SNV Story No. 11: A common language that transcends national borders

Portrait of standards expert Professor Corinne Gantenbein-Demarchi

Professor Corinne Gantenbein-Demarchi is Deputy Director of the Institute for Food and Beverage Innovation at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) in Wädenswil. She also is fully committed to teaching on a voluntary basis at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). She contributes her valuable knowledge as chairperson of standardization committee “INB/NK 172 Food”. Next summer, she will be handing off her leadership position to another committed individual and immediately take on a new project. The SNV spoke with Professor Gantenbein-Demarchi about her diverse range of work.

Image caption: Professor Corinne Gantenbein-Demarchi is a volunteer at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST) (source: B360 Education Partnerships)

SNV: Where does your fascination with food come from and what does food mean to you?
Professor Gantenbein-Demarchi: I developed a fondness for cooking and baking already as a child. What interests me about food is its limitless variety and practical relevance. After my doctorate, the desire to holistically illuminate a subject motivated me to take a position at a university of applied sciences – a place where the work is centred around application and where not only theory but also proximity to practice and thus to people is what counts. In my personal life, eating is about sheer enjoyment above all else. I do not pursue any strict nutritional philosophy and have always been willing to try everything, but I give preference to foods that are healthy and sustainable. There are certain foods I won’t eat for ethical reasons, such as frogs’ legs. I also like to try new things when travelling in Africa, and I only had to refuse food that was offered to me once – when I was the guest of honour and was presented with the brain from a whole sheep’s head. In that case my sense of reason kicked in, and I allowed my knowledge of pathogens to overrule my curiosity as a foodie.

SNV: How did you come to standardization work and what conclusions do you draw after 20 years of working in this area?
Professor Gantenbein-Demarchi: The SNV approached me, and looking back on it, I am quite grateful that the opportunity was presented to me. This work made me acutely aware of the importance of standards. While I studied at the ETH Zurich, standards and what they do were not on the curriculum. Today I also teach my students in Africa how valuable a standard is. Standards are a common language in the context of methodical procedures. If we follow standards, we understand each other better and break down boundaries. In the food sector, food safety is very often the focus of standards. It’s a topic that concerns us all. In 2019, the United Nations also launched World Food Safety Day (WFSD), which is now to be celebrated each year on 7 June. It was initiated by a Swiss woman by the name of Awilo Ochieng Pernet, who chaired the FAO-WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission between 2014 and 2017. Even today, up to 420,000 people die from food poisoning each year, and COVID-19 has also put the spotlight back on the importance of food safety.

SNV: Tell us more about your work as a volunteer for B360 at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). What fascinates you about this task?
Professor Gantenbein-Demarchi: A colleague of mine was volunteering for B360 in Africa and I secretly envied him for that. However, since time was a commodity that was pretty scarce for me, I supported B360 in the beginning mainly by opening our home in Adliswil to African exchange students. When I then dropped to half time at the institute, I thought to myself, “It’s now or never!” I have been fascinated by the country of Namibia and its people since my first trip to Africa. The students’ joy, enthusiasm and eagerness to learn are incomparable. They appreciate being met at eye level and are grateful that we take them and their professional and personal concerns seriously. So it is not uncommon for someone to bring me a gift after class and give me a big hug – something that rarely happened to me while I was teaching at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZAHW). I’ve also cultivated very meaningful friendships over the years.

SNV: What do you do and what is your goal when you are in Africa?
Professor Gantenbein-Demarchi: Africa needs to take responsibility for itself and for its future. That is our ultimate goal. That’s why I like to ask the students in class to critically scrutinize and examine statements in detail, something that is often foreign to them and that they first have to learn to do. During my time there, I teach them how to carry out standardized quality controls and how they can gain respect in professional tasks in an international environment based on this methodology. I teach them to assume responsibility for projects themselves. For example, they need to carry out a standardized food inspection of a local product combined with an analysis of the food safety of the product. The objective is that they will be able to contribute to ensuring food safety later in their professional environment using the knowledge acquired from me and my B360 colleagues. In countries where many people die each year from food contamination, an approach like this is highly relevant, especially when you consider that water is also a foodstuff. The graduates are to use their acquired skills as a springboard to remain in their country and help build a healthy Africa there.

SNV: How would the students describe their professor from faraway Europe?
Professor Gantenbein-Demarchi: I think that they would say that I am very active as well as dedicated, but also challenging to study under. Many make a long journey from their informal settlements to attend classes at the university on time. After they arrive, they often first take care of recharging their cell phone batteries and then begin to doze off. It definitely helps when I can involve them in a playful way and allow them to make their own personal contribution to the lessons.

SNV: Is it sometimes difficult for you to understand African culture?
Professor Gantenbein-Demarchi: Africa feels, thinks and acts differently than we do. Africans think less about tomorrow, with today being much more important. They are also firmly rooted in tradition to varying degrees, depending on their ethnicity. For example, a former student once took me on a little trip. “I have a surprise for you,” is what he said to me before he took me on a visit to a family from the Herero ethnic group, which is known for wearing eye-catching hats. The hats consist of two lengths of fabric wound around a roll of newspaper and do not require a needle. There I met a young woman – dressed in a Western manner in a miniskirt and T-shirt – who was open-minded in her discussions about current political and social issues. Then she put on her traditional costume in my honour, and I noticed that she not only looks more traditional with every hand movement, but that her external appearance did something with what was going on inside her head. In a short time, a modern woman was transformed into a woman who sees her role entirely in the tradition of the Hereros. In her case this means that she follows her chosen husband to his farm to live according to the Herero traditions. It really made me think.

SNV: What do you wish for the future of your students?
Professor Gantenbein-Demarchi: In the short term, I really hope that the COVID-19 situation improves and that they will be able to return to classroom education at the university. Digital learning is incredibly difficult or even impossible for them to implement. In the long term, I would like them to gain a foothold in the working environment, to stay at home and make their knowledge available to their own country. The great danger is that well-educated people will migrate and thus slow down Namibia’s development.

SNV: And what does your future look like after retirement? Will standards continue to have an effect on your life?
Professor Gantenbein-Demarchi: In the summer of 2021, I will hand over the deputy directorship of the institute and dedicate myself to the project of a new building for the institute. Standards play a key role in it. From placement and design of the electrical sockets to the exterior facade, we will be developing a complex infrastructure to create a standardized model building for the future. In this project I will get to know standards and their meaning from a completely different perspective.

I look forward to having more time in my personal life – for me, for my loved ones, for my hobbies and also for my first grandson. And I will continue my work in Africa with great passion, of course.

(Image source: B360 Education Partnerships)

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