Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Africa’s consumer movement - ready to fly

Africa’s consumers, and the consumer groups that represent them, are poised to drive real change on the continent.  Luke Upchurch on  CI’s recent council meeting in Pretoria, South Africa. 

If there is one thing the Africa consumer rights movement doesn’t lack its enthusiasm.

After spending five days meeting, talking and debating with groups from every corner of the continent, it’s clear that, despite intermittent communications technology, huge geographic distances and all-but-non-existent financial support – Africa’s consumer rights groups are finding their voice.

The overwhelming focus of development in Africa has been, and rightly continues to be, trade. But an increasing number of governments, and a huge number of people, now recognise the issues faced by consumers on the continent too.

Consumer rights groups across the continent, many with direct help from CI, are currently working on a wide range of consumer rights issues, including financial literacy, nutrition, sustainable consumption, and intellectual property–areas that are having a real impact on the quality of people’s lives.

As for Africa’s consumers themselves – they are leading the way with new forms of mobile telephone banking, urban agriculture, and collaborative initiatives – way ahead of many consumers, businesses, and market analysts in the global north.

These examples provide some of the background for the Africa summit of consumer groups held to mark the official opening of CI’s new Africa office in Pretoria, South Africa earlier this month.

Consumers International also used this special occasion in Pretoria to conduct its annual face-to-face council meeting, allowing Africa consumer groups the opportunity to hold detailed discussions with leading consumer advocates from across the world.

It was an extraordinary meeting of minds, with consumer group directors and CEOs from the US, Europe, Asia and Latin America working with their counterparts from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Benin, Kenya and Uganda.

The overriding message from the Africa consumer groups was the desire to be sustainable organisations. This was not a meeting to discuss handouts, but to kick off ideas about how the rest of the world’s consumer groups can partner with the Africa movement to empower consumer organisations.

This partnership could take many forms, not least access to the wealth of expertise from consumer rights groups in Asia, who found themselves at a similar stage of development 20 years ago.

Commitments were also made to increase knowledge-sharing with others to build on campaign ideas, fine-tune policy demands and reach out to both the poor and growing African middleclass.

Consumers International has a key facilitation role in this process and plans are already underway to establish  regional hubs across Africa.

These hubs would act as sub-regional facilitators for collaborative initiatives and campaigns, , and as CI’s ‘ear to the ground’ for issues, ideas and opportunities  for collective action in each geographic area.

There was a palpable sense throughout the three days of meetings that a significant step forward was occurring; that the consumer rights movement in Africa was entering a new stage.

The feeling was certainly shared by CI’s Malaysian council member Marimuthu Nadason, who donated $10,000 from his organisation FOMCA to the new CI Africa office – a highly appreciated gesture that will help kick start some of the new ideas for collaboration put forward by the Africa member groups.

But perhaps the clearest indication of this new enthusiasm came from South Africa’s Acting Commissioner for Consumer Protection, Ibrahim Mohammed.

Addressing guests at the high-level evening reception put on by CI Africa, the Commissioner made clear his government’s desire to work closely with CI and support our work to develop the movement across the continent.

It’s a long road ahead, but, with a new office, tremendous staff and the encouragement of those with influence, Africa’s consumer rights movement may well be ready to fly.

You can follow the latest development in Africa’s consumer rights movement on twitter @CI_Africa and by visiting www.consumersinternational.org/Africa.

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