Bekeme Masade-Olowola is a Harvard-trained social entrepreneur and currently serves as the Chief Executive Officer of CSR-in-Action. In this interview with Alaba Ayinuola of BAO, she spoke on the state of corporate citizenship in the country; how she has managed her company’s ultimate goal “CSR advocacy” and the challenges involved among other issues.
Tell us about CSR-in-Action
CSR-in-Action is a conglomerate of 3 sustainability focused businesses: CSR-In-Action Consulting, the College of Sustainable Citizenship and CSR-In-Action Advocacy. Our vision to be the foremost independent ethical action network and consultancy for collective social responsibility and corporate governance in West Africa was birthed in 2010. Since then, we have evolved into a leading sustainability consultancy with over 20 member organisations from the business and civil societies, partners in both public and private sector, and clients from diverse industries.
From inception, our goal has been to bridge the sustainability gap through the initiation of sustainable development, responsible behavior and good governance; and we have done this by promoting an inclusive approach to development at every turn. I believe that it is our ability to create solutions that marry the experiences in our local terrain with international best practices that has distinguished us from others, and we constantly work to develop increasingly innovative and sustainable strategies for our valued stakeholders in the public and private sectors.
It is in our efforts to redefine the sustainability terrain that we have, over the years, championed several strategic initiatives. Through our consultancy, we have advanced a major tenet of sustainability by supporting organisations like Etisalat Nigeria, Lafarge Africa, Total Nigeria and the Nigerian Stock Exchange to write sustainability reports, in compliance with the world recognised Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) framework; and assuring reports of organisations like Access Bank. Having introduced the GRI framework to the Nigerian market, today, we are an organisational stakeholder of the GRI and the first indigenous Accountability AA1000 Assurance Partner in Sub-Saharan Africa.
On the advocacy front, we have several flagship programmes including the Sustainability in the Extractive Industries (SITEI) Conference – now in its 6th year – which has brought together key stakeholders in the extractive industries to engage in high level deliberations over opportunities for growth, development and diversification in the sector, with key consideration for good governance, community development, environmental responsibility, and effective stakeholder engagement.
Since 2015, we have partnered with the Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) to garner active participation from the public and private sector; and in 2016, the Ministry of Solid Minerals Development, Ford Foundation and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) also came on board as partners. We’ve had other partners over the years span several industries including the Canadian High Commission, BusinessDay, Zenera Consulting, Shell, Chevron, Lafarge Africa, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Zone 4 Energy, and a host of others.
The Collective Social Investment Report is also one of the flagship programmes we are very proud of. This compendium serves as a repository of information on the sustainability strategies and activities of corporates in Nigeria, and goes on to rank them per industry based on global standards in the 3C-Index. We partnered with Accenture in building the framework for the 2014 report, and Ernst and Young served as a reviewer to ensure proper analysis of the information. The 2012, 2013 and 2014 reports – as well as the ranking – can all be found on our website.
Also under advocacy, we have the Good Citizen Initiative, which is a focused campaign to reorient the minds of everyday Nigerian citizens to act responsibly to the end that we build a Nigeria we would all be proud to call home.
Over the years, we have recognised that we cannot only tell people to do, but we must also empower them to do. Our College of Sustainable Citizenship runs an entire gamut of sustainability focused courses that will build the necessary capacity in individuals, corporates and governments to understand the economic, social and environmental responsibilities that accrue to them, and action these effectively and sustainably.
Our holistic approach, therefore, provides a suitable platform for responsible individuals, non-profits, philanthropists, organisations and governments to develop and showcase their ethical and sustainable investment initiatives, and incorporate best practice that will lead to the promotion of sustainable development in every sector of the Nigerian economy.
Is there any difference between philanthropy, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and corporate citizenship?
Certainly, there is. Philanthropy has a narrower, more limited scope than both corporate social responsibility (CSR) and corporate citizenship – which can be used interchangeably. Philanthropy refers primarily to donations made to charitable or non-profit groups either by the corporation, its employees, or both. CSR – which is also sometimes called corporate citizenship – deals with the economic, social, and environmental consciousness and responsiveness of an organisation, which can involve philanthropy.
