At last, Sub-Saharan Africa is making headlines for reasons other than war, disease, humanitarian crisis or corruption. Registering seemingly inconceivable GDP annual growth rates – ranging from 6-12 percent – while the rest of the world has been bogged down by a global recession, countries from Nigeria to South Sudan are now discussed as serious players in the global economic conversation. As I argued nearly a year ago, the continent is now home to some of the most promising investment opportunities in the coming years. There is no doubt that Africa has achieved significant progress in recent years, but could we be deceiving ourselves by relying too heavily upon these all-conquering measurements for economic growth?
The first-ever World Forum for Natural Capital in Edinburgh, Scotland, unveiled the full story behind these numbers. As UK Shadow Minister of the Natural Environment and Fisheries, Barry Gardiner explained, “GDP has become a con imposed on developing countries by an economic system that regards ecosystem services on which they rely as mere externalities.” According to Gardiner, some of our world’s poorest countries only receive up to 30 percent of the real economic value of natural products like timber.
In an age where public distrust of big business is at an all-time high, corporations worldwide are seeking to improve brand image by ramping up their efforts in CSR, sustainability and even supporting the nascent social enterprise space. However, far too many companies seem to be missing out on their most promising (and intrinsic) potential for creating positive impact: unleashing the entrepreneurial power of their own labor force.
Meanwhile, scores of ambitious but exasperated employees are leaving their companies to pursue innovative visions seeking to make the world a better place. Yet they face many formidable hurdles related to funding, exposure and economies of scale – areas where large companies have the advantage.
This story is so common that it has captured the curiosity of researchers and investigative journalists at TriplePundit and elsewhere.
The ICT industry presently accounts for 2 percent of the world’s carbon emissions – the same amount that the aviation industry produces. And this 830 million tons discharged by internet and cloud services is projected to double by 2020.
But there is emerging consensus that this same industry actually represents the greatest hope for alleviating our planet’s most critical environmental threats. Driving this message is the Cleanweb Initiative: a rapidly emerging collective of developers, entrepreneurs, nonprofits and corporations who believe that “the revolutionary growth in mobile, social, sensors, processing power and big data analytics represents the greatest impact and economic opportunity of our time.”
As TriplePundit learned at the Clean Tech Future Conference II in San Francisco, the CleanWeb Initiative is busy preaching this message and building its network across cities from New York and Washington, DC to Rome and Copenhagen. “Anytime in history when energy technology has intersected with information technology, society has been changed fundamentally,” explains Nicholas Eisenberger, Co-founder of CleanWeb Initiative and Managing Partner, Pure Energy Partners. Take the Coal Age, which enabled us to create cheap steam, build railroads and conquer frontiers. Or the Oil Age, which powered the internal combustion engine and brought automobiles to garages across the world. While these technologies have been essential to the development of the human race, they have not come without their costs to the Earth, as we well know.
Eisenburger argues that humanity has now entered its next culture-shifting epoch. Only this time, development will no longer come at the expense of the world’s resources, but as an enabler of the solutions to earth’s resource constraints.
Welcome to the Silicon Age.
The movie, The Gods Must be Crazy, depicts the story of a tribe of Bushmen from Southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert whose culture of sharing is shattered when they stumble upon an empty glass Coca-Cola bottle that magically appears in their village. The bottle becomes a coveted object, which in the end, is “thrown off the end of the earth” to restore balance to the tribe. Director Jamie Uys describes his production as “just a slapstick comedy, with no message,” yet its sustained international popularity is indicative of its perceived deeper meaning as a powerful representation of the destructive influence of Western presence across Africa.
Since the Berlin Congress in 1884 when European powers arbitrarily carved their claims across the continent, the history of Westerners in Africa has been characterized by words like “colonization,” “slavery,” “rape” and “pillage.” In recent years, well-meaning NGOs, nonprofits, missionaries and social entrepreneurs have (in some cases) chipped away at this scathing image, but by and large, multinational corporations remain Africa’s most malevolent enemy. The corporate reputation seems forever stained by gruesome stories of blood diamonds in Sierra Leon and the Eastern Congo, child-harvested cocoa plantations of the Ivory Coast and exploited communities of the oil-rich Niger Delta.
