtime we are buying with our money. When we finish calling, the card should inform us how much airtime we still have left in the card if it is not all used up. This will be honest and fair business. Anything else is robbery and reap-off by phone companies that the government should protect citizens from.
Unfortunately, extreme poverty is increasing in Kenya because exploitation by phone companies is not the only pillage that Kenyans are subjected to on daily basis. Instead of taxes liberating Kenyans from poverty by sponsoring their development they are nothing but instruments of robbery. Equally banks have total freedom to kill Kenyans with excessive and exploitative fees and interests that are raised without consultation of customers. Even when world prices of oil fall, Kenyan oil companies continue to maximize their profits by minimizing price adjustments.
The ball of correcting shameless exploitation of Kenyans by phone companies is in the court of Jubilee government. But can they?
The writer is a Kenyan politician and former Member of Parliament.