According to the traditional African philosophy of Ubuntu, we discover and affirm our own humanity through our interactions with others. This concept of ‘a person is a person through other persons’ provides an insight into how Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is applied in Africa and how businesses can stimulate sustainable development.
African companies see themselves as integral to their society, not a separate entity bordered by rigid walls. They consider their business to be responsible in and of itself, because it provides employment, salaries and products to its community. Even the process of paying taxes is an important feature of responsible companies in Africa because the informal sector is so omnipotent in many African countries, often carving out 50 percent of the economy.
When africapractice was set up, people asked why a communications company would want to involve themselves with corporate citizenship or CSR in Africa. What people didn’t realise was that communication is vital in promoting responsible development and investment into Africa. africapractice, headquartered in London, provides strategic communications, corporate citizenship and environmental consulting services and works with clients to enhance their performance and communicate their commitment to African development. We believe that an ethical and responsibly acting private sector can do incredible things to alleviate poverty in Africa, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. It generates wealth, increases productivity, and accounts for its environmental and social impacts. Our view is that businesses should aim to act ethically and responsibly in order to be a sustainable business in Africa. The upshot is that by being a good corporate citizen, you can play your part in alleviating poverty and delivering sustainable development.
Another distinguishing feature of African economies that determines how CSR is played out is the lack of publicly-listed companies. There are only 19 stock exchanges on the 56-country continent and apart from the Johannesburg, Egyptian and Nigerian Stock Exchange, African stock markets are relatively small and unsophisticated. Most businesses therefore do not feel the pressure from socially responsible investors or international civil society groups to apply global CSR standards.
Governance and Communications
African businesses in general, especially private companies, do not face the same level of pressure and scrutiny as those in the West. Outside South Africa and some North African countries, government regulation on environmental and social impacts are weakly enforced and civil society groups have a relatively quiet voice when it comes to corporate injustice.
Though African businesses see themselves as the community and therefore any action they do as socially responsible, this does not mean they should not be held accountable for their actions. Barring NGOs, multinational corporations are leading this movement by localising their global CSR strategies and policies to their African operations and instilling values of respect and responsibility. They do this by using three communication tools to engage and enthuse their employees, from directors to employees.
- The first is to raise awareness within the company about issues as wide-ranging as codes of conduct, environmental impact, accountability, and consumer satisfaction.
- The second is to align corporate values with a company’s non-financial activities. For example, Cadbury’s value of ‘working together to create brands people love’ is an umbrella for its CSR activities like ethical sourcing and procurement.
- The third is recognition and celebration. Two-way communication and feedback is vital to instil respect and learn about what works for a particular group of people or situation.
Leading multinationals also set themselves targets and monitor their progress towards these targets. We are familiar with the types of targets companies have set themselves such as reducing water use or carbon emissions by a certain percentage or donating a certain amount to community investment projects. In Africa, due to the current state of affairs, these initiatives can have a profound impact in helping to alleviate poverty.
Water of Life Since 2006, Diageo, a leading premium drinks company, has set itself a target to reach one million people in Africa with clean drinking water each year until 2015. It began measuring the impact of this initiative in 2007, commissioning an external evaluation of their projects to find out exactly how many people are being reached and understanding the impact clean drinking water has on these beneficiaries.
At the end of 2007, Diageo was reaching just over 840,000 people with clean drinking water and the company was beginning to see other benefits accruing to the beneficiaries, such as increased school attendance due to improved health, increased crop production for their subsistence farms, and less incidences of abuse and attacks at night while women went to fetch water.
What was also important to Diageo was communicating these results, both internally and externally. Diageo created a social network called the ‘Water of Life Social Network’. Members consist of Diageo employees and Diageo partners who help implement the programme. The network allows employees to discuss with each other and understand what challenges they each face and what best practices are out there. It is particularly useful for the Global Diageo team to communicate with their operating business in Africa, such as Guinness Nigeria or East African Breweries to stay abreast with updates.
To empower their operating businesses, Diageo also created an advocacy toolkit to communicate the results and impact of the 1 Million Challenge to key stakeholders. It allows consistency of messages and helps their African businesses to lobby national governments to prioritise water and sanitation issues up the national agenda. A Water of Life Handbook is also in the making. This handbook is an A to Z guide for Diageo’s operating businesses to implement Water of Life projects. It covers everything from selecting the appropriate projects, the do’s and don’ts of engaging with partners and what sustainability means.
Because Diageo started to measure and monitor the impact of its CSR project, it is now able to see how this initiative – which started as a philanthropic contribution – is now contributing to the sustainable development of its communities. Diageo’s emphasis
on communicating their results was central to them wanting to make a real and meaningful impact to their communities.
It is the combination of companies promoting responsible and ethical standards to their operations and viewing themselves as part of the communities in which they operate – the Ubuntu philosophy, which challenges traditional concepts of CSR into one that fosters sustainable development on the continent. We believe that communication, through stakeholder engagement and advocacy is the lynchpin to transforming philanthropic corporate donations into sustainable poverty reducing activities.