The ‘My Little Big Thing’ campaign is the first-of-its-kind sustainability marketing universities’ challenge organised by MK-Africa in collaboration with Strathmore University and the University of Cambridge, South Africa. The campaign aims fostering innovation in sustainability with a special focus on the Sustainable Development Goals. Targeting over 250,000 students drawn from the more than 53 universities and colleges around Kenya, MK-Africa is determined to turn ‘My Little Big Thing’ into an annual event loved and owned by the university community across Africa.
By sponsoring this campaign, you will not only create awareness for your brand but will also be at the forefront of supporting innovation in sustainability. In addition, you have the chance to launch a new initiative for your brand through the exciting internship opportunities for the participants.
Please click here for more information on how to sponsor the campaign.
Good communications can get people to do all kinds of things they wouldn’t normally. This ad from Norwegian conservation organisation, Eco Agents, shows a dedicated junior TreeHugger standing up against a group of adults and their very un-sustainable actions.
I bumped into one of my blog readers as my son’s school function the other day. He was happy to see me. One, because the function was dragging on for way longer than anyone had expected and any distraction was gladly welcome; and two, because he needed me to explain what exactly it is that ‘sustainability’ is and what I have to do with it. Today’s blog post is therefore dedicated to you Wamai…I hope this makes it clearer.
Sustainability is the act of doing (or not doing!) what we can to ensure the survival of our natural environment. It is a focus on keeping our world in balance by way of preserving our natural resources so that future generations can continue to live in harmony with our planet. Tobias Webb, founder of Innovation Forum, a London-based sustainability events and publishing business, notes that people think of social issues when they hear “CSR,” and environmental issues when they hear “sustainability.” But in fact social and environmental issues are inter-related. “Deforestation is a great example,” he writes. “It looks like an environmental challenge yet many of the solutions are socially related (governance, corruption, institutions, sustainable livelihoods and regulatory enforcement).”
So companies have caught onto something known as “corporate social responsibility,” or CSR. They may have a CSR officer, or maybe a director of corporate citizenship. But at some point, these social and reputational issues merged with the larger question of growth that is sustainable over a long time period, a question fraught with environmental and governance aspects. Investors started asking about “ESG,” environmental, social and governance issues. And companies appointed sustainability directors to make sure all aspects of their operations were on board with new, forward-looking, best practices. Lately, as inter-governmental organisations like the UN tackle big issues like global warming and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), corporations have taken sustainability yet another step forward by helping to lead the discussion and the search for solutions. Companies cooperate in efforts to wipe out corruption and violence in certain areas, using their economic clout. Some are voluntarily cutting carbon emissions and water use.
Above all, there is a growing awareness that companies MUST lead us into a more sustainable future, because no one else will.
Sustainability holds numerous benefits, not only for large organisations, but also for SMEs. Firstly there is the issue of cost. At a time when energy is becoming a scarce resource and costs are rising in many parts of the world, there is a real incentive to increase efficiency. Large corporations are investing considerable efforts in monitoring and reducing their energy usage. However, whatever size your company is, there are savings to be made. For example, by installing LED lighting and automatic sensors. Payback on investment typically takes between one and three years, but thereafter your business should be saving money.
Secondly, at an extreme, there is the prospect of fines. Many governments have been introducing tougher environmental legislation and will penalise companies that flout it. Just as there has been a crackdown on governance and ethics in the banking sector, so governments want to see companies behaving responsibly in terms of the environment. Certainly, no matter where a company operates, it has to be increasingly aware of its environmental impact. Thirdly and more positively, there is a significant business opportunity. Major corporates, who frequently employ CSR departments, are increasingly conscious of the need to ‘green’ their supply chains. They don’t want to do business with any companies, of whatever size, that are environmentally and socially irresponsible. So if you can show that your company places a high value on CSR and sustainability, you could be giving yourself a real advantage. If you are greener than your rival bidder, it could just help tip the balance.
Fourthly, sustainability can enhance your reputation and help in the recruitment war for talent. This applies especially to the younger demographic. So if you are competing for talent against other employers, being a sustainable business can give you a significant head start.