We know popular philanthropists like, Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet, and John Rockefeller, to name a few. These individuals, through their foundations, have given billions of dollars in aid to vulnerable communities all over the world, and we find many companies who do same. While donations to communities, Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, clinics, or schools is commendable, the paradigm has shifted, and demands that we go the extra mile to address an organisation’s need to treat their stakeholders ethically and with respect; this is where CSR and corporate citizenship take the reins.
With CSR and corporate citizenship, a company has to show its commitment to ethical behavior, balance stakeholders’ needs, and protect the environment, whilst creating economic value. The link between its efforts at CSR and its core values must, therefore, be strong to make notable impact.
Leading a social enterprise in Nigeria, what has your experience been in CSR consulting, advocacy, and sustainable citizenship?
CSR-in-Action began with advocacy; and our experiences in the space drew our attention to the disconnect between the efforts of corporate and public sector organisations, and the needs of the communities within which they operate. Thus, we have honed our skills to provide better positioning and alignment of goals, strategies and programmes.
It has also been our experience that concepts with more long term benefits than immediate pay offs, take more time to catch on, but eventually do so given the right environment, commitment, and support. Just a few years ago, the general reaction to the subject of ‘sustainability’ or ‘CSR’ was rather disappointing. Companies were neither willing to accept responsibility, nor make the requisite changes and adopt new innovations to create shared value for all. Fortunately, the wind of change blowing across the globe has changed that perspective in Nigeria. Organisations now see more clearly the need for responsible and sustainable behaviour if they will compete, survive and even excel on the local and global scale.
For instance, many of the multinational oil & gas companies have been compelled to pay more attention to their exploration activities and its environmental impact in their host communities. The increasingly strict regulations in this regard, and the brand equity they lose by failing to comply has inspired a previously scarce sense of commitment to doing business responsibly. And we have seen this deliberate attention come into play in the increased participation from both public and private sector in the SITEI conference over the years.
The marked growth we have seen has certainly been encouraging. Through our transition to training and consulting, we have helped many companies set the standard for sustainability in their respective industries by not only raising awareness on international best practice, but by building capacity and supporting these organisations to take steps in the right direction.
What are the major challenges facing social entrepreneurs in Nigeria?
It often feels as though these challenges are innumerable, but for starter, there is the lack of funding. Because social entrepreneurs are more focused on social, cultural and environmental issues that do not immediately boast economic viability, funds are often not readily accessible. This typically leads to organisations that lack efficiency in their operations.
There is also a clear lack of mentorship support. The younger social entrepreneurs are usually full of passion but have little experience when they venture into this sector are thus in need of capacity to set up professional establishments. Unfortunately, the right type of guidance is often not available. Looking at CSR-in-Action for instance, at the beginning, no other organisation was driving CSR like we were, as such, there was no local example to learn from or emulate. We were, therefore, forced to look beyond the shores of Nigeria to acquire the necessary training and guidance that would make us stand out.
Another major challenge is genuine partnerships from reputable bodies. The ability to make tremendous impact would be tremendously enhanced through collaborations, yet, many social entrepreneurs lack access to such partnerships – international and local. Where social entrepreneurs have fantastic ideas with clear plans for implementation, and valuable benefits, they often need the support of reputable, bigger and more viable organisations to implement successfully. Unfortunately, many of these organisations do not buy into the vision, and such programmes die naturally, or are implemented poorly.
Poor infrastructure has equally hampered progress for all types of organisations, and social entrepreneurs are no different. Erratic power supply, bad road network, poor transport system, and many other socio-economic issues have significantly raised the cost of living in Nigeria, over the years. Nigeria has been judged one of the fastest growing economies in Africa after South Africa, and with population of over 150 million people. Yet, we lack the basic infrastructure to meet the needs of majority of the population; how can we then hope to stimulate activities that will make the required impact on the society?
Of course, it would be impossible to answer this question without identifying corruption as one of the biggest problems a social entrepreneur faces. More disheartening is the fact that social entrepreneurs are just as easily perpetrators, as they are victims, of corruption. Where some projects have stalled because the organisation refused to give kick-backs to those who have deemed themselves ‘benefactors’, others have used their organisations as fronts to make quick cash at the expense of corporates with good intentions. It is, therefore, difficult to build trust, making progress practically impossible.
What sustainable strategies have helped you navigate the challenging business environment?
