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Nairobi — Along Nairobi's Luthuli Avenue sales people employ all the tricks in and out of the book in a bid to woo customers into their electronic shops. Successful ones manage to sweet-talk a potential customer or two who end up either with a purchase or offer a promise to return for an item or two the next time they are around those areas. "This is a cash and carry shop but we have to sometimes negotiate the prices," says Mr Peter Mwaura, a shop owner. It is a picture replicated across the capital city and the country at large. But a short distance from Mr Mwaura's shop; is a well-stocked outlet with all manner of household goods. Yet few, if any, customers seem to be walking through its doors. Has lost lustre This is not surprising because it is an indication of how the hire purchase business, once a hugely popular mode of payment in Kenya, has lost its lustre. At its peak between the 1970s and 1990s, hire purchase was a favourite mode of buying household goods, electronic assets like radios, TVs and fridges, utensils and furniture. Demand and competition was so intense such that dealers invoked various marketing strategies, the most popular being Kenya Broadcasting Corporation radio programme, Sanyo Juu Sanyo Tops by veteran broadcaster Fred Obachi Machoka. "The removal of foreign exchange controls opened the floodgates for electronic items coming into Kenya heralding a major challenge to the hire purchase industry," Mr Ernest Wangai, the managing director of Kenya Credit Traders (KCT), one of the hire purchase firms in the country, told Smart Company in an interview. Besides KCT, other household names in the hire purchase business, include Africa Retail Traders (ART), indeed the oldest and Amedo Centres Kenya Ltd, the franchise holder for Singer Sewing and Singer knitting machines in Kenya. KCT managing director said scrapping of the requirement that one must get a licence from the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation to own a TV set or radio also changed the playing surface for hire purchase dealers overnight. "Acquiring and, therefore, possession of, especially television sets and radios was no longer in the hands of a select few," said Mr Wangai. Ms Catherine Ngahu, executive chair at SBO Research, however, reads from a different script." The decline of hire purchase came as a result of increased access to financial services especially personal loans, from either financial institutions or savings and credit cooperative societies (Saccos) to most Kenyans," she said. Ms Ngahu said increased accessibility especially by teachers who formed the bulk of hire purchase clients, found it easier to take loans whose proceeds they could then use to purchase the items they needed. "It gave them the flexibility of choosing the item, dealers and even time of acquiring it," she added. She said that the idea of repossessing the "hired" item in case of failure to repay for it also played a great role in the system's decline. Lack of independence in the system in form of guarantors etc, which banks and Saccos offer, saw a majority of the customers fall out with the former," Ms Ngahu said. This is understandable. Besides the final cost of the item being by far higher than its actual price, the hire purchase process is cumbersome since it needs things like a guarantor and letters from the employer. For instance, if one pays cash, a 32-inch good quality LCD television set costs about Sh44,820. Acquiring it through ordinary hire purchase, one has to pay a deposit of Sh6,860 and subsequent monthly instalments of Sh3,090, for a period spread over 20 months. By the end of the repayment period, a hirer with a guarantor, as it is the requirement with most hire purchase dealers, would have paid an additional Sh23,440, 52 per cent more than the cash price. Check off system If a customer is employed, especially as a civil servant, he or she can opt for the check-off hire purchase system where he or she has to, among others, provide a letter of approval from the employer. Alternatively, if a customer is employed and is a member of a Sacco, he or she can take a loan to buy the item while repaying the loan. As a business model, hire purchase system has inherent challenges. Mr Thomas Mutugu, a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi and consultant in strategic marketing and brand building, said weak or lack of effective marketing of hire purchase as a viable and available mode of payment has hindered the system's visibility in the market. "The success of credit depends on how efficient debt collection is, besides the commission paid to those involved, which is a challenge to the system," said Mr Mutugu. Even operators admit it is a challenge. "You have to perfect the art of collecting the monthly instalments. Otherwise, you will not survive in this field," said Mr Wangai. Unbeknown to many Kenyans, unlike other dealers who value the high-end market, hire purchase dealers try as much as they can to avoid it. "They live in secluded areas thus making it difficult to repossess the items when they default on payments," says the KCT boss. Another challenge has been defaulting when customers, especially civil servants, have committed much of their salaries to repaying other loans. A report, Introduction of a Payroll Deduction Management Service, revealed in July last year that some civil servants took up loans and hire purchase schemes that consumed all their salaries. This is beyond the two thirds (of salaries) allowed by the government to cater for their other needs. In a bid to address the challenge, the government signed an agreement with Payment Solutions Kenya late last year to enable hire purchase operators to access the credit history of civil servants before a transaction is made. The Union of Kenya Civil Servants has, however, called upon authorities to cancel the deal. The system, if effected, will develop and run the payroll management service to validate all payroll data with a view to verifying employees' credit status before they get loans from banks, microfinance institutions and hire purchase organisations

GOWRI SHANKAR (talk)21:47, 2 December 2011