Monday, 7 June 2010

Why CSR in Africa can be a unique force for good

In the poorest slum district of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, some 50,000 people receive fresh drinking water and sanitation facilities through a project run by an NGO called AMREF. I was lucky enough to visit this community in Kechene and talk directly with the beneficiaries to understand the impact of this project, a corporate social responsibility (CSR) project funded by the Diageo Foundation, a premium drinks company.

What my colleague and I unearthed was a project well planned, thoroughly implemented and carried out by passionate people who genuinely wanted to improve the standard of living for those living in Kechene. Although we catalogued numerous benefits, the real impact on the community was evident to me when I met Meselu Abreham. Meselu is a local resident in charge of one of the water and sanitation committees who look after the new facilities. Before I could thank her for telling us about her new role, she ushered us into her one-roomed house and headed directly for the only ornament in the room, an earthen vase made by her cousin. She was adamant that we take it and keep it as a gift from the people of Kechene, as a thank you for changing their lives through the project. After some persuading, we were obliged to accept her kind offer which now resides within my own house as a symbol and reminder of the powerful force good CSR can be in Africa.

CSR in Africa is different from CSR in Europe or America. It has different driving forces. The strength of regulation in Europe and America encourages improved environmental performance and ethical business practices. Institutional investors and shareholders play less of a role in how the companies they invest in behave. The level of environmental and social awareness from consumers and employees is not at the same intensity and expectations about how businesses should operate are different. Interestingly in Africa, because companies are so embedded in the fabric of society, businesses are expected-and eager- to play more of a role in developing the communities in which they operate.

Consequently, there is a large difference in the potential for impact of CSR in Africa compared to more developed countries. Because of these differences, there has been an encouraging debate about what exactly is CSR in Africa? Is it just window dressing to improve corporate reputation or does it really add value to the company’s financial bottom line and the community at large?

It was this debate that I frequently found myself in during conversations whilst travelling across the continent . This is what sparked the idea of the East African CSR Awards. It was clear that many companies were investing in community development programmes and improving their operations to reduce environmental impacts and increase employee health and safety. The awards therefore aim to showcase initiatives which have truly benefitted the society, environment and businesses in order to clarify what good CSR in Africa looks like.

A recent seminar in Monrovia, Liberia this year hosted by the Brenthurst Foundation looked at developing guidelines for CSR in Africa. This demonstrates that there is a need for clarity. An initiative like the East African CSR Awards can help develop an understanding of how the private sector can create sustainable development and alleviate poverty in Africa.

On the judging call to decide the winners and highly commended projects for the Awards, some common themes began to appear:

· A commitment to investing in time and resources to assess what the project should be, what benefit it would bring to the business and community / employees and how it should be implemented. This commitment creates innovative and context-relevant projects such as Unilever Tea Tanzania and Kenya’s ‘Lightning Detection Programme’.

· An integration of business incentives with environmental and social good, as illustrated by Sandali Woods and their strong ethos for sustainability.

· Comprehensive monitoring and evaluation systems to record not just outputs but actual development impact. Eastern Produce Kenya’s Environmental Programme and Mabati Rolling Mills’ project clearly demonstrated that ‘what gets measured gets managed’.

· Community-driven activities in order to foster community ownership and sustainability as Tullow Uganda’s project demonstrated.

· Strong partnerships with credible NGOs and local authorities to ensure an element of sustainability and alignment with government policies, as was characterised by Safaricom’s ‘A World of Difference’ secondment programme and Unilever Tea Tanzania’s Forest Conservation programme.

· A multi-faceted approach to the project, ensuring different elements such as awareness raising and management mechanisms were put in place, as demonstrated by Nile Breweries Supply Chain project.

Over the course of the year, the Awards secretariat hopes to work with its partners and judges to develop these guidelines and criteria with the hope of stimulating more successful CSR projects in East Africa and assisting the government in creating an enabling operating environment for businesses to implement excellent CSR. Ultimately, with everyone playing their part, the private sector can drive an inclusive model of economic growth for Africa, providing equitity and sustainability.

I would like to thank all those involved in making the first East African CSR Awards a success – the Honourable Tanzanian Minister of Trade, Industry and Marketing, the sponsors – Bank M Tanzania and Dow Chemical East Africa, the partners – the East African Business Council and the East African Magazine (Nation Media Group), the distinguished panel of judges and the chairman of the Awards secretariat, Mr Elvis Musiba, and last but not least, all the companies who entered.

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