Challenges are not new, and in fact, we embraced this vision knowing the possibility of not just encountering them, but much more, overcoming them. Consequently, we made clear cut choices that would enable us to not only compete, but stand out in our market. Also, we clearly defined our strategy and business model, adopted a sustainable lifestyle as an organisation, and positioned ourselves to collaborate profitably with likeminded, future thinking organisations, both home and abroad such as the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC).
Specifically, we have navigated the business terrain sustainably first by diversifying our portfolio to meet increasing demands in newer yet related spheres. We discovered that the world around us is changing constantly and quickly. As such, to avoid being left behind, we had to decipher other useful avenues to deliver relevant business solutions and by so doing, bring value to our clients in the most sustainable way. This has positioned us as a dynamic organisation with global aspirations.
Secondly, we have maintained our consistency of quality. We understand what makes us unique and what drives our market, and we have painstakingly maintained that level of quality service delivery to our esteemed clients. This, in addition to the integrity that we have become known for, keeps us ahead of the pack and has earned us the deserved respect. We strictly abide by moral values that prevent us from either giving or taking bribes, shortchanging our clients in any way, or manipulating figures for any personal gain.
I believe one of our major strengths also lies in collaboration. Like I earlier said, we have actively collaborated over the years with international and local organsiations. These collaborations have allowed us to leverage other – and sometimes bigger – platforms to sail through uncharted waters over the years.
Finally, we are keen on ensuring that we genuinely seek the good of our clients, developing new and sustainable ways of meeting their needs in a most transparent manner. We are dedicated to keeping our word as stated in any contract we sign, and where we are unavoidably unable to deliver on any of our responsibilities as agreed, we are forthright with all clients.
What recommendations do you have for corporates with no CSR plan operating in Nigeria and Africa?
Any CSR initiative must be deliberate to take advantage of the tremendous benefits that accrue. With the increasing attention being paid to the positive or negative impacts of the activities of organisations, corporates are paying more attention to CSR, although traction is still somewhat slow. The key thing to remember is that CSR is not just a department, but must be an integral part of the system or framework that drives an organisation. That way, nothing is left to chance.
Today, global trends point to the fact that stakeholders are as equally concerned with social and environmental impacts of corporates’ activities, just as much as the economic impacts. Considering that no business can prosper in a declining locality. Thus, the problems of education, health, crime, unemployment, drugs, socio-political unrest, global warming, pollution, and a host of others, dramatically affect business. While businesses have previously considered these to be the exclusive domain of government, more and more business leaders across the world are accepting part of the responsibility to improve the communities in which they do business, thus setting good examples and standards for others.
I, therefore, would encourage all corporates to identify avenues for incorporating CSR into their business strategies due to the attendant benefits that comes with it. For instance, incorporating CSR can help companies engage with their customers in new ways, garner them the social license to operate, increase brand loyalty, and inspire innovative and cost-saving approaches to doing business. In the end, the reasons all come down to long-term competitive advantage.
Bekeme Masade-Olowola is a Harvard-trained social entrepreneur and currently serves as the Chief Executive Officer of CSR-in-Action; an organisation dedicated to promoting the advancement and awareness of Corporate Social Responsibility, women and youth empowerment, good governance and sustainable development in Nigeria.
She holds a Merit in International Human Resource Management & Employment Relations (MSc) from the prestigious University of London, Queen Mary College. As a renowned policy maker and private sector leader Bekeme was nominated to represent Nigeria, alongside other African nationals to understudy the German green economy – Energiewiende – and sustainability with a view to localizing the principles for economic diversification in Nigeria.
Under her leadership, CSR-in-Action has also enjoyed regional recognition as a sustainability expert from both the public and private sector. She initiated the Sustainability in the Extractive Industries (SITEI) conference and has nurtured it into its fourth year with strong government participation. She also implemented the first ever Collective Social Investment Report in 2012 to showcase business activities in the light of Corporate Sustainability and recently partnered with Accenture and Ernst & Young.
She has also embarked on a sustainability reporting, assurance, as well as strategy development under the consulting arm of her firm, CSR-in-Action.
Bekeme is a certified trainer of the world globally renowned GRI G4 sustainability reporting and a certified trainer having undergone the “Train the Trainer” programme. Bekeme is Chairman of the Board of Passion House, and is on the Board of Waste Recycling Community of Nigeria.