Eight years after the first encounter, Nseobong Okon-Ekong returns to assess the advancements by Bekeme Masade-Olowola, a pathfinder in the corporate social responsibility space
Nicely framed award plaques cover conspicuous places on the walls of her office. More certificates of recognition are neatly arranged on a shelf in another corner. Hugging its pride of place also is the mounted page of THISDAY published in 2010. The story chronicled the beginning of Bekeme Masade-Olowola’s move into advocacy in the corporate environment
For her enduring CSR activities, Bekeme has received various recognitions for her work. She is the brain behind CSR-in-Action – registered as Corporate Social Responsibility Awareness and Advancement Initiative – established to be the foremost independent ethical action network and consultancy for collective social responsibility and corporate governance in West Africa. The flagship non-profit organisation, CSR-in-Action Advocacy has grown to include CSR-in-Action Consulting and the College of Sustainable Citizenship.
Bekeme Masade-Olowola wasn’t in the least astonished at her relative success. She is, however, humbled that she is enjoying an overwhelming standing ovation. She attributes her success to openness and willingness to learn and grow by attending workshops and trainings including the Emerging Leadership course at Harvard, a German government funded networking meeting to Germany expositing on the principals of green energy transitioning, Energiewende, and events by leading multinational organisations like FOSTER and Ford Foundation, amongst several other learning activities. Besides attending trainings and workshop to increase capacity, Bekeme attributes her success to hardwork. If anything, she thinks she and her team have put in a lot more. In the last few years, she has reconciled with the fact that CSR Advocacy is a thankless job. She thinks it is something that everyone should be involved in, but which have been left to just a few persons like her. In that sense, she concluded there ought to be more awards.
“So truly, if we are getting recognition, for everything that we did, there shouldn’t be any space on the surface of this office, but we have been working very hard.”
She made no fuss. I wanted to know if what she is doing is any different from an increasingly popular concept called the Office of the Citizen. “So, it’s not different. It’s encompassing of that, as we cover individuals, businesses and government institutions. The corporate in our name refers to collective,” she says unassumingly, pauses and gives it some more thought before proceeding with her response. “You know that advocacy is not something that is done by just one person or a group of people. The same way you cannot hold the president alone accountable for every challenge you have in the country. There are a lot of people pushing for similar things in different ways. We call ourselves Corporate Social Responsibility Awareness and Advancement Initiative. By corporate we mean collective and the difference is that we pursue not only from the individual perspective which is the Office of the Citizen but we also push both corporate and government establishments to do the things that they need to do directly.” She gestured at me to be sure I understood what she was talking about. She was even more expressive now, “We tend to pursue a higher-level approach to it. We work with people who work at the citizenry level. That was until we started our Good Citizen initiative.” The Good Citizenship initiative is a flagship initiative designed by CSR-in-Action Advocacy with the goal of promoting positive values and good neighbourliness amongst Nigerians through various education interventions and awareness creation.
“We have currently entered a partnership with Inspiration FM for a radio show on citizenship simply known as the ‘Good Citizen Radio Show’. The Radio show would provide opportunity to engage in social discourse that would engender values re-orientation.
I remember the last time, and you asked what I do myself since I was talking about people in CSR. Well, now we can proudly say that apart from the work that we do with governments and businesses, we actually now reach out directly to the individual through our Good Citizen Initiative (GCI), through which we are trying to build a new generation of citizens. In addition to the Radio Show, we started the Good Citizen Reading Club. We have booklets that explore such topics as Honesty, Equity and Integrity, Patriotism and Responsibility. It might interest you to know that we have distributed copies of these booklets free of charge to students of secondary schools around Lagos. Through this, we are trying to revive whatever sense of nationalism we have ever had to drive the nation forward.”
The Good Citizen Initiative sounded like it would lead to commendations and awards. Bekeme agrees but quickly added that it was not their focus at CSR-in-Action. According to her, the commendation and awards should go to outstanding ‘Good Citizens’ in the country. She says, “In the near future, we are looking at organizing the Good Citizen awards which would be an annual event to recognise and reward Nigerian citizens who have demonstrated outstanding efforts to inspire nationhood, ethics and unity. For now, our objective is to achieve a mass outreach. “We recognise that it’s hard to change everything by ourselves. Besides, it wouldn’t work. If you were to make me President (of Nigeria) today, if I didn’t have the right set of people around me or the right kind of citizens who are aware of their responsibilities, it will be a difficult task. The Good Citizen Initiative might lead to accolades which are not even the focus, but before it gets to that point, there is a lot of work to be done. When you talk to the average Nigerian, they really don’t understand where their responsibilities lie. You meet people who don’t even realise that before you vote for a particular person, the process of choosing a political candidate is wrong. We end up choosing the lesser of two devils often times, it’s really a case of engaging people to use their senses more and not just to choose whoever but to take up the leadership role and to equip ourselves.”