Lastly, no business wants to find itself on the wrong end of a consumer campaign because of an environmental issue. Large companies are more in the firing line here of course. But with social media, issues can grow and spread with bewildering speed. If someone locally (or internally!) takes exception to a wasteful or negligent company practice, you could find yourself with a publicity issue on your hands. This could harm your corporate reputation and also have a serious commercial impact. So making your business sustainable can pay off on many levels. I would encourage the management teams of any company, whatever the size, to carry out a review of the organisation’s environmental policies, energy usage and operational processes. Are there ways in which you can become greener and more efficient? Do you have clear environmental policies that are properly communicated and understood by employees? Are you working with any company that is environmentally negligent and if so can you find an alternative? Companies that take these issues seriously and that integrate them into their way of working will be increasingly better positioned to succeed than their competitors. It really is a win-win situation.
So what does all this mean? As a career marketer, I know that individuals will prioritise sustainability issues if the issues are critical to everyday life. For example, when it comes to climate change: people care about flooding of their cities more than the fate of polar bears in the Arctic or about potential toxins their green vegetables more than international pollution treaties. I work with companies to understand this – and frame sustainability issues so they are relevant and hit home. Good communications can get people to do all kinds of things they wouldn’t normally – the results could have far-reaching effects.
Elspeth Donovan, the Deputy Director of Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership, speaks to us about biomimicry
I am a naturalista! And proudly so. I belong to a worldwide movement of women of African descent who do not use artificial chemicals on their hair. It is interesting how a seemingly insignificant thing like the choice of hair products can cause such furore. However, for about ten years, thanks to the Internet, a growing number of people have been sharing their natural hair advice via blogs, websites, forums and YouTube videos. The movement has also drawn in celebrities like Lupita Nyongo and Erykah Badu. What is remarkable is how the natural hair choice has span to include other choices like being vegan and gluten-free. More often than not, a naturalista is also concerned about making healthy food and lifestyle choices.
Wouldn’t it be great, therefore, if the sustainability movement would draw the same high-profile attention that the natural hair movement has? After all, the effects of climate change and continued social inequalities are far more serious than the use of chemical relaxers on one’s hair. Perhaps Biomimicry is the solution. Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies. The goal is to create products, processes and policies— new ways of living—that are well adapted to life on earth over the long haul. I recently caught up with Elspeth Donovan, the Deputy Director of Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership who is also a member of Biomimicry South Africa group. She shared her thoughts on how nature has the solutions that Africa needs to innovate around sustainability. The core idea is that nature has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers. After billions of years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.
A key area where companies can use the biomimicry principles is around handling their waste. How can they emulate the natural system, which does not understand the concept of waste? One example that Elspeth shared with me is that of ‘Blue Planet’. When Brent Constantz, CEO of carbon capture company Blue Planet, was looking for a way to process carbon dioxide emissions, he found inspiration in nature. Coral reefs and rainforests, the largest natural structures on the planet, are made of carbon. Reefs, in fact, not only sequester carbon, but also reuse their own waste byproducts. When they produce calcium carbonate, they release carbon dioxide. This feeds the symbiotic algae that help support them. Beginning in 2011, Blue Planet has worked with DeepWater Desal, a combined desalination plant, power plant and data storage facility in Moss Landing, California, to mix waste carbon dioxide released by its natural gas power plant with the calcium produced from water desalination. The result is calcium carbonate – limestone – a building material that California’s construction industry needs. And, not incidentally, the same material that coral reefs are made from.
The Biomimicry Institute, a US-based nonprofit, is taking the trend a step further with its Food Systems Design Challenge, encouraging a cadre of entrepreneurs to improve the food production system by emulating techniques and processes found in nature. Hexagro, one challenge finalist, has combined agriculture with the design genius of one of nature’s most famous structures. A modular aeroponic home-growing system, it is made up of individual hexagon-shaped bins that are inspired by bees’ honeycombs. Designer Felipe Hernandez Villa-Roel wanted his product to circumvent some of the environmental problems associated with large-scale agriculture, such as carbon emissions, pesticide use and fertilizer runoff. His solution was to make it easier for people living in small urban spaces to grow pesticide-free food at home.
A similar design has been adapted by group of young, tech-savvy entrepreneurs known as Ukulima Tech. Based in Nairobi, the start-up has developed ‘vertical gardens’ from plastic piping, tested soil and manure, aluminum among other accessories all dependent on a client’s specification is relation to the space available. The vertical gardens come in various shapes and sizes but the standard system measures 1.8 feet by 1.5 feet. Ukulima Tech aims to sensitize the society on sustainable use of environmental resources in food production while ensuring that the society is aware of hazards arising from improper utility of farming methods and farm inputs.