There is little doubt that corporations have earned this reputation. Yet ascribing this perception generally to today’s corporations ignores the starkly contrasting partnerships that are emerging between Africa and several of the West’s largest corporations. In fact, such blanket assumptions ignore some of the most powerful examples of both economic and social progress taking place in Africa today. To paint today’s corporations as the modern-day colonizers of Africa would actually slander the mission statements of companies like Unilever and SAP.
Last week, I rode in the center of an extraordinary motorcade of police cars, fire trucks and freedom riders to the funeral of a three-star general of the U.S. Army – my girlfriend’s grandfather, Lieutenant General Caryl Glenn Marsh. Shortly afterward, I returned to my home in San Francisco to attend SOCAP13 – the world’s leading conference exploring the intersection of money and meaning. Both experiences were powerful reminders that life is fleeting, yet capable of leaving lasting impact even after we’re gone. The reach and nature of our impact, however, depends on how we decide to live.
Over the past week, I was humbled by the eulogies celebrating a family man and soldier who “didn’t have a pot to piss in,” yet followed his calling to serve his country to the pinnacle of the U.S. military. I was convicted by the iconic Van Jones as he challenged an overflowing audience of mostly white, upper middle class entrepreneurs and investors to finish the work of the civil rights movement by consciously confronting racial issues (especially with our children), rather than passively welcoming amnesia to blot out our history of racial and gender division. I was awakened by a photographer who dodges bullets through war-torn regions to illuminate the effects of often overlooked conflict on those who are too far removed to feel any connection. Reflecting on the past week, I doubt if I have ever felt as simultaneously unaccomplished and provoked to lead a life that continues to impact others when I’m gone. I also arrived at the realization that had I not answered my own call to work in a mission-driven profession, I might feel merely unaccomplished without provocation.
The world applauds companies who give generously to philanthropic initiatives and we idolize the social entrepreneurs who’ve set out to address our planet’s most pressing issues. Yet people raise their eyebrows the moment they hear of a corporate behemoth that seeks profit while doing good.
Like an A-list Hollywood celebrity’s fourth marriage, these efforts immediately become bright red flags for skepticism. Can a multinational consumer products company really teach us to reduce waste? How can a company that has historically sourced cocoa at the hands of child labor transform into a leader in developing rural farming communities? Does anybody really trust the McDonald’s healthy food menu?
According to Michael Porter, famed Harvard business strategist, profitable business is the only infinite means for creating societal value, and the most powerful force for addressing the most critical challenges we face.
The magic of shared value
Porter has coined the term “shared value” to define a concept by which companies become more competitive while simultaneously alleviating social problems in communities where they operate. Listen to Porter, and you’ll hear talk of magic.
“Shared value is about tackling societal problems with a capitalist business model… When we can get the activity into the capitalism bucket, we create magic because we can scale!”
Can you stand to invest in ways that make the world worse? Mitch Kapor of Kapor Capital and a founder of several household names including Lotus and Mozilla asked this question of an audience of revered angel investors at HUB Venture’s Angel Squared event on May 13th. According to Kapor, nearly all investors have made deals that make them guilty as charged. Even most foundations – the very institutions that are established to do good with our money – “invest 95 percent of their endowments [with professional money managers] to help create problems that the remaining 5 percent [given to program officers] are trying to fix.”
It’s not easy to accept that we may in fact be contributing to behavior that has a negative effect on people and the planet. Yet by simply handing over our money to the stock market or a popular mutual fund, we join the herds to help perpetuate a system that traditionally rewards companies that yield the highest and quickest return. The fact is that many of us who strive to fight climate change and promote values like human health and ethical business are funding big oil, tobacco companies and casinos. Even so, isn’t this a small price to pay for a functioning economic system that provides us with jobs and rewards our investment risks with acceptable returns? After all, what would come of our world if we shifted the focus of our investments from profit to impact?
Tabreez Verjee of Uprising offered the Angel Squared crowd a glimpse into the potential for such a world. Hang onto your hats and turn a minute of your attention to findings from Verjee’s study assessing the performance of recent venture capital investments in companies that are creating positive social impact.
Earth Day was born on April 22, 1970, as the first-ever nationwide protest against the pollution of the environment. Amidst the scores of environmental advocates emerged backlash from an array of parties concerned about the human implications of focusing on the earth. Senator Jacob Javits warned “that the fight against environmental and physical pollution is so popular that it will [detract from] the longstanding and at least equally vital efforts to deal with poverty, alienation and other economic issues.” On the same day, 2,000 low-income residents boycotted another Earth Day rally in Philadelphia, arguing that “the nation’s newfound infatuation with the environment has distracted attention from the misery of the poor.”