She went on to explain in her quiet way, that CSR should be localised. “There is work to be done by the head offices and also work to be done by the branches and it has improved the world all over. Many international companies have now adopted that approach of local impact. It is wise of any establishment to ensure that their local subsidiaries have local treatment, otherwise you suffer. Take, for instance, in the oil and gas space, what the government is proposing is that businesses actually employ indigenes from specific areas to guard their pipelines. It doesn’t make sense to bring an external person even if they claim to have great might. A smart oil and gas company will use indigenes to protect their own assets. The same way, a smart oil and gas company will use local contractors. If you are doing these things at the national level, some people will be happy and those people at the local level will obviously not be pleased.”
The familiarity we shared from having met on a similar turf was a great help to the interaction. I sensed that she was relaxed and willing to talk. The CSR mix accommodates diverse interests including shareholders, the firm and employees. Bekeme thinks it is very hard to say whose interest is paramount. Her dissection helps a better understanding of the issue. “First of all, a group of people come together to start a business, so they have to protect that interest. Whilst protecting that interest, they have to identify the crucial stakeholders that impact on their business and their business impact on. It will be different for different businesses. In my business, for instance, even if I work with communities, the community is hardly my most important stakeholder because I’m in Lagos. But if I’m an oil and gas company with an asset, then the community is my critical stakeholder. So it depends on the business, but the essence is that a forward-looking business, which has sustainability in its DNA, will develop a strategy that doesn’t just address the issue of profit but also how it can minimize any negative impact on its nearest stakeholder and maximize any potential. In that case, a shareholder for a business that has a shareholder is very important. They did entrust their money to you so you have to look after their interest. Whilst looking after their interest you have employees who have to make this work, so it is your responsibility to adhere to regulations and go beyond these regulations because we know some of these regulations are not up to date and that there are international best practices you can emulate. We look at the work-life balance, especially when it is a small business it is important to look at individual circumstance. You address those things and it can differ beyond the shareholders and the employees.”
“Have you met your goals and were you surprised by some of the issues you were confronted with since you started this journey?” I asked her. “I wasn’t prepared for a lot of things. I will say, I was a bit starry-eyed when I started. I was a lot younger, I had worked in offices but perhaps I was more hopeful than many and I have met some cynical people along the way and I feel that is what keeps me going. When people say something cannot be done, I want to do it. I have also been surprised in a good way too. Where I have expected certain things to happen in a certain way, they didn’t happen and vice versa. For instance, in 2012, we were approached by the then Deputy High Commissioner for the Canadian High Commission in Lagos and that’s what led to the birth of SITEI, an annual conference on Sustainability in the Extractive Industries. So we were launching our first Collective Social Investment Report titled Corporate Sustainable Investor Report but we were launching it at the 17th Nigeria Economic Summit and he approached me that he liked the work I was doing and will like to partner me to run a seminar for the oil and gas sector to bring these people together. So we ran with it, now it is in the seventh year. After that, we decided that oil and gas was accountable for over 70 per cent of our national revenue. This is a fantastic idea towards reforming the sector and getting the sector to talk about sustainability. Previously, when we write to government to partner us and we didn’t get any response it felt like we were talking to air.
Last year, all of a sudden, the response was overwhelming. I thought we will discuss with the oil and gas majors the issue that they were having with communities and the government. You would think that people will jump at the idea, but they didn’t. They would rather go for oil and gas conferences that didn’t address the issue. They would rather talk about how to make more money. I was rather disappointed, but in honesty, with this present government, we have had great traction. Last year, we had representations from many relevant government bodies in the oil and gas and mining sector. We did it for two days and we had more people than we ever expected to come for each day than we would get normally in one day. We had the Minister of Mines and Steel Development, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, and Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, whose team at the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, has been outstandingly supportive, was equally there. It was overwhelming. We had all the funding that we needed to run it, thanks to unprecedented sponsorship from organisations like Aiteo, NNPC, NCDMB and Ford Foundation. Presently, the SITEI Conference is organised in partnership with key stakeholders some of which include, the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI), Federal Ministry of Petroleum Resources (FMPR), Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel Development (FMMSD), Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Petroleum Technology Association of Nigeria (PETAN), Nigerian Mining and Geoscience Society (NMGS), Miners Association of Nigeria (MAN). All of a sudden, it seems like people are starting to listen. Since then, we have had engagements with different ministries.
For instance, the Ministry of Petroleum Resources in conjunction with us are actually in talks to design a holistic community engagement strategy for the oil and gas sector. So when you look at those things you are like, ‘wow!’, even though you put in a lot of work and one could see that it will work, it’s still encouraging when it does work. Who would have thought the little girl with big dreams would be playing ball in a manly turf and kicking hard, too. “However, on the other hand, you have things like the report I mentioned, which we are using to review the ethos of businesses on CSR and sustainability and you have a push-back. Rather than businesses seeing it as an opportunity for learning, they fight you in a dirty way. You have some relationship with managers in-charge having worked in the space for a while now and you think it would make your work easier. Many of them say it is not part of their KPI so why should they respond to us. And then you do a report that clearly indicates how you sourced your content, the online references and some people are just pushing back at you and maligning you; like they don’t see the vision that you see. We have a reputation for being ethical. Because there are a few disgruntled elements, they just go around and try to spoil everything that you have done.”