There are therefore opportunities for African companies to use biomimicry principles in their operations. Biomimicry thinking helps create products and processes that are sustainable by following life’s principles. These instruct us to build from the bottom up, self-assemble, optimize rather than maximize, use free energy, cross-pollinate, embrace diversity, adapt and evolve, and use life-friendly materials and processes, engage in symbiotic relationships, and enhance the bio-sphere. By following the principles life uses, you can create products and processes that are well adapted to life on earth, perform well and save energy. Biomimicry can help you create disruptive technologies, that transform your industry or help you build entirely new industries. It can also help you create whole new growth areas, reignite stale product categories and attract both customers who care about innovation and sustainability. Finally, creating biomimetic products and processes will help your company become known as both innovative and proactive about the environment.
Elspeth suggests starting with local sourcing of resources such as local forms of energy and ensuring that you do not have any toxic chemicals in any of your products. Sounds to me like the beginning of a ‘natural’ movement in the corporate sector. Hopefully biomimicry can give the sustainability movement the ‘star-quality’ that it needs to move to the next level.
Earlier this year, I attended the first Sustainable Brands Africa conference in Cape Town, South Africa. I have written about this amazing experience in the past but perhaps I failed to mention some of the wonderful friends I made while at the conference. KoAnn Vikoren, the Founder and CEO of Sustainable Brands couldn’t have put it any better, ‘the people you meet at Sustainable Brands are both smart and nice!’ For me, Nancy Mancilla is both these things and more. I first met Nancy at the Cape Town conference and had the pleasure of getting together again with her, and her husband, a few weeks ago in Nairobi. I love Nancy’s simple and refreshing take on sustainability reporting. She also shares my passion for contextualising the issues around sustainability. She shares some of her views in the article below. Enjoy the read. Muthoni
By Nancy Mancilla, ISOS Group CEO & Co-Founder
The world has turned attention to defining what growth means in light of heightened security issues, climate change and human diaspora. Over the years, we’ve all struggled to find ways to assess responsibility and determine roles needed to advance strategic issues – sustainably. Global leaders finally came together at COP21 in Paris last year to sign across their commitments to reducing harmful environmental impacts and more recently, delegates from Japan and across Africa met in Nairobi met to discuss strengthening ties towards sustainable development and this week, the U.S. and China formally signed onto the Paris Climate Change Agreement.
What does this mean for Africa? Due to our interdependencies, implications are broad. As seen during our trip to Nairobi a few weeks ago, the country is experiencing astronomical growth and as one friend put it, “Kenyans have their day job and then they have their hustle.” These are the people that will feel the trickle down of policies set at the top, but craft creative solutions to delivering on economic growth. However, according to hard scientific evidence, there is need to act fast in order to sway our destiny and avoid the harmful effects of climate change by 2030. It is in this spirit that, our organisation, ISOS Group decided to venture into unchartered territory. As of late 2014, we were granted the opportunity to lead a consortium with AMC International in delivering GRI Certified Trainings in Sub-Saharan Africa (minus South Africa) and have since led two groundbreaking extended practitioners trainings that also delve into determining what’s relevant, designing due diligence schemes, building sustainability governance structures, the basics of greenhouse gas accounting and reporting. With each training, we’ve seen how incredibly well positioned the African continent is to shape the future of sustainable development – to “Africanise Sustainability”.
With that, it’s important to understand how Sustainability or CSR has been perceived: For those who have flocked to our trainings in Nairobi, the concern was shared that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been perceived historically, as strictly giving.
When corporate negligence has occurred in the past, charitable giving in the name of CSR, was extended as a method for covering the wound, not necessarily healing it.
CSR has been seen as limiting; a term that hasn’t instituted real accountability for long-term impact. “Africanising Sustainability” and defining what it means in the broader context of operating on the continent can accelerate adoption. Getting started may mean coming to terms with a few issues that are felt by all nations consistently:
- Rampant corruption in all facets of leadership is still a primary concern of the people. This issue is heightened as other developing nations move in to Africa to rope in precious resources. Using frameworks, like GRI or CDP make addressing governance a precursor to any other barometer of performance. Therefore, publishing sustainability disclosures could result in a transition to more formal systems that weed out opportunities for corruption.
