Djembe Sustainability Roundtable
Our corporate social responsibility (CSR) team leads Mi Thich (Zurich), Debbie Ghamkhar (Washington, DC), Zara Bott-Goins (New York), Daniel Sievwright (Zurich) and Paschorina Mortty (London/Accra) conducted Djembe’s first internal roundtable. Across topics, ranging from CSR trends to employee empowerment and enhanced community engagement, our team discusses the increasingly important topic of sustainability within the private sector and its multi-sector collaborative approach with wide-ranging partners as the new model for ‘collective sensibility’.
From your perspective, how has the approach to CSR changed in the last several years?
Paschorina: CSR is now no longer a soft topic or just a checklist exercise. Companies are now realizing that CSR is necessary as it benefits the communities in which they operate as well as impacts the bottom line. Previously, CSR was always compartmentalized but it’s now becoming an integral part of the business model because it allows companies to not only demonstrate their value but also to engage better with their employees and communicate with the public about the work they are doing within their communities towards a more sustainable future.
Zara: I fully agree. It’s about the demand and what people now expect of the products they buy or services they seek out. They expect companies to be socially responsible and to have an impact in their communities on every level. That’s why we’re moving from the term ‘corporate social responsibility’ to [simply] ‘sustainability’ to encompass the longer term, community-relevant impact.
Daniel: I think equally important, when one looks at the supply side, is the current trend with multinationals that sustainability needs to be integrated into daily operations to add value to end-users. So, in other words, empowering local communities as opposed to merely funding initiatives.
Mi: These trends are also what’s stood out across business development events throughout Europe and the U.S. At the Stanford Africa Business Forum last month, a MBA student asked the CEO of Guaranty Trust Bank (GT Bank) about what their financial institutions do for society that makes them different. The CEO shared that their bank works with community CSR initiatives, such as hosting a recent food drive. However, he emphasized that what’s important is that with these CSR initiatives, the bank doesn’t broadcast such activities. Instead GT Bank would rather have the community talk about the work they’re doing instead of pushing it out and trying to sell it. This was really interesting since, previously, a lot of companies would push out their annual CSR reports and coverage of their activities; however, now community members are instead speaking out on behalf of companies and embracing the work they’re doing.
Increasingly, awareness is growing that CSR is not an individualized effort but communal. Therefore, what is the role of collaboration in a successful initiative?
Paschorina: Social issues, as we all know, were traditionally dealt with by NGOs and they didn’t always have the resources or funds to be able to follow through or make the impact they would have liked to achieve. And the corporate sector would typically get involved by making donations. But now we’re increasingly seeing the two sides coming together to collaborate, leading to CSR initiatives which are generating better results and a more positive impact for all parties.
Zara: It’s interesting to see a lot of collaboration on that side in terms of the private sector offering data and hard skills that [can] be provided for NGOs and other projects. This has changed the game. Often for resource-strapped projects, these practical skills can make a world of difference in facilitating projects.
Employees are important contributors to CSR initiatives as we see within our own company. How can employee engagement be encouraged within an organization? What’s a good starting point for a company that perhaps does not have a CSR program in place or wants to bolster its involvement?
Paschorina: I always think if a company is going to have a sustainability initiative, and for it to be successful, you have to get your internal stakeholders–your staff–all on the same page so you’re all working towards the same goal. This is absolutely crucial. And, then, you look externally to identify and secure the support of other equally important stakeholders: whether these are customers, partners or the community.
Daniel: Absolutely. The issue here is defining where human resources and sustainability are intertwined. One of the best ways to incentivize people in the workplace is by facilitating “employee contribution programs”, which can be factored into performance appraisals with the aim of balancing organizational priorities. I think this is a great way to inculcate a culture of collectivity, which often tends to be stripped away in profit-based entities. Companies [such as Unilever and IBM] are adopting this approach within their human capital practices, particularly multinational organizations applying 360 degree performance appraisals related to workforce diversity. Applying such appraisals, as opposed to the generic management by objectives (MBO) model, which is still widely used by western organizations, is crucial if you’re going to involve sustainability to engage your employees.
What do you think of this emerging trend towards bringing the employee to the center of CSR decision-making?
Zara: It’s exciting to see companies moving in this direction. They increasingly understand that their employees are all individual spokespeople for the work that the company does on every level, due in large part to the role of social media. As a result of this, empowering employees to invest their time and efforts into sustainability projects that they feel some ownership can only lead to stronger, more impactful programs. When I think of organizations and companies [similar to Djembe], with more of an international scope, there are different local needs and issues to be addressed. This is where the voices and passions of each employee become critical as they are perfectly positioned to understand how best to address the various needs in the communities in which they live. This is good for business and good for the planet.
