Towards inclusive e-commerce

Brian Lingela

CURRENTLY, there is a massive proliferation of the digital revolution around the world that has propelled consumers

to the forefront of purchasing and selling of goods and/or services via electronic channels. The e-commerce medium amongst consumers in developing countries like Zambia has grown due to increased availability of internet access and the advent of an unprecedented choice of goods and services online.
Notwithstanding the potential benefits of e-commerce to consumer welfare and the opportunities to diversify national economies, there remains a myriad of challenges with using e-commerce in developing countries. A significant bottleneck facing developing countries are costs associated with ICT products and services which remain high for most consumers.
Another key constraint for inclusive e-commerce in developing countries is the general lack of consumer trust and confidence in electronic commerce platforms, especially those that border on security concerns.
This was highlighted at a recent United Nations Session on E-Commerce and Consumer Protection in Geneva, Switzerland, whose primary focus was e-commerce access and benefit for all by instilling trust, confidence and securing the protection of digital consumers.
Complexity and costs of logistics are a barrier for consumers in developing countries, who are not sure whether the products they have purchased online from a provider based in another country will reach them; whether if and when they do, they will not be defective or unsafe. When they experience a problem, they will not be sure who to approach for redress. This means they would be facing challenges to return the goods for either refund or replacement,
Amongst the main advantages of e-commerce is its ability to reach a global market. Unfortunately individual countries have different legal frameworks protecting mostly their home consumers to the exclusion of foreign ones. To this effect, consumer redress becomes almost impossible.
But how can we ensure that consumers in developing countries like Zambia benefit from e-commerce and are protected from unfair business dealings by sellers?
Several measures are suggested.
Firstly, we need to recognise that online consumers need the same level of protection as off-line consumers. This means policies and laws must be adapted to the new online consumption habits by consumers. In Zambia, for example, it is gratifying to note that Minister of Transport and Communications Brian Mushimba intends to introduce an e-commerce bill to Parliament, which among other things will protect online consumers from unfair trading. Strong legal and regulatory frameworks which ensure that consumers trust online transactions are critical in enhancing inclusive e-commerce.
Secondly, there is need for continued development of effective, transparent and impartial dispute resolution systems. For instance, providers of online services must provide their consumers with regular and timely information regarding security risks and protective measures. With increased use of online payment methods, there is need to ensure safety and security of e-commerce transactions by having enhanced alert systems to consumers, enhanced fraud detection systems by service providers, and online applications for consumers to block access to bank accounts or reverse transactions in cases where they suspect online fraud.
Thirdly, providing clear information on rights and obligations of business and consumers in the digital marketplace by service providers is critical to having an included consumer base. This enables them to make informed digital choices.
Fourthly, developing countries need to improve access to e-commerce technologies for all consumers. Whilst consumers undoubtedly benefit from increased access, choice and convenience that e-commerce delivers, there are challenges about how to improve the quality of services, including access for rural-based consumers. In Zambia, for example, it is noteworthy that the Government has earmarked about 500 communication towers to be spread across the country to boost rural mobile communication.
Fifthly, there is need for developing countries to invest in e-commerce literacy awareness and skills development for both consumers and small businesses particularly on the benefits of e-commerce over the traditional ‘brick and mortar’ offline commerce. In most of Africa, many consumers and even small businesses still insist on Person to Person (P2P) (face to face transactions) either because they do not have the requisite knowledge or simply do not trust doing business via online technology. Educational curricula must incorporate issues of e-commerce so that consumers appreciate its relevance at an early age.
Lastly, there is need to remove access and entry barriers to wider e-commerce sites like Amazon and EBay and development of home-grown e-commerce sites for our consumers. It has been noticed that merchants in most developing countries do not have equal access to services offered by the world’s largest e-commerce providers. For example, they do not have access to registration on Amazon while on Ebay, one cannot sell but only buy. Such barriers must be eliminated if consumers in developing countries are to benefit. In Zambia, it is noteworthy that Dot Com Zambia is investing K10 million in the expansion of a global network that will provide access to major e-commerce platforms like Amazon and EBay.
For consumers in developing countries such as Zambia to play a role in the attainment of the sustainable development goals, it is important to empower them and enhance their confidence in digital markets.
The author is director for consumer protection at the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission.

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