- The scientific community has already proven that human activity, especially by big businesses, is the climate change culprit. For many in Africa, climate change has impacted civilisations, migratory patterns and support systems. Reminding the world as to the historical context and what that could mean for big business moving forward is important for the continent. Similarly, broad awareness and education in the marketplace could present opportunities for leading the change. However, it’s hard data and other performance metrics that should be the common platform for communication. Understanding industry standards and best practice is essential to collecting and reporting impacts, mitigation efforts and successes.
- Impacts caused through international trade have a chain reaction, which can no longer be disguised. For instance, a fair trade coffee company identifies a resource rich, scalable coffee plantation in Uganda, low-cost labor is migrated to the area. Growth is ignited and various informal industries blossom. Without the proper policy infrastructure in place to control growth in a systematic manner, human rights are quickly degraded; labor rights, gender, children’s rights are impacted. As with the ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’, Fair Trade initiatives also have unimaginable damaging effects on the wellbeing of labourers. Regular engagement across the value chain is therefore crucial.
- Expanding diversity and inclusion opportunities could put to rest age-old tribal struggles and possibly, bring about long-term peace. Social scientists have leaned toward an informal 3 Generation Rule; it typically takes three generations to overcome the mindsets that have led people into acts of war and genocide before true peace prevails. It’s our perception that Africans are tired of being tied to these sentiments and ready for change. Assessing diversity and laying out equal opportunity measures could aid in establishing a fair playing field to build from.
In summary, we feel that using the Sustainable Development Goal’s could help anchor organisations in what they aspire, while also bridge the gap between what the international community has committed to and what action means on the ground. Tying in proven non-financial disclosure frameworks, like the GRI or CDP, could help measure progress and create communication channels beyond expectations.
Jonathon Hanks, Managing Partner at Incite, South Africa speaks on Shared Value
What does ‘Sustainability’ really mean? I personally love the word and the effect it has on people when I tell them that I am a consultant in the field of sustainability. Their eyes glaze over and they nod meaningfully, taking on a somber demeanour. Somehow ‘sustainability’ bigger and more important than your regular old consulting. And I am not alone this little display of significance. Many companies use the term ‘sustainability’ loosely to mean a wide range of activities within their organisations.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives are the most popular. This is when a company responds to social needs through philanthropic – cash or non-cash – contributions. These include donations to community organisations and employee volunteer programs. Increasingly, however, sustainability is being taken to mean the actions around addressing business risks and challenges by promoting good practice on a range of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. These may include human rights, ethics, worker health and safety, corporate reporting and environmental management. For example, engaging your stakeholders on environmental and social issues is part of ESG. These initiatives give rise to a large body of data that is made available to investors, whether they want it or not.
However, according to Incite, a consultancy based in Cape Town, South Africa, it is more useful for organisations to determine the role of their sustainability strategy. I recently had a chat with their Managing Partner, Jonathon Hanks, who presented the concept of shared value (SV). This is a management strategy focused on companies creating measurable business value by identifying and addressing social problems that intersect with their business. In their experience, an effective sustainability strategy allocates resources to optimise the delivery of value to society, whether social or environmental. This is the primary role of the sustainability strategy. The shared value concept was perhaps first defined in the Harvard Business Review article “Creating Shared Value”, by Professor Michael E. Porter and Mark R. Kramer. The authors identified three ways in which shared value can be created: by defining markets in terms of unmet needs or social ills and developing profitable products or services that remedy these conditions, by increasing the productivity of the company or its suppliers by addressing the social and environmental constraints in its value chain and strengthening the competitive context in key regions where the company operates in ways that contribute to the company’s growth and productivity. In other words, developing a commercially-viable product that genuinely improves the lives of the poor, changing a manufacturing process to reduce energy or waste at a scale commensurate to your operations and a partnership that opens your supply chain to support large numbers of smallholder farmers are all shared value initiatives.
Shared value initiatives tend to be growth drivers, with measurable social and financial benefits. This makes shared value particularly relevant in fast-growing emerging or frontier markets.
For example is a partnership between Microsoft, Fit Uganda and GOAL, an NGO that has been working in the agricultural sector in northern Uganda engaging with conflict affected rural communities to improve food security and agricultural incomes. Since 2013 GOAL has facilitated agricultural businesses to increase productivity through access to improved agricultural inputs and services and link farmers to market and weather information, which is vital for production. A key component of this has been to increase the functionality of an existing agri-business mobile platform to a full trading platform (virtual market place) that includes, among others, commodity and weather information, farmer profiling, a farm management record system to increase farmers financial and trading history and credibility. GOAL worked with a local company, Fit Uganda in partnership with Microsoft who provided technical expertise, business planning and strategy skills as well as software and technical solutions. GOAL provided market linkages, increased access to farmers and marketing services. The results of the cooperation were a significantly increased and secured platform or virtual trading place with over 115,000 users. Also smallholder farmers have increased access to goods and services such as buyers, financial services, insurance, inputs and equipment. Fit Uganda has improved business performance and opportunity for growth and Microsoft benefits from direct market linkages and more use of technology.
