My experience of working in business in Kenya and now with the UN Global Compact, the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative, is that sustainability works. 

It helps train the focus on key material issues for long-term success by providing an extended vision of the trajectory of a business. Sustainability is helping to fire up the best new business ideas on the continent. It is fostering innovation and is addressing some of our most pressing needs, such as the fight against climate change.

As the world bounces back from the ravages of the pandemic, Africa is uniquely positioned for far stronger growth. With 1.3 billion people and a combined gross domestic product of $3.5 trillion, Africa is the world’s biggest growth market.

Young people hold the key to unlocking Africa’s economic potential. With the youngest population in the world – almost 60 percent are aged under 25[1] – Africa is well placed to grow.

The best way to take advantage of the demographic dividend of a youthful population is to build a healthy, robust and resilient economy.

This should start with ensuring access to vaccines and continue with a new focus on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which open new opportunities for business.

Realizing the vision of a prosperous Africa

Driving greater sustainability is Africa’s most significant growth opportunity. Meeting the SDG goals by 2030 means, among other things, connecting 570 million Africans who lack access to electricity at present[2].  It means making sure that more farm produce reaches markets in good condition. 

According to the Business and Sustainable Development Commission[3], reducing food losses in the value chain would add $57 billion to farmers’ incomes. Efforts in this direction are already underway.

Rwanda has reduced post-harvest losses by 60 percent with the introduction of small silos and crates for transport. In Nigeria, ColdHubs[4] provides solar-powered cold storage facilities that can extend the shelf-life of perishable foods from two to 21 days.

When you consider the opportunities for delivering sustainable cities, and for managing Africa’s vast natural resources sustainably, the Commission estimates that achieving the SDGs would unlock an economic prize of at least $1.1 trillion and create 85 million new jobs on the continent by 2030. One sector alone – affordable housing – could create more than 13 million jobs.

Adopting sustainable and responsible business models in line with the SDGs not only drives competitive advantage but also contributes to the creation of equitable and resilient societies, social good and climate resilience.

Employers who embrace sustainable principles and values are not only safeguarding the future of our continent, but they are also more likely to attract and retain a new generation of talented and socially conscious Africans who want to make a positive impact through their work.

If we can provide the right opportunities for our young people, we will be able to tap into their energy and ideas and create more employment and wealth across the continent. You don’t have to look far to find great examples of young entrepreneurs already showing the way.

My Green Home[5], for example, an award-winning Rwandese company that makes building materials out of melted waste plastic and sand, evolved from a school project encouraging recycling. Greencare[6], meanwhile, makes compost from biodegradable waste and was founded by a Rwandese university student.

In Nigeria, Chanja Datti collects, sorts and packs recyclable material to be made into new packaging[7]. An SDG focus has allowed the Abuja-based recycling business to generate new income for youth and women micro-entrepreneurs, ensure healthy lives and a clean environment and make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

Large companies are also creating value by adopting sound sustainability practices. South African mining company AngloGold Ashanti SA[8] and Kenyan telecommunications provider Safaricom[9], for example, both now have responsible procurement policies.

These set out standards suppliers must meet as a condition of doing business when it comes to respecting human and labor rights, protecting the environment, and helping the communities in which they operate.

In Tunisia, Cogitel, a company that provides flexible packaging solutions for the food and beverage industry, has demonstrated improved financial returns and increased efficiency with efforts such as reduced energy consumption and lower waste generation[10].

Support for sustainability

For small and medium-sized companies, who struggle with day-to-day concerns, building more sustainable practices may seem daunting. But embracing these ideals can reduce their risk and boost their bottom line. As illustrated by My Green Home and Greencare, they can even be the basis of the business itself.

The UN Global Compact is here to work side by side with businesses big and small. Our newly launched Global Compact Africa Strategy aims to engage and build a cohort of businesses in Africa that are strong pillars of sustainability and responsible business practices. 

We have a strong and growing presence on the African continent with an initial ten Local Networks and a presence in 45 countries.  The Local Networks drive a broad range of activities related to global, local and now African strategies to support growth and development.

These Local Networks[11] liaise with government and non-government organizations and have already had a significant impact, particularly in shaping national policies and best business practices.

In Kenya, for example, the Local Network coordinated the private sector’s participation and contribution towards the development of the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights, which is the first-ever plan to be developed in Africa.

In South Africa, the Local Network aligns its priorities with those of the National Development Plan, supporting companies to integrate and deliver on the SDGs.

In Tanzania, the Local Network was instrumental in ensuring the private sector was consulted when the government was putting together its latest five-year development plan, identifying key areas requiring intervention to help promote sustainability.

Nigeria’s Local Network has brought business leaders, government officials and the UN together via its CEO Roundtable series to agree to sector-specific SDG targets, standards as well as practical guidelines.

And in Tunisia, the Local Network shared its experience and knowledge with members of parliament, helping to broaden the country’s Corporate Social Responsibility Law and National Strategy.

But the UN Global Compact’s work in Africa doesn’t just involve using Local Networks to influence government and policy. It works with companies to develop and integrate sustainability into their corporate strategies, which increasingly is the key to unlocking new sources of capital and being part of the global supply and value chain.

We welcome all companies who want to become champions of sustainable growth and invite them to join a Local Network. In my experience, companies with long-term sustainable strategies are rewarded by attracting the best talent and earning the greatest market share.

As we look forward to COP27 in Egypt this year, we should also look forward to accelerating just and equitable climate transitions, including the creation of green business opportunities for the continent’s youth and for all members of society. Let us accelerate our actions towards the future.

Sanda Ojiambo is CEO and Executive Director of the UN Global Compact


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