Mi: Companies, in my opinion, should facilitate employee participation at the center of CSR decision-making, where company values align with their employees. This ensures that employees are invested and the company can continue to generate impact that makes a sustainable difference. Activities such as community volunteering strengthens the company culture by driving engagement internally as well as locally.
What are some successful case studies or examples that you find innovative and/or impactful that are influencing sustainability globally but particularly within Africa?
Paschorina: In Ghana, we have major problems with energy, specifically electricity. It’s a big issue impacting greatly on businesses because they can’t operate effectively. It even affects education – with no light, kids can’t do their homework in the evening. [In response], the Philips Cape Town to Cairo Roadshow installed Community Light Centres a few years ago at locations across Ghana to create areas of light for rural communities which live without electricity, effectively creating numerous opportunities for social, sporting and economic activities in the evening.
Another example is Soronko Solutions. They have a program called Tech Needs Girls and it’s a technology and mentorship program that targets young girls and encourages them to explore careers in computer science as a way of facilitating gender parity in the tech space. The program seeks to provide deprived areas of Ghana with critical thinking skills and hands-on learning using technology that they wouldn’t [typically] have access to, while using [these tools] to develop solutions for local challenges.
Debbie: In the U.S., it’s been amazing to see the involvement and energy of the U.S. African diaspora in this [social impact] space. We are witnessing 20-somethings, 30-somethings contributing to efforts on the African continent. Financial giving has moved away from [being the traditional domain of] large size companies to [everyday] individuals. This group of African millennials is not waiting [on the sidelines]. They are young entrepreneurs moving forward in establishing their own initiatives like African Women in Tech founder Anie Akpe, Millennials in Business creator Orobosa Owie and Bola Lawal of ScholarX. But, just as importantly, they engage with other people asking, ‘How can we partner with you?” to build and expand the network and contribute their expertise.
Zara: The Mara Group’s creation of the Mara Foundation comes to mind when thinking about impactful programs, particularly on the African continent. Seeing the need to build an ecosystem for SMEs and the importance of supporting youth and women entrepreneurs, the Mara Foundation works to create mentorships and support systems for these entrepreneurs to not only improve their lives but the overall development of the continent. They’re also a great example of working in partnership with others as they collaborate with UN Women, the Young African Leaders Initiative, Invest Africa and Emirates Foundation.
Daniel: There’s also an interesting project that I’ve been involved with through the [University of California, Berkeley’s] Blum Center for Developing Economies. It’s fantastic how their [Big Ideas innovation platform] bridges scientific research with business and development. It gives students a real chance to make a difference. The two initiatives I’m referring to are Visualize and Open Viral Load, which provide very simple [but effective] ways for diagnosing cervical cancer and HIV/TB [respectively] in [Ghana and Mozambique]. This makes it possible even for a remote community in Africa to get access to some of the most modern advantages in medical screening which is really a fundamental breakthrough. I think initiatives like these are exciting and ambitious for the African continent that can address the healthcare agenda.
Debbie: What’s been great about the Blum Center is that the [four] partners represent different tiers contributing their various skills and resources. One is the university institution [Blum Center] that is the driving vehicle followed by the student innovators [Visualize and Open Viral Load projects] and then there’s Djembe [private sector] lending its communications expertise. So, again, we come back to [the idea of] collaboration. This partnership has a reciprocal value for all those involved. For the student innovators, it’s access to communications tools at their disposal—from graphic and web design to social media tutoring. For Djembe, it becomes a classroom experience, so to speak, in learning about the health sphere and specialized medical language on cervical cancer, HIV/AIDS and TB. And, in all cases, it’s about impacting our communities and creating positive change.
Mi: It’s very inspiring, as an employee, that small-scale companies such as Djembe can be active on the sustainability front and give back in the local communities that they operate in. When we speak about Africa, innovation is extremely important and technology can really make a difference. At the annual World Bank Conference on Africa (ABCA) held this year in California, agricultural researchers talked about using technologies such as drones to gather information about land and crop yields to better understand where needs are. Some other interesting case studies for Africa and globally are the initiatives that multinational corporations also take on by utilizing their expertise. For instance, Google is a prime example as they have a host of data mining instruments with valuable information. It seems they’ve devoted projects as part of their CSR arm to assess and utilize environmental data for initiatives such as mapping air pollution or tracking illegal fishing. This type of knowledge can be useful for different community partners to be better equipped on how to address these challenges.