Today, 43 years later, social responsibility is considered a fundamental tenet of Earth Day. Even more striking is the role of business in the environmental discussion. On April 22, 2013, both the social and business cases for environmental sustainability were powerfully demonstrated at the first-ever REDD+ Talks. The event was co-hosted by Code REDD and Wildlife Works – organizations leading the global fight against deforestation by taking the earth’s appeal to large corporations, policy makers, and local communities. These partners aspire to protect over 5 million hectares of highly threatened forests, yet their model revolves around people and financial incentive.
Over the past decade, we have entered the Age of Big Data, where digital technology allows people around the world to transmit information at an unthinkable rate – 2.5 quintillion (2.5×1018) bytes of data per day, if you speak the language. I don’t, so I’d rather translate this to monetary terms: In 2010, the industry that has formed around big data management was worth more than $100 billion and was growing at roughly 10 percent a year. The world’s actual volume of data grows much more rapidly, doubling every 18 months according to the IDC.
The numbers are overwhelming, but it’s imperative that we understand what this means for our future. I was privileged to attend two conferences that discussed the potential effects of big data on business and society, respectively.
From data to information
OSISoft, the world’s leading infrastructure for managing real-time data, held it’s annual user’s conference on April 16-19, where corporate leaders discussed how big data is revolutionizing the ways we think about business operations like manufacturing productivity, market research, water management and waste reduction. In industries ranging from paper production to oil extraction, businesses are leveraging software like OSISoft’s PI system to capture data on the most intricate complexities of their businesses. According Jim Crompton, Chevron’s Senior Advisor of Global Upstream IT, there are over 80,000 sensors on each mid-size oil refinery and each one captures data. “The world is drowning in data, yet we are starving for information in many cases.” The great challenge is determining which data really matters. In data speak, this means identifying key indicators.
There is growing desperation for skilled labor in today’s technology-based economy. As Jean Charest, Premier of Quebec warns in the World Economic Forum’s “Global Talent Risk Report, “We are entering the era of unparalleled talent scarcity, which, if left unaddressed, will put a brake on economic growth around the world, and will fundamentally change the way we approach workforce challenges.”
Meanwhile, over 75 million young people around the world are unemployed. Your mind might immediately travel to developing countries in Africa or Latin America, yet this conundrum is most striking in the U.S. where 53 percent of young Americans are either unemployed or underemployed – a generation seemingly shipwrecked in the wake of the economic storm that is the global recession.
What is the cause of this drastic imbalance between soaring demand and undersupply of talent? The obvious roots reside at the heart of our education system.
In his book, “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World,” Harvard Innovation Education Fellow, Tony Wagner explains why he believes that the U.S. is in grave danger of falling behind as a leading innovator in the world. “The culture of education as we know it is radically at odds with the culture of learning that produces innovators.” According to Wagner, American schools educate to fill children with knowledge when they should focus on developing skills like critical thinking, collaboration across networks, adaptability, imagination, and effective oral and written communication.
As TriplePundit learned at last week’s Global Philanthropy Forum, many nonprofits are working to revolutionize education through innovation. Still, preparing young people for the professional world remains one of our world’s most critical challenges.
Our history of aiding the poor and afflicted is mired in failure. Of course, there are many success stories, but if our donations and aid dollars were assessed according to their rates or degrees of success, most would yield abysmal returns on investment.
At the macro level, government-issued foreign aid is often filtered through highly inept local governments before landing in the pockets of corrupt government officials or reaching mediocre results. On a personal level, our individual and company donations are handed to nonprofits that all-too-often lack the capacity to adequately address the problem they exist to tackle.
Working to address local challenges in places like Guatemala, Rwanda and the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve heard the same stories echoed from issue to issue: People and organizations are stirred by stories and videos depicting the struggles of an afflicted community. They feel compelled to help with their resources, expertise and ideas. Yet most don’t have a clue about how to address the problem because they don’t understand the situation from the perspective of those most affected. Consequently, they propose deeply flawed solutions or hand money to an ill-equipped organizations before returning, in frustration, to other priorities.
