The African private sector has a clear and crucial role to play in supporting the push to mainstream the recently announced SDGs, turning them from an inspirational
wish list to an inclusive and transformative approach to economic development. After all, many of the SDG targets speak directly to challenges faced across the continent, from achieving food security to ensuring access to energy and building resilient infrastructure.
We have already seen a shift in attitudes to ‘corporate social responsibility’ from many of Africa’s business leaders. Rather than seeing it as just a box-ticking exercise, many now understand that long-term success means committing to a broad-based approach to socio-economic development, one which includes job creation, skills development, gender equity and a positive environmental impact. Moreover, there is an increasing determination that Africa should take control of its own development agenda, with its private-sector leaders committed to seizing the narrative back from Western governments, donors and NGOs. Aliko Dangote, Bob Collymore, Strive Masiyiwa and Mo Ibrahim, among many others, have all been vocal in championing causes that are captured in the SDGs, including governance, energy access and entrepreneurship.
Yet Africa’s private sector isn’t limited to the big hitters – the continent’s numerous SMEs and entrepreneurs are also fundamental to delivering transformational change. Such smaller businesses are vital to creating opportunities by creating jobs, finding innovative solutions to old challenges, and building strong value chains.
For African businesses, then, the SDGs potentially provide an opportunity to demonstrate their ownership of Africa’s growth and development story. This approach, which Tony Elumelu terms ‘Africapitalism’, entails a commitment to long-term investments on the continent, which will create both economic prosperity and social wealth. Africa’s economic development, as driven by its own private sector, should bring with it success in many of the areas flagged by the SDGs. However, given the scale and breadth of the SDG targets, how best to integrate them into a business strategy and, subsequently, track their successful implementation?
One potential answer lies in the UN Global Compact’s recently launched SDG Compass, an online tool for businesses to use to ensure that their strategies are in alignment with the SDGs, while also providing guidance on indicators to measure and tools to assess progress. For example, in order to support the indicators on ‘promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth’, the SDG Compass advises companies to include policies on promoting economic inclusion when selecting suppliers, to provide training to workers, and to adopt fair and transparent governance standards. It also provides a repository of the various tools and guidelines already available to establish best practice in various fields: from the Global Reporting Initiative’s Water Performance Indicators to Transparency International’s Anti-Bribery Checklist. A great deal of work has already been put into making it easier for companies to measure and report their contributions.
Yet, with 169 targets to track, many of which have multiple applications (the SDG Compass suggests 45 different indicators, for example, just for target 1.4 on ensuring equal rights to economic resources), it is difficult to envisage any but the largest corporates successfully verifying their compliance in every respect.
It is in this way that the leadership already shown by some of the aforementioned African philanthropists and executives can serve as a template. It is clear that focusing on certain priority objectives can have an exponential effect on development across Africa. Extending access to energy (SDG 7), for example, as many African companies are doing, will have a knock-on effect on numerous other targets: enabling school children to study in the evenings, hospitals to store vital medicines and run essential equipment, and small businesses to scale up their operations. Similarly, prioritizing agricultural development, building safer cities and conserving the environment will all pay dividends in multiple respects.
Of course, not every African business is in a position to drive change in these big-ticket areas. However, the SDGs also provide an opportunity for Africa’s SMEs and entrepreneurs to commit to a range of initiatives which will deliver transformational change and development in their markets. As an African businessman, I myself am committed to ensuring that my company, africapractice, plays it part in meeting these ambitious targets, through our work supporting the continent’s most progressive leaders and companies, those who are engaged in building a more prosperous Africa. Whether it is promoting gender equality in the workplace, upgrading infrastructure or reducing waste, all African businesses should be proud to state publicly what they are doing to support the SDGs.