At twenty minutes past 14 hours, I am sitting in the main hall at the Patents And Company Registration Agency (PACRA). There are nine counters split into two sets; six and three. Of the six counters which do initial company registration processing, there is only one agent and also one on the other three counters section.

Meanwhile next to these nine, there are three counters reserved for Cooperatives but they get nobody going there for most of the day. There are nearly fifteen people in the queue and I am left scratching my head wondering why the PACRA management can allow five people to go on lunch and leave one person instead of three at a time.

I wonder why the three employees meant for Cooperatives registration are sitting doing nothing when two of them can be converted to register companies and leave one person for Cooperatives since registrations are so few. Twenty meters away are two supervisors in their office with glass walls facing the main hall, totally oblivious to the fact that there is only one person serving so many people.

PACRA main hall at 09:24 in the morning

PACRA main hall at 09:24 in the morning

The Indian man next to me begins wondering aloud why the PACRA service is so poor. Others join in and one reveals that he has been there since 08:45. The lady next to me who has been there since 11 in the morning begins complaining how one of the agents was shouting at her for merely asking for clarity on the procedures to register a certain kind of company.

She says that the front desk people are not helpful either. They don’t explain things clearly and when you get to see an agent after waiting in the queue for at least an hour, you end up being shown mistakes that could easily have been avoided had proper advice been given.

If you leave out the box number on Form 2 because you do not have one, your application is rejected and you are told to go back and put your residential address in that field and queue up again for another hour. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why the postal address is so important. Who uses post boxes nowadays with email and instant messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Skype? You wonder why they did not put that instruction on the form itself or ensure that their staff explains that point.

PACRA expects you to magically know all the classifications of businesses in Zambia as per Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) guidelines. There is no book in the main hall that you can refer to so if you use a word in your application that belongs to another category, you are sent back. They expect you to write exactly according to the ZRA list.

If you are converting a company from a business name to a limited company, you cannot do it in one step. You spend an hour queueing up to cease the business first, and then after paying for that part, you queue up again for another hour to now apply for the limited company. Absolute madness! Nobody at PACRA has ever thought of a faster process of doing the conversion in one step where you submit all the documents for ceasing and registering the new company at the same time and you pay for everything at once.

As you cease the business name to do the conversion to limited, PACRA in its infinite wisdom even charges you K83 for a name search. Imagine that. Being charged for a name search for merely converting the exact same company to another form, even after you explicitly tell them in advance that you just want to upgrade the company. I thought it is common sense that a name search is to ensure that a name is available and not taken, which clearly is not the case with a company conversion. I suppose common sense is not so common after all.

Any small mistake in your forms and you have to go back and edit your documents and reprint since you are not allowed to correct in pen and endorse. And after you correct, you cannot even go to the front of the queue but have to line up again, even if the mistake was because a PACRA employee did not explain things properly or otherwise misled you. More madness!

After talking to four people around me, it becomes clear that all of them have been here for at least 2 hours each. One of them for nearly 6 hours, another for 3. When you look around at the people coming and going in the hallway, you notice that many of them keep going to agents and then outside and then back to rejoin the queue, almost as if it is a game of musical chairs.

Go there at 9 in the morning and you will be lucky to find two counters manned with agents serving people. You are more likely to find three agents and only one serving. God knows what the other two are doing for a whole hour from 8 am. PACRA in this day and age does not even accept VISA cards whereas the Road Traffic and Safety Agency (RTSA) does. Imagine that.

PACRA main hall at 14:20 in the afternoon

PACRA main hall at 14:20 in the afternoon

It seems to me that PACRA, like most government agencies, have no concept of “time is money”. To be fair, PACRA is one of the better government agencies since you can register a company in one day if you do things right the first time. I however doubt that anyone can do that, especially when it is their first time.

Their website is not very clear on all the instructions. They claim that it is faster to register online but I wonder why they haven’t put computer terminals in their main hall (the way ZRA have done) for people to do online registration (there is plenty of space in the middle of the hall for this). The fact that they have so many people going to register companies in person shows that they have miserably failed to market the website or it is too complicated for most people.

We pay for the operations of PACRA as their customers and tax payers yet their service is pathetic. I mean, are the things I have highlighted rocket science for goodness’ sake? I find it totally senseless for a person to spend 6 hours at PACRA over simple silly little things. Why can’t they put up some kind of exhaustive notes on the forms themselves to clarify these nitty-gritty issues like not leaving the postal address blank?

It is totally unacceptable for so many PACRA employees to be going for lunch at the same time instead of just half the staff, which is what more civilized organizations do. Or they can be going two at a time in 30 minute intervals. In fact, they should take 30 minutes for lunch since PACRA closes at 16:30.

If anyone from PACRA is reading this, please send it to the top dog.