With a society more and more shaped by the consequences of the Digital Revolution, businesses are now increasingly forced to look at ways of aligning the identity of their brand with the integrity of their stakeholders. In the pursuit of creating a recognized brand that is also resistant to the possible emergence of crisis, CSR is becoming increasingly important and complex. What are future trends in CSR? Moreover, how can we effectively measure the impact it really has? Lastly, is the term ‘corporate social responsibility’ still reflective of the change? Djembe’s CSR team looks at some of the big questions surrounding the future of this field.
What are some future trends in sustainability?
Paschorina: If we’re talking about future trends, I think it’s going to become mandatory for [companies] to have a very strong CSR/sustainability approach. I see it becoming part of RFPs and a condition for organizations doing business together. Not everyone has fully bought into sustainability and there are still a lot [of people] to convince. But I think in two or three years it is going to be a mandatory [business practice]. It will come to a point where someone will decide not to do business with you because you don’t have any CSR initiatives in place and don’t have a strong voice in this space.
Daniel: I see the domination of two trends: international goal-setting and cooperation. In addition, although the field of sustainability reporting is growing rapidly, it is still quite rudimentary when you compare it to financial reporting. So there is still progress to be made [in terms of objective metric evolution].
If you had to forecast, how will sustainability reporting evolve for companies—particularly larger organizations?
Daniel: At the moment, this field has a lot of subjective metrics and I see empirical measures being factored in to win over multinational companies. You’ve got independent firms that are marketing this [rationale] to potential clients to say, “Well, listen this is really good for your clientele because it shows that you’re not only supporting industry trends and corporate governance, but you’re aligning economic interests with international policy.” So, I would say that objective metrics in the form of robust benchmarking by region, industry, and developmental alignment will be the way forward. I see this as a “collective sensibility”.
What are some strong examples, from your perspective, of reporting metrics or benchmarking involving African projects?
Daniel: As Africa aims to propel its growth agenda through rapid urbanization, initiatives such as the Ecological Sequestration Trust and Vital Signs are essential to avoid a high ‘carbon lock-in’. The Trust is prototyping in various areas of the world, but there’s one project in particular focused on Accra where they’re providing tools (resilience.io) for more planned urban development. Vital Signs is another movement that integrates areas such as agriculture, ecosystems and human well-being across several African nations. The most notable value, in my opinion, being actionable insights that smallholder farmers can use to predict crop yields.
Mi: Across this field, there are reporting metrics and benchmarks for companies to demonstrate how their activities align to sustainability standards. This is important across the international landscape for companies coming from Africa or Europe since there are different interpretations globally about what is sustainable. However, what’s occurred in this space is an abundance of metrics and reporting mechanisms, for instance, the GRI guidelines and ISO standards where companies invest a lot of resources and efforts into generating reports to demonstrate how they’re meeting one standard or another. However, in some cases, company efforts might not accurately reflect what they’re doing as their sustainability efforts might be perceived as falling short. So maybe there needs to be a bit more thought into what makes sense and what works, and how to demonstrate what is successful and sustainable. This presents the opportunity for communities to get more involved in sharing their stories on different platforms such as social media or in other ways because our world is a lot more digital now, and there are a lot of options for people to talk on behalf of what companies are doing, providing real feedback about whether community initiatives are working.
We have heard much today about the ongoing trends in CSR, its evolving benchmarking system and how projects are trying to increasingly engage both employees and their communities. All these points give a strong impression of a significant evolution of CSR in recent years. Given the direction that sustainability is headed in, do you feel CSR, corporate social responsibility, is an accurate term for these projects? Or is a new word necessary?
Paschorina: The term ‘CSR’ is a bit outdated and limited as it is primarily linked to companies acting more responsibly and does not necessarily encompass sustainability. My issue with ‘sustainability’ is that it’s not a very consumer-friendly term. If you ask the layman on the street: “What does sustainability mean to you?”, I’m not sure many people would be able to answer this. We’ve already established that consumers are very important stakeholders, and so we need to look at terms that would engage people. [Where a person says] “Wow, okay. I understand what this is about and I need to be part of it.”
Zara: On that note, it’s not so much about the wording; it’s more about showing through action. CSR is not a separate [standalone] page on a website anymore, but integrated across platforms as an ongoing story of impact and engagement throughout communities.
Paschorina: You’re right. It’s more about storytelling. A lot of sustainability stories are not told with enough heart and soul, and therefore do not resonate with audiences. The recent Heineken ad is a great way to tell a story with a strong message and make an impact – it plays on so many emotions and most importantly it makes you think. We know that Heineken is trying to market beer, but what a great CSR value [translated] into storytelling.