The term sustainability has meant different things to different people for more than 20 years and it is likely that this will remain the case.
A sustainability strategy’s particular allocation – between CSR, ESG and SV – will depend on the way the company perceives the risks and opportunities arising from the societal context in which it operates. If the company aims primarily to manage risks, reduce costs and improve its reputation, it focuses on CSR and ESG. If it wishes to enhance growth through socially inspired innovation, it will tend towards shared value in its allocation. The choice depends on the company’s strategic positioning. Competencies developed through sustainability include value chain agility, product or market innovation and developmental partnership. These competencies are of increasing interest to investors who take a longer-term view on their investments.
As for me, I continue to be a ‘very-important-sounding’ consultant in Sustainability & Marketing.
Peter Eigen – Founder, Transparency International
I love picking my nine-year-old son from school. This is literally the highlight of my day. There is no end to the multiplicity of mischief that children get up to at this age. The account of day’s events is usually very animated – complete with sound effects. I was therefore surprised when, about a month ago, I found him nearly in tears and reluctant to speak. When I eventually pried some information from him, it turned out that he had told on his classmates for making noise in class and even taken the liberty to write down a list of the offenders for the class teacher. While this had earned him praise from the class teacher, the rest of the class – including those whose names were not even on the list – had taken to calling him a ‘SNITCH’ and had refused to play with him all day. Needless to say, I was heart broken. Worse still, I was unsure how to react.
You see, telling on others is not something that is very common even in the adult world. Every day, we see acts of corruption taking place on our streets, in our work places, schools and public offices and none of us says anything. How about telling on yourself? This is nearly impossible. Why would you create certain doom, immediate punishment not to mention self-inflicted shame? And yet, this is at the heart of integrity. I just spent the last 3 days attending the Landmark Forum. This is an international personal and professional growth, training and development program that offers an education in living. From the program, I got that when I do not call out another person for their wrongdoing; I lack integrity. For me, it is easier to excuse their behaviour or turn a blind eye. I discovered that this is because I can see my own behaviour reflected in theirs. If we do not call out our own bad behaviour, it is difficult to hold others to account because our past behaviour still has power over us.
Could this be why corruption remains such an issue in our African society?
Corruption is the single biggest threat to Africa’s growth. According to Transparency International, around 75 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa paid a bribe in 2015. The NGO ran a survey in 28 countries in sub-Saharan Africa in 2014 and 2015 to attempt to measure the level of corruption. The type of bribes most commonly paid were to police officers and court officials. Half those surveyed had paid such bribes more than once. This means that that having gotten away with paying a bribe, one was likely to do it again. A report on the role of Corporate Governance by the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), states that in dealing with corruption, there are no simple answers. In some instances business can be a source of corruption, while in others it is simply a victim. Crucially, the private sector can be a force in developing solutions to the corruption problem in a number of ways.
One key way of addressing corruption problem through internal measures is the establishment of strong corporate governance within companies. Good corporate governance is not only a tool that raises efficiency, improves access to capital, and ensures sustainability — it is also emerging as an effective anti-corruption tool. On the day-to-day transaction level it makes bribes more difficult to give and to conceal. At the decision-making level, corporate governance injects transparency and accountability, so that it is very clear how decisions are made and why. Economies only work if companies are run efficiently and transparently. We have seen vividly what happens if they are not- Investment and jobs will be lost and in the worst cases – Shareholders, employees, creditors and the public are ripped off.
Whistle blowing or reporting wrongdoing is relevant and plays a critical role in implementing Corporate Governance Practices. This was clearly evident when Sherron Watkins blew the whistle on Enron’s Management in the U.S. Companies are encouraged and, sometimes, required to set up channels for reporting or raising a concern about malpractices within the organization or through an independent structure associated with it. This is not easy especially in our society that has become so entrenched in doing wrong that corruption and violation has become the inherent part of the public and private life.
It is however a proven fact that companies and brands who mess up bounce back quicker when they confess, take responsibility and move aggressively to make things right.