In recent years, an emerging cadre of nonprofits, designers, social enterprises and multinational corporations re-imagines the paradigm for how we ought to address our world’s most menacing challenges. Operating more like businesses than nonprofits or governments, they carry out rigorous due diligence before proposing a solution to a local problem. As suggested by leading systems thinkers at Compost Modern 2013, due diligence, when directed toward social problems, begins not with report analysis or quantitative calculations, but with relationships.
There are few more recognizable names than Dell. You’ve likely owned one or more of their PCs. You remember the dude from their commercials, and you can’t miss the current headlines. Everyday, breaking news offers updates on the company’s somewhat precarious future as Founder, Michael Dell jockeys with billionaire investor, Carl Icahn and others to take the company private. Yet while the company’s future ownership hangs in the balance, Dell employees work quietly behind the scenes to innovate for the good of society and the environment.
In a recent interview at the Wall Street Journal’s ECO:nomics Conference with Dell’s VP of Corporate Responsibility, Trisa Thompson, I was inspired by an impressive array of initiatives that together form a rare embodiment of TriplePundit’s fascination with people, planet and profit. For this reason, I’d like to flip the page on the current headlines and offer a glimpse into the stories you aren’t hearing in the news.
How many of you have solar panels installed on your roof? This question was asked last week of an audience at the Wall St Journal’s annual ECO:nomics conference. The answer, from a room full of business executives and heads of state who are forging the road ahead for our energy future, was roughly 15 percent. Given that solar power accounts for less than one percent of total power generation in the U.S., it’s no surprise that the overwhelming majority of our nation’s homes and companies are not powered by the sun’s rays. Thus, most of the American public still thinks about solar power like they think of organic produce or electric vehicles – as something that is good for the world but sits on the shelf at a specialty store, around the corner from main street.
Yet for three days under Santa Barbara’s warm sunshine, industry leaders hailed solar’s arrival on the energy main stage. While recent years have seen investments in alternative energy plummet 20-30 percent, solar has quietly emerged as a key energy resource on a global level. In a recent TriplePundit article, RP Siegel discussed the long-awaited cost parity of solar power, at last achieved in countries like Germany, China, India, Spain and Italy.
As for the U.S., consider a few key points raised by industry leaders about the present economics of solar:
Most consumers report a willingness to spend their dollars in ways that are beneficial for society and the environment. Yet sustainability is still far from entering the mainstream market, regardless of what we at TriplePundit are tempted to believe living in the green bubble that is San Francisco.
According to award-winning journalist and “Environmental Messenger,” Simran Sethi, “sustainability hasn’t taken off not because people don’t care, but because the story doesn’t resonate with people.” According to Sethi, it is hard to sensitize people beyond “magnitudes of one”. In other words, people must feel something on a personal level – one magnitude – before they are willing to make significant changes in how they live. Their rational minds might be willing to spend a slight premium on products made from recycled materials or created by the hands of individuals compensated fairly for their labor, yet they do not feel compelled to demand such products.
Perhaps sustainability marketers could learn something from our world’s most popular brands with whom they compete and sometimes stand in stark contrast. For generations, our most successful advertisers have forgone educating people on the complexities of their offerings in favor of appealing to the emotion of the crowd. In doing so, they have proven that consumer habits are driven largely by what society deems cool.
You’ve likely heard the statistics – Africa’s economic growth is staggering. During a period in which the global economy is bogged down by a recession and the rest of the world flounders at well under a 2 percent annual GDP growth rate, Africa has seemingly defied the economic landscape registering growth rates of 4.5 percent in 2010, 5.0 percent in 2011, around 6 percent in 2012, and projections exceeding 7 percent by 2015 (UNDP).
Morningstar captured the attention of the investment world last week when it ranked Nile Pan Africa Fund, the only US mutual fund focused exclusively on Africa, number one in performance out of 543 funds in it’s Diversified Emerging Markets Category for the year ended December 31, 2012.
Yet most in the global West refuse to be too impressed by the numbers. Most companies and investors in North America and Europe still balk at the notion of doing business with Africa. After all, we’re talking about Africa – the poorest of the poor. But is it wise to dismiss these reports so effortlessly? Don’t most great investors only become successful by risking their assets for the potential of gain when and where others are unwilling to do so?