For Robert Michel, a love of Africa drew him to work as the Head of the Africa Office, where he has been since May. Despite the challenges of big distances and small funds, he still has high hopes for the continent.
Africa still has the same fascination it had on me decades ago when I first heard and learned about the continent. The prospect of working with people from all walks of life across the continent, from the Cape to Cairo and Antananrivo to Agadir really drew me to Consumers International and the task of heading the Africa Office.
I have worked in some 30-odd countries across the African continent; have fallen in love with her people and the smell of the African soil after the first rains. I have experienced the warmth of her people but also the despair and destitution many millions have to face on a daily basis. And the prospect of helping people from a consumer’s point of view thus really appeared compelling to me.
It did not take long in the new position though that reality would catch up with me. Yes, all the people I had talked to agreed, it is important that consumers should be heard but….? And what about the money to see most members and get a feel of their work, the obstacles and the problems they are facing? And what about seeing all the relevant role players as Africa still works with face-to-face meetings rather than elaborate technical schemes? And having said that was I prepared to write hundreds of emails that went unanswered just because of the fact that I had not met the person face-to-face first?
Consumers across the continent are still seemingly taken for granted by governments and businesses and are only really remembered when elections are around the corner by presidents and prime ministers when they sweep the markets and dash out cash to consumers hoping to buy their votes. Only then do they fully realise that consumers are voters and often tax payers at the same time.
But it is not all doom and gloom. There are people out there in Africa that are committed ‘fighters’ for the rights of consumers. I remember having had a beer with one such person from Uganda at a hotel in Arusha, Tanzania. We were both convinced that we needed to bring consumer education to the rural masses, but how? What about us? So we started to dream – buying an Education Mobile and putting two or three dedicated personnel on it…they could then tour the rural areas of Uganda for a few months before widening the scope to all of East Africa. We would then monitor and evaluate the success and approach more donors for similar initiatives in other parts of Africa. For now a dream but certainly an important one that should become reality as rural consumers are usually the least informed and most disadvantaged.
And what about meeting the CEO and board of Africa’s oldest Consumer Organisation? The organisation started in Kenya as early as 1952 and was thus on the forefront of the worldwide consumer movement. Who would have thought about that? What a humbling experience this was for me indeed.