By Nancy Mancilla
Last month we delivered sustainability reporting trainings in Kenya -- the first GRI Certified and CDP Certified trainings offered in Africa. It is a time when we are revisiting responsibilities for the actions that shape the global economy, as we debate how to define the relationships between the developed and developing nations of the world as it relates to valuable resources and impacts on our environment and social well-being. Our contribution to this debate is to equip those on the ground, and in the trenches, with the tools necessary to engage in true self-determination toward greater sustainability.
Over the years, we developed a successful model empowering change agents in the United States, and we are looking to replicate the same value proposition in sub-Saharan Africa. Our expectations after the first trip to Africa have now been met, even surpassed, as we learned some valuable lessons that we are keen to share with the world.
We believe we can increase the speed of change in our world by taking the skills and experience we have with the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and CDP (formerly referred to as the Carbon Disclosure Project) training to Africa. You’ve likely heard the statement, “ignorance is bliss.” We had no idea what we would find, but we were optimistic that our gut instinct propelling us in that direction would be justified. We left enlightened and with a greater sense of responsibility to participate in the charge in the best way we know.
After nearly a year of scheduling and rescheduling, going back and forth to determine which countries would be likely candidates for launching our sub-Saharan trainings, we finally determined that it was now or never, purchased tickets a week out, and traveled to Kenya. Our partner on the ground, South Africa-based AMC International, had put its efforts into calling many companies located in East and West African business centers to identify who, if anyone, works with “sustainability” efforts and if they would be interested in joining the training. Teams from KPMG, subsidiaries of Wrigley and Heineken, Kakira Sugar, and the Nigerian and Ugandan financial communities responded promptly to our call -- ready to roll their sleeves up and put their considerable knowledge to work using the tools we brought with us.
The ISOS corporate social responsibility (CSR) team, comprised of Eric Dziedzic and Jennifer Roney, prepared materials that would set the stage for sustainability as we were unsure what the depth of the knowledge would be. Even though taking the time to establish shared terminology was valuable, the participants came to the training very knowledgeable and ready to apply their skills. Everyone grasped key concepts quickly and began thinking immediately of how implementation in their businesses and in their communities would take shape.
Some interesting lessons were learned from our first cohort in Nairobi this past November.
First, the term corporate social responsibility is perceived as strictly charitable giving. You see, the history in this region includes many corporations neglecting the needs and rights of the people and the environment in the areas where they do business. These corporations assuage their acts by providing charitable contributions in the name of CSR. This was seen by those we met, as a method for covering the wound, not necessarily healing it. CSR is seen as limiting: a term that has not promoted real accountability for long-term impact. Handouts aren’t wanted -- knowledge and empowerment are. By referring to 'sustainability,' (the preferred term by our participants) a more comprehensive look at how the environment, society and governance structures are managed is implied.
It made us think about the chain reaction that our actions have and the, often times, superficial discussions we have about them. For instance, when a fair trade coffee company identifies a resource-rich, scalable coffee plantation in Guinea, low-cost labor is migrated to the area. Growth is ignited, and various informal industries blossom. Without the proper policy infrastructure in place to control growth in a systematic manner, human rights are quickly degraded; labor rights, gender rights and children’s rights are impacted. As Priscilla Achakpa, a climate warrior showcased by Vogue, recently put it:
“The impact of climate change on women is huge. The men are forced to migrate and they leave the women, who are now the caregivers because they find they cannot leave the children . . . We don’t want a top-down solution to climate change- we want bottom-up.”
Which leads to our second lesson learned. For sub-Saharan Africa, much of what we talk about in sustainability are really social justice issues. Social justice issues are not new. They have been at the forefront of international concern. But as we spoke to the participants in Nairobi, we saw that every challenge -- whether it be environmental, economic or governance -- was defined by the impacts it had on people. For example, environmental degradation from over-farming and poor farming practices was viewed as a social impact due to the inhalation of dust from the fallow fields. Gas flaring in the Niger Delta is first viewed from the perspective of the horrible health impacts it is having on the people in the area. Problems like the corruption that lies beneath some of these issues were acknowledged, but the participants in our training were focused more on developing solutions than criticizing either the governments or the companies involved.
The scientific community provides convincing evidence that human activity, much of it attributed to big business, is contributing significantly to climate change. We also are coming to understand that the impacts of climate change will be felt most profoundly by those living in developing economies due to lack of infrastructure, disproportionate share of environmental degradation and inability to respond when disasters strike. Like it or not, the participants in our training will be on the front line of dealing with these impacts.
The third lesson learned was that these leaders in this part of the world are eager and ready to take on the challenge, and they are interested in learning from us. However, they are not looking for us to solve the problem for them. Our training discussions were more of a collaborative discussion than anything, and that is the way we like it!
Our final lesson learned is that sub-Saharan Africa is ready to tackle Integrated Reporting. Some are already integrating sustainability topics within their annual reports. Others are working to define value creation based on the six capitals used in the framework. All are hungry to define financial impacts in social and environmental terms. Related to this is their desire for reporting to be a vehicle for organizational and social change. We see this in the U.S., but the motivation is stronger in Africa, in our estimation, to move to the change more quickly than what we have seen as a slower progression in the U.S.
Those who have completed our recent GRI Training, infused with a bit of CDP, are bridging the gap in a form that speaks to the developed world. They have entrusted their sense of place, community and the role each shares in their destiny. By using non-financial frameworks for assessing material issues, explaining local context, demonstrating firm management systems, and reporting performance against national and international objectives, the participants in the first sub-Saharan ISOS CSR training are ready to develop solutions to their current challenges and to build a more sustainable future.
By already conceptualizing how to advance immediately to integrated reporting, they’re not going to waste time either. In their words, it’s time to “raise the boats” for all involved. We’re fortunate to have had the chance to contribute.
In their words...
"I attended GRI training offered by ISOS. I run a consultancy firm that offers professional guidance on CSR and responsible business. One of the products we offer is CSR reporting and the training offered an ideal opportunity for us to build skills and competencies. The training was delivered by experienced professionals who were able to deliver the content in a way that one was able to comprehend. There were practical examples and exercises that enabled us to apply the training to our workplaces. All in all it was a great learning experience and the trainers were top notch."
-- Rosemary Wahome Founder and CEO Beyond Profit, Ltd.
"For over two years, I had seen a few sustainable development reports published by multinationals and I always wished I could write a similar one for my company. When I was invited to the GRI Training, I knew without a doubt that I should attend. The training was so specific and it perfectly brought out issues that a company should report on. The company that I work for does good things – taking responsibility for people and natural resources… and I believe all stakeholders should be aware of this."
-- Kenneth Musings Barungi Assistant General Manager, Kakira Sugar, Ltd.
Images courtesy of ISOS Group
Nancy Mancilla is the CEO and Co-Founder of ISOS Group, a sustainability consultancy focused on all aspects of sustainability reporting.