“If a company makes donations whether in kind or cash, does that fulfil its CSR obligations?”
“CSR is beyond giving back. It is actually a business model. The world is moving beyond CSR, it’s more of corporate sustainability. It describes what you do as a business to be around for a long time. CSR, as I like to say, is the religion of the corporate. Religion is so popular because it keeps you on the straight and narrow. A good business must have a good sustainability strategy that it follows. The challenge is that many businesses, especially multinationals develop all these fantastic strategies that they may use at their head office but do not use here. They may have it on paper but the implementation is not there. To them it is taxation. They already have taxes they are paying for many things which is why it’s a business strategy. It’s just like saying government should state how much they make as a profit. There are businesses that have taken the approach of adopting a certain percentage for their CSR to show that you are thinking about the community that you are making such fortune from. What tends to happen is that they spend a lot of money on donations. I’m sure you’ve seen companies donating notebooks. How much are notebooks? The media coverage of it is far more than the value of the notebooks they are giving. That’s the challenge. It’s not that it is bad to give. It is very good to give. It is how you give and the other aspect of your business that you may not be interested in.”
In the beginning, there was Bekeme and a Youth Corper, eight years down the line, Corporate Social Responsibility Awareness and Advancement Initiative or CSR-in-Action has grown. It now operates out of Lagos and Abuja with the complement of 13 full time staff. Although, she did not want to talk about it, at first, getting the right kind of staff is a challenge she is still grappling with. She admits working in the CSR space is becoming a specialty. “It is not a very exciting job in the sense that it is more intellectually driven. A person who works here has to be socially inclined and have the intellect to pursue things in a structured manner. What tends to happen is that we train people here. Most people who start here don’t have the experience. They have to be guided; which is why interest is very crucial. Some of the challenges that we have had is that we have trained people who have been poached by the bigger firms to look after the CSR objectives of their companies. I take that as one of my biggest testimonials.”
It is uncommon for a pathfinder like Bekeme to have a mentor. Nevertheless, we wanted to know who trained her. “The places I worked in previously were not core CSR, but the deliverables were CSR focused. My Masters is in International Human Resources Management and Employment Relations. And as such it wasn’t administrative, it was more organisational theory and therapy. It set the tone for my work.”
What has made Bekeme endure the highpoints and the low tides these past eight years are the recognition from the people she’s fighting for who call to inform her about the wrongdoing of corporate entities. “That gives us the opportunity to find out from the other entity whether they are saying the truth or not. Because we have people reporting that oil and gas companies did this or that, and you reach out to the company and they tell you that the people reporting only have a sense of entitlement. We wanted to pay money for a community clean up and they said they want the money, not the clean-up. For me, the biggest reward is recognition beyond any pecuniary gain; recognition from the constituencies that we are fighting for.”
To achieve some of her goals, Bekeme is happy to collaborate with other CSOs. The organisation has trained over 250 NGOs in the past 18 months through a partnership with Access Bank. More CSO partnerships happen especially in the extractive sector. CSR-in-Action came up with the framework called Sustainable Extractives and Energy Principles (SEEP) which will go out to communities. This will necessitate working with other CSOs in Nigeria that have direct contact with communities, day in, day out.
One question she was very happy to address was what puts bread on her table.
“We started off as an advocacy organisation. Over time, we now have a consulting firm, CSR-in-Action Consulting. Businesses reach out to us and say we need to help them. During our 2010 chat, I told you that one of our major deliverables was to make businesses more transparent through reporting. Businesses do not like to produce reports. I can say that over 90 per cent of businesses that report using standard frameworks, especially the world-acclaimed Global Reporting Initiative framework have been helped by us. So we have either trained or written a report or provided assurance of their report. That’s where we make money from.”
It’s true that she is from Edo State in the Niger Delta but her advocacy is not fired up by any personal experience. “I went to secondary school in Delta State briefly but none of those things affected me personally. I was in boarding school. But as it came to my realisation that the oil and gas sector is the bedrock of our national economy, it clearly was something that needed to be addressed and I started with that. Which is why you don’t forget the extractive sector, as said at our last SITEI conference: embedding sustainability in the extractive sector is tantamount to embedding sustainability in our national DNA.
When asked the biggest challenge for her and her business, she stops, smiles and says
“The biggest challenge that we have is that there is so much to do and we want to do everything and wish we had enough resources.”
As we descended the staircase in the course of a polite gesture to see me off, she hinted on the fact that she had wanted to be a journalist. In some way, that desire has been fulfilled with detailed reporting on the extractive industries, her radio show and a thriving CSR newsletter which she promised to put me on the mailing list.