The SDGs Are Everyone’s Business

11/20/2018
Sanda Q&A

The private sector’s potential to accelerate the aims of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is undeniable. From innovative business models to cross-sector partnerships, companies are increasingly recognising their role, responsibility and commercial opportunity in achieving the SDGs.

Safaricom is just one of these businesses helping to inspire African and global companies to integrate sustainability and the SDGs into the core their businesses. At the forefront of these efforts is Sanda Ojiambo, Head of Corporate Responsibility for the company. From the SDG Business Forum to the UN General Assembly and the Concordia Summit, Sanda’s helping to ensure the private sector recognises that the SDGs are everyone’s business.

We sat down with Sanda to talk about Safaricom’s latest sustainability report, how to build effective cross-sector partnerships and rethinking business in the face of the SDGs.  

Can you share a little bit about your role at Safaricom and the company’s commitment to help deliver the SDGs?

As Head of Corporate Responsibility, I lead three units: Sustainable Business, Technology for Development and the Foundations. Within Sustainable Business, we coordinate the integration and reporting of the SDGs within our business strategy.

At Safaricom, our purpose is to transform lives. And we’ve been doing this for a number of years—since our formation. We’ve always put people ahead of profit. With the advent of the SDGs, we had the opportunity to look at how we shape corporate strategy and develop products and services around the goals. In 2015, we looked at the initiatives we had that could drive progress and adjusted and bolstered where necessary.

For us, this is a journey. Some of these initiatives are working and some are not working as well as we had planned. Growing awareness of our SDGs work among our 6,000 employees has been progress. And working with The B Team has helped us there. Our net-zero by 2050 goal has resonated with much of our workforce, including our key suppliers and partners who we work closely with to measure impact. As part of our SDGs commitment, we also spend a good amount of time in meetings and events, like the SDG Business Forum, to talk about partnerships, measuring true impact and aligning strategy.

Safaricom has just released its Annual Sustainability Report. What are the key learnings the company’s taken from this past year? How has that changed, or not changed, from years past?

This is our seventh annual sustainability report and this year, we renamed it the Sustainable Business Report to better reflect our belief in the commercial importance of sustainable business and sustainable development. Over the years we have come to the realisation that sustainable business makes good business sense not just because it results in profit, but more importantly, drives shared value across the business ecosystem and through to customers and communities. Our sustainable business strategy is aligned to our corporate strategy and to our purpose, which is Transforming Lives.

We have also learnt that it is important to continue building a sustainable business ecosystem, as sustainability cannot be practiced in isolation and it is necessary to partner with, and join forums that espouse and promote sustainable and responsible business. Our partnerships with The B Team and the UN Global Compact have provided useful platforms for learning and exchange.

What is an accomplishment from this past year that you’re most proud of in helping make happen?

There are quite a number of things I am proud of and it’s difficult to point out just one. However one of the milestones is how far we have come in integrating nine of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into our business strategy. We have made considerable progress in aligning our business objectives to these goals, in line with our commitment to creating viable responses to the challenges faced by society. Some of the areas in which we have recorded progress include Good Health And Wellbeing (SDG 3), Quality Education (SDG 4), Decent Work And Economic Growth (SDG 8), and Industry, Infrastructure And Innovation (SDG 9).

Additionally, we have introduced various initiatives in an effort to achieve SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption And Production), including the introduction of our internal ‘zero waste to landfill’ programme, which is already ensuring that 97 per cent of the waste generated within our administrative buildings in Nairobi is recycled or reused.

This initiative is buoyed by the continued success of our e-waste programme, which has collected 855 tonnes of electronic waste since its inception in 2013, and complements the replacement of single use plastic bags at our retail shops with eco-friendly, reusable carry bags. This move alone is expected to replace up to 7 million plastic bags distributed per annum.

We are also proud of the fact that within our supplier and business partner ecosystem, we have been able to build a cohort of sustainable business champions who have integrated the SDGs into their business strategy and are working within their respective fields to grow more responsible business partners.

We have also had some setback with our carbon footprint, which has gone up. We are cognisant of the very real threats posed by climate change, and have committed to becoming a net zero carbon-emitting company by 2050. To get us there, we have reduced the number of sites running solely on diesel powered generators, and are exploring ways in which we can do more, including: compensating for our emissions through carbon offsets, embracing hybrid or renewable power solutions and introducing science-based carbon reduction targets.

While some may criticise lack of progress on the SDGs, The B Team Africa’s Dr. Amy Jadesimi has noted that local and indigenous companies are driving change in smaller countries, and low-income, high-growth markets, especially in Africa. How have you noticed this trend?  

More and more, we’re realising that it’s not just large companies and multinationals that are driving action and debate on the SDGs. In most African countries, the economy is primarily powered by small-medium enterprises (SMEs). From a shared value perspective, there is a lot more interest from SMEs in looking at one or two SDGs that they can undertake. At events Safaricom’s hosted, we’ve also seen participation shift to not just big companies attending, but rather lots of SMEs taking part.

We’re seeing more and more partnerships, like The B Team Africa, emerge in the effort to reach the SDGs. What, in your opinion, are the key elements that make up an effective cross-sector collaboration?

There has to be a compelling vision, mission and action behind these partnerships. Businesses are starting to realise the importance of their role and how they can actually shape the sustainable development agenda and be a driving force for good. This is the compelling mission we need. Corporates are also looking for more purpose and direction in their associations and partnerships. The global discourse around responsible business has become larger and more prominent and we’re seeing this trickle down into purpose-driven partnerships.

Some have emphasised that the private sector is not a “piggy bank” for the SDGs. What do you think the private sector’s role is? How does this perspective fit into Safaricom’s work on the SDGs?

We need a business line approach to the SDGs. This is not about funding the SDGs, but rather financing the SDGs. Philanthropy alone will not drive the SDGs to the scope and scale where  they need to be nor will it get us there sustainably. The private sector should be called not to fund the SDGs, but to deliver the products and services that will help achieve them.

Business must be solutions-driven, technology-driven and efficiency-driven in its approach to the SDGs. Companies should be asking, “how can we deliver progress further, faster, deeper and better?” and “how do we scale?”. This requires innovation. At Safaricom, we see our role in reaching the SDGs fall in four areas: innovation, products and services, advocacy and connecting to markets. And this cohesive approach needs strong partnerships, especially around advocating for issues comprising the sustainable development agenda.

What’s been the biggest challenge Safaricom has faced in getting its SDG-driven efforts off the ground?

Balancing the urgency of the SDGs with purpose-driven impact has been challenging. Our actions are incremental as we design and deliver solutions, products and services, but what we’ve delivered is worthwhile. This is crucial for companies to keep in mind, especially around partnerships. Partnership models to achieve the SDGs will look different. But one of the most important lessons we’ve learned has been around building strong partnerships to further impact. These have helped us determine what for-profit development looks like and how to take those first measurement steps.

What is your advice to companies looking to take action on the SDGs?

It’s never too late to start. No contribution is too small. We need to take more of a shared value approach to the SDGs, especially looking at relations between large companies and SMEs. We all feed into many of the same product chains. How can we work together to unleash additional value? It’s not just large companies that are going to deliver. It’s the entire private sector, and in collaboration with the public sector and civil society. For all of us, we need to be clear on how we can actually adequately track and measure our collective contribution on the SDGs.

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