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?’