The same is true of people. Landmark is onto something. Maybe more companies should get their employees to attend the Landmark Forum. Eating a slice of humble pie is tough, especially when it is our pie. But, like anything worthwhile, it’s the tough stuff that is most effective. Telling on yourself lessens the power that the wrongdoing has over you and puts you in an authoritative position to tell on others.
I am now living in the possibility of being authentic and powerful. I also have an answer for my son’s school dilemma.
Is there a Xhosa word for climate change? Mitigation in Luganda? In Yoruba? And what of ‘my carbon footprint’ in Shona? These are the opening lines from the beautiful Mbali Vilakazi’s thought-provoking poem. This poem speaks to the heart of Sustainability Marketing Africa’s purpose: creating an African context and narrative for sustainability. In other words, ‘What does sustainability made in Africa look like?’
I had the privilege of meeting Mbali last week at the picturesque Intundla Game Lodge near Pretoria in Gauteng, South Africa. I was attending the Sustainability Practitioner seminar run by the University of Cambridge. It is a rare treat to be able to spend time away from work reflecting on what you do and why it is important. In a time where everything seems to evolve faster and faster, it is easy to get stuck feeling that we need to hurry. Even the leaders of the past who made great achievements knew the importance of going slow. The founder of the Roman Empire, Augustus, would use the Latin phrase “Festina Lente.” This translates to: “Make haste, slowly.” In this way, we were reminded to ‘quieten our cleverness’ as we began our 4-day exploration of how to regenerate how we talk about sustainability.
We used the ‘U-theory’ as a roadmap for the seminar and began by exploring how we got to the place where, as a planet, water is not only a huge social issue but there are also huge inefficiencies around our food production system. You may be as surprised as I was to discover that it takes 2,400 liters of water to make a small burger! And then there are the amazing and sad ways that the natural system is adapting to the changes in the environment. Around Tokyo, Japan, twigs and other natural materials are hard to come by in the busy metropolis, so crows settle for the next best thing, and that seems to be wire coat hangers.
With the world being in need for rapid growth, the dilemma is that that we also need scalable solutions to tackle the impacts of this growth. When an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, something has to give! Any ambitions we may have to deliver a sustainable future for mankind are inextricably linked to the degree to which businesses, from large to small, embrace and deliver sustainability. At the seminar, we built a framework based on 2 parameters i.e. categorizing how business’s regard their sense of responsibility to the challenge of achieving sustainable societies and categorizing the fundamental concepts that inform how the business actually responds to its responsibility. This framework, known as the 5 principles model, formed the basis of our discovery of our options and what it means for our work.
Some of the most exciting sessions at the seminar were the ‘Inspiration’ evenings. Each day we concluded with presentations from change agents such as the ‘Spinach King of South Africa’ Lufefe Nomjana, a social entrepreneur, who is starting a health revolution in Cape Town’s townships. He tells us the story of how he found his calling while on his quest to serve others by improving the eating habits of his community. His company, Espinaca Innovations produces over 200 loaves of bread, as well as spinach muffins, spinach pizza bases, rusks and spinach juice – all from a container converted into a bakery in Khayelitsha. The company has about 12 employees and supplies various hotels. There was also Achenyo Idachaba from Nigeria who bid her corporate career in the United States goodbye and relocated back home to start a new chapter as a social entrepreneur. She tells the story of turning the destructive water hyacinth into a profitable income earner for women in Bayeku, a riverine community in Ikorodu, Lagos. Her company also conducts training workshops for locals on river handicraft product development.
These stories illustrate the kind of regenerative thinking that will create a context for sustainability in Africa. The reality is that on our continent, some of the ‘innovations’ around sustainability hardly novel. Many middle class Africans can relate to having to take a bath using a bucket and recycling what’s left of the bath water to clean the house. However these reminders of our childhood are unlikely to be successful as interventions for positive action. We are eager consumers. As Mbali puts it,
‘What will we say to the aunt who has just gotten electricity for the first time in her life, For whom it is untouchable by words like ‘saving’ and ‘consequence’, words she does not care for. It is her first time! She wants everything on ALL the time. She wants to see it, she wants to hear it, she wants to feel it. It is her first time! What will we say to her?’
