Interview with Dr Rudolf Schmitt

 
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Under this heading and in loose sequence, we introduce individuals who support B360 in its ‘Southwards’ or ‘Northwards’ activities and thereby contribute to the continued growth of the organization. One of the driving forces is Dr Rudolf Schmitt.

Between 1990 and 2015, Professor Dr Rudolf Schmitt was professor for Food Microbiology and Food Safety at the University of Applied Sciences of Western Switzerland in Sion. He studied food chemistry and received his doctorate in food microbiology at the Federal Technical University (ETH) in Zurich. By mandate of the World Health Organization (WHO), he performed food safety assignments in Africa and Asia over several years. As B360’s first food safety expert, he worked at the Polytechnic of Namibia (currently Namibia University of Science and Technology NUST) in Windhoek in 2010. In the meantime, he has completed eight volunteer assignments.

Rudolf Schmitt is a member of the Board of B360.

Since 2010 you you have regularly been on B360 assignments in Namibia, and you have also actively supported us in Switzerland. What motivates you?

It all began during my schooldays in the sixties, when I got deeply upset by reports about the misery of people in India. That was the root of a developing urge to do something, to help others improve their situation. I later realized that the basis of everything lies in a good education and in forming a sense of responsibility. Still, it was by coincidence that I got my first mission in a black African country 30 years ago. The later mandates were different. What remained was my wish to help willing youth in acquiring the necessary capacities for independently shaping their future. My motivation remains intact, and I get lots of gratification from working with the enthusiastic students of Namibia.

Food safety is a key subject within the B360 Southwards and Northwards programs. Why?

Because food safety is one of the central themes of health policies of all countries. It is globally recognized that the protection of people’s health is a basic right. Food safety is a scientific discipline developing processes for the production, storage and preparation of foodstuffs, extending from agriculture to kitchen, with a view to avoiding diseases caused by food consumption. The fundamental rules to reach this objective are not really complicated, but one has to learn to apply and heed them. Of course, the practical application varies between Namibia and Switzerland, for we have different products, a different behavior with regard to hygiene, and very importantly, a different culture. Still, I teach the same courses in Namibia as in Switzerland, because there is only one single set of principles of food safety. The examples for illustrating these principles can derive from anywhere, although for the exercises and case studies I use Namibian food handling traditions.

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In 2011 the first student from Namibia got the opportunity to complete a three-month internship in Switzerland. It was Nicco Matengu, a student of the Environmental Health and Safety department. Since then, 12 students from that department have performed a traineeship in Switzerland. A success story for everyone?

To answer this question, I wish to consider „success story“ from two different angles. For one, it was the first time for almost all these youths that they boarded a plane, travelled to another country and were received by a family and a company totally unknown to them. During the three months in Switzerland they all underwent an incredible development on the personal level, something no one can ever take away from them. Without exception, they gave enthusiastic accounts of their experiences in Switzerland, and that is in itself a fantastic success story. The second aspect relates to our expectation that these young people will more easily find employment and a qualified workplace. Here, the difficult situation in the Namibian labor market plays an important role. Still, seven out of the 12 people are working in good positions for which they had been trained: as health and safety practitioners in food or other industries. Two received scholarships for continuing their studies, one for a Master degree in the original field in the UK, the other for medicine in Russia. Two more hold good positions in the pharmaceutical and the biotech industries. Only one person’s career escapes my attention currently. Considering that 90% of the former interns have found adequate employment, this part is a clear success too, especially when we compare with the significantly lower job chances of their fellow students.

What has changed in the field of food safety in the North and the South during the past nine years?

Nine years are a short span of time, considering that today’s concepts of food safety were developed in the 1960ies and written into law since about 1985. Over those years, the WHO has organized numerous consultations towards standardizing methods for the application of food safety principles in all countries, rich or poor. Of course, progress in the North has been faster than in the South. The big topic in the North has since 2009 been to certify the management systems of food safety in business in accordance with international standards in order to obtain market access. In principle, that’s true also in the countries of the South, but with the exception of multinational groups, progress is slower. In many countries of the South, including Namibia, there is not yet even a modern food legislation prescribing good hygiene practices and an effective process control for all food handlers. But there are very positive developments as shown by the example of a NUST student. Within a short time, she introduced a quality and hygiene concept in an abattoir to enable it to export its meat products. It is exactly the impact that we experts from Switzeralnd want to achieve with our engagements in Nambia.

In your opinion, what are the principal challenges, risks and opportunities?

As in the past, rapid development in this field will continue in the coming years. B360 needs access to experts who are up to date in the profession and also possess didactic skills suitable for African students. That will not always be easy, as many lecturers will have to obtain leaves of absence from their employers. This challenge implies the risk that the needs may not be satisfied completely or not at all. Other risks are hidden in Africa or in Switzerland. In Africa, that the management of the partner schools may alter their attitude vis a vis foreign experts so that our help would no longer be desired. In Switzerland, that the great voluntary commitment of all involved persons in B360 – especially executive management and organization – would be reduced or stopped. The greatest chance is in my opinion that the young people we have trained for ten years in Namibia and in other countries, themselves make a contribution by supporting their university, relate their professional experience to students, provide jobs to recent graduates, and maintain an active group of Intern Alumni. In that way, the partnership built by B360 will be led into a sustainable future.

B360 reaches age 10 this year. What are your good wishes for the future?

In one word: sustainability. The term has been strained and misused, but I go by the textbook meaning as “yielding a lasting effect over an extended period of time”. I wish this for B360 in multiple ways. Firstly: the students from the three partner countries benefit from us experts from the North and get the opportunity to enlarge their horizon not only technically, but even more with regard to ethical questions. Secondly, I hope that the academic body of our partner universities in Southern Africa will catch up with the scientific world in the North and assume direct responsibility for a sustainable development of their institutions. And finally, that the Swiss internships of the many students, with their learnings from companies and guest families, will have a lasting effect, so that this cultural exchange will lead to an opening of minds and leave an indelible impression.