As the idea of mobilising business as a force for good is being put into practice, what does it look like in regions around the world? Specifically in East Africa? This past fall, we joined B Lab East Africa to examine the state of this movement in the region and celebrate the founding class of Kenyan B Corps. As part of this, we also developed and launched a partnership between the organisation and The B Team Africa to help scale the leadership needed to truly make business a force for good in the region.
As this work unfolds though, it’s not without its important learnings and challenges. To get a better idea of the forces shaping its growth in the year ahead, Robert Karanja, our Regional Lead for The B Team Africa and Board Member of B Lab East Africa, sat down with B Lab East Africa Executive Director, Olivia Muiru, to discuss her experience growing this regional community, what advice she would give to aspiring B Corps and why this work calls for strong—and sometimes unexpected—partnerships.
Robert: Olivia, could you share a bit about your work with B Lab East Africa to date? What initially inspired you to take on this role?
Olivia: B Lab East Africa is a regional partner of B Lab Global. We are working on building a movement in East Africa of people using business as a force for good. We do this by certifying high-impact businesses as B Corporations and then providing tools for other companies to follow. Our tools include a free impact assessment for businesses and a legal framework—B Corp certification—that changes the purpose of a company.
What got me excited about this role was the chance to elevate the African entrepreneur’s story. For the most part, one only hears of multinational and aid work in the region, yet there are many interesting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the region that are doing cool and innovative work. B Lab East Africa, how I see it, offers a platform that supports, elevates and accelerates the work of purpose-driven enterprises in East Africa. In a span of a 1.5 years, we have certified 26 B Corps from companies like Daproim Africa tackling youth unemployment, to Eco2Librium working on conservation, access to clean energy and women’s empowerment to newer service providers like agriculture investor, Pearl Capital Partners and sustainability consulting company, Greyfos. These are companies that are succeeding by coupling high growth with solutions to inequality, poverty, unemployment and environmental degradation.
We have an additional 600+ companies in the region actively using the B Impact Assessment to manage and improve their internal practices.
Olivia: From your perspective Robert, how do you see the role of the principled and purpose-driven leadership The B Team’s championing fitting into the growing community of B Corps in East Africa? What can B Corps and aspiring B Corps learn from this model?
Robert: In my view, purpose-driven leadership is a universal ideal which should be articulated by companies of all sizes and various sectors. B Team-led companies tend to be larger in revenue and in some cases multinationals and listed on stock exchanges in their countries’ of operation. By virtue of their reach and brands, these companies set the pace for purpose-driven leadership and provide examples that B Corps and those striving to be B Corps can emulate in charting their own paths of leadership. Typically in East Africa, most businesses tend to be SMEs and therefore it is important that we showcase the benefits of purpose-driven leadership to these companies so as to build a cohort of like-minded businesses.
Together with B Lab East Africa, this is what we’ll aim to provide over the next year—space for these SMEs to learn. From bringing peers together to discuss what’s working or not working on their journey to becoming B Corps to building out relevant case studies and resources as well as opportunities to engage with leaders outside of the private sector, we’ll help hone their ability to chart purpose-driven leadership, a key factor in any business’ resilience.
Robert: In October we came together to celebrate B Lab East Africa’s founding class of B Corps in Kenya, where we announced our growing partnership. Olivia, of the many key insights and learnings that were shared that day, were there any that stood out most strongly to you?
Olivia: There was a lot of conversation on the need to partner with like-minded institutions in the market. Everyone in the room recognised that we need each other to make inclusive business practices a long-term, systemic change instead of a buzzword. Despite the amazing work the companies are doing, they still face a number of challenges such as unequal taxation, election disruptions, infrastructure, regulation that is not aligned with mission-driven companies, access to talent for the impact space and many more. And these do impact their decisions on financial and social sustainability. That is why partnership is important between corporates, civil society, government institutions and academia. And that is something we are working on with the B Corps and partners such as The B Team, plus a few government agencies.
Olivia: During the launch we were joined not only by B Corps and purpose-driven businesses, but by key civil society organisations and supporters including both the British Deputy High Commissioner and Irish Ambassador to Kenya. What role do you think they have to play in this movement, Robert?
Robert: I believe we can all learn from one other—experience is not the preserve of a select few. It is important that we build safe spaces in which corporates, civil society organisations, development partners and others can come together to exchange ideas. Development partners such as the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) have been important supporters of the B Corp movement in East Africa.
Robert: Olivia, what would your advice be for any businesses aspiring to become B Corps in East Africa? What are some of the biggest learnings for you personally and for B Lab East Africa as an organisation that you would share with them?
Olivia: The first step for B Corps, and any organisation interested in measuring their impact, is to take the B Impact Assessment. It gives a company amazing insight in how their day-to-day operations are impacting their workers, local community, the environment and customers. And for those working toward Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the tool is also a great way to contribute in a measured way to these goals.
We have worked with a number of institutions and companies in the region and for most they find the experience eye-opening in what they have achieved and what they are working to achieve—how it all ties to their engagement with suppliers, customers, management and non-management team members, the board and the environment.
Olivia: Robert, looking to the year ahead, what would you say are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities we can expect to see for this movement? Are there any trends, conversations or efforts you’ve observed that you see making a major impact in the coming months?
Robert: There are a number of emerging trends happening in the region that present a host of opportunities and challenges in the short term. The impact investment space continues to evolve and a number of deals have been closed reflecting impact investors’ growing interest in the region. In addition, more organizations are convening these investors and partners to drive this conversation in the region. In December, the Global Steering Group for Impact Investment held a regional conference in Nairobi to set the stage for the establishment of a National Advisory Board on impact investment in the region. And in November, the Sustainable Blue Economy Conference sparked similar conversations. Looking to developments over the coming year, the the Africa Shared Value Summit to be held in Nairobi in May 2019 is expected to be a major moment to leverage opportunities in this space.
In terms of challenges, businesses are faced with a myriad of competing priorities and very often purpose takes a back seat to other pressing issues that a business may be facing. Some of the issues we have seen recently include an increasingly difficult economic environment, insecurity and increased usage of counterfeit products among others. However, we feel it is important to continue advancing discussions around purpose so as to better equip businesses to face the present and the future with confidence.
Photo by B Lab East Africa