Many consumers in Africa are driven not only by their basic needs, but by the desire to achieve a social status that until recently was out of their reach. It is unlikely that any ethical consumerism campaign or educational drive is going to take this away from them. These newly empowered masses want to consume, they want to show off their new status and their achievements, and they want social recognition. For any behavior change campaign to be successful, it must provide real, personal and tangible advantages for today’s African consumers. Appeals to self-sacrifice and self-denial will fall on deaf ears. The new consumers joining the market in Africa are all too used to going without. If business is going to reach them and influence their behavior, it will have to invest in understanding just what makes them tick and then deliver very real benefits to them.
It will have to ask the difficult questions like, ‘Is there a word for sustainability in Swahili?’
I have just finished reading ‘The Goldfinch’. This beautiful piece of literature is a moving tale about a boy who loses his mother in a museum explosion when he is just 13. Being a minor, he is obliged to go live with his father – a recovering alcoholic. His father dies in car crash, stoned and driving in the wrong lane, only 2 years later. Much as the boy cannot stand his father, he eventually grows up to be just like him – a duplicitous drug addict. This may be a work of fiction however the chilling reality is that our children will turn out to be just like us. We may take them to expensive schools and give them the latest and best that money can buy however, their characters are shaped by what they see us do – even when we think they are not looking.
And we think our children do not know what we really do at work.
In the recent past, potential corporate governance malpractices may have contributed to significant loses to the investing public. According to recent report, the total number of companies that have incurred investor losses relating to corporate governance now comes to 8 – CMC, Imperial Bank, Uchumi, Mumias, Kenya Airways, TransCentury, Chase Bank and NBK.
Against this background, I cannot help but reflect on the legacy we are leaving for our children and the generations to come. After all, we are the ones who run these companies. The governance of the companies we run, and work for, are a reflection of who we are. Do we trust that what these companies represent through their brands is genuine? Even more importantly, can we trust our children with the brands we work for? Trust is the invisible but crucial glue that holds communities together and social contracts in place. It is a precious commodity. Every time a company poisons our atmosphere, violates the rights of children or of its workers or is involved in corrupt practices; they are doing something else that is just as destructive: poisoning the well of public opinion.
A growing number of companies in Africa now view sustainability as a key element in business strategy. Diverse companies such as General Electric, P&G, Safaricom and Unilever are strengthening their brands by making their consumers increasingly aware of a company’s impacts on the environment and society. These companies have concluded that expanded commitments to sustainability and transparency directly aid their business strategy and reputation in a progressively digital era.
Negotiating this newfound path is fundamentally about trust.
A survey conducted by Hill+Knowlton Strategies revealed that one of the more significant drivers of public confidence in a company is its commitment to sustainability, and its efforts to communicate about and deliver on that commitment. Among the key findings were that a company can gain public trust through an honest and transparent reporting of its efforts to be more sustainable and greater visibility of its corporate sustainability efforts. Set against this backdrop, suspect business practices by brands take on new meaning. Not only do they chip away at the public’s trust in businesses to act in good faith (and in accordance with the law), they also play into a wider skeptical narrative – that is that the private sector is using green-wash to keep the profits rolling in.
Last year, the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a notice of violation of the Clean Air Act to Volkswagen Group, after it was found that the automaker had intentionally programmed turbocharged direct injection (TDI) diesel engines to activate certain emissions controls only during laboratory emissions testing. Following this revelation, Volkswagen became the target of regulatory investigations in multiple countries, and its stock price plunged in value by a third in the days immediately after the news. Volkswagen Group CEO resigned and the company announced plans to spend billions of dollars on rectifying the emissions issues. Similarly, the current Olympics in Rio have a foul undercurrent with a huge furor around doping by some athletes with Russia and Kenya being right at the heart of it. What is sad about the scandal is that some of the doping is actually state-sponsored.
For businesses operating transparently, the test, is not what the company or its leaders say, but what they actually do. The Capital Markets Authority recently enacted a new Corporate Governance Code. The Code advocates that companies adopt standards that go beyond the minimum prescribed by law, and sets out specific recommendations on the structures and processes companies should adopt in order to make good corporate governance an integral part of their business.
We think we can disconnect our personal lives from our what we do at work. The sustainability of business is very much linked to our sense of responsibility in response to the external pressures of our time. At a time when global political leadership appears to be at an all-time low, it is business that will innovate and invest most effectively in the new technologies and systems needed for a sustainable economy. Chief executives must take a holistic approach, as sustainability is critical to business; it’s not niche anymore. Businesses that integrate sustainability into the very core of their value proposition gain a greater license to operate.
They may even become businesses that our children can trust.