More than ever, performance on measures of sustainability – nowadays encompassing everything from environmental impact mitigation to strengthening local supply chains and human capital development – is receiving real scrutiny in Africa. This is reflected in the high profile of COP21 in Africa (see the level of activity under #AfricaCOP21), and the rise of local content regulations across the continent which demand capacity building commitments alongside licenses to operate.
A number of initiatives reflect the growing push towards sustainable business. Chief among them is the UN Global Compact, which encourages businesses across the globe to adopt sustainable and socially responsible practices. This is the world’s largest CSR initiative and is gaining momentum continually. More than 600 businesses from 35 countries in Africa are now participating.
In Africa, the African Union’s Agenda 2063 also pushes for policy to consider economic growth, sustainable development and environmental sustainability together. Such initiatives present compelling challenges and opportunities for businesses seeking to unleash the power of Africa’s population and resources.
Overall governance and regulation on the continent is strengthening, and citizens are better informed and able to assert their rights. Against this backdrop, businesses in Africa have no choice but to look at sustainability closely – and that is a good thing. Yet business conditions in Africa can be tough, and even now investment in sustainability tends to be relegated to the bottom of the priority list. One reason for this can be the perceived expense of improving sustainability performance, and other could be that sustainability can seem abstract when set against harder business imperatives.
Governments, development finance institutions and investors get behind large-scale infrastructure and industrial projects because they can be the catalysts for other forms economic development. Especially in Africa, with its rapidly expanding workforce, human capital development is a critical consideration of any investment of this kind.
At Qalaa Holdings, there is the belief that the most critical aspect of business sustainability and success is investing in human capital. One company that has demonstrated this recently is Rift Valley Railways (RVR), the railway concession in Kenya and Uganda in which we are a major shareholder.
Since the beginning of the railway’s rehabilitation in 2012, a simple but highly effective safety programme has resulted in a 90 per cent reduction in worker injuries in RVR’s 25 workshops in Nairobi. Thanks to the programme RVR won the IOSH Railway Group’s International Award 2015, doing Africa proud against international competition.
At the heart of the programme is simple housekeeping, drawing on the Japanese Kaizen approach to workplace improvement. It is based around ‘5S’: sorting, setting, shining, standardising and sustaining – as well as a colour-coding system. This has not been expensive, but has required focus and determination. It has created a happier and more productive workplace. We’d like to think that low cost solutions like this can be replicated all over Africa, for the benefit of workers. It is encouraging that the Kenyan Government, in conjunction with industry bodies and trade unions are actively promoting the uptake of similar programmes – to take just one example.
On a continent where the availability of technical capacity and expertise can be challenging, ensuring the long-term success of a business is fundamentally rooted in capacity building and improving the economic and health conditions of employees. To do so, companies may need to make considerable investments in technology and provide exposure to international expertise. But they can also go very far by adopting simple training programmes which require old-fashioned commitment and clever thinking.