“There is a huge expectation on us as corporates that we integrate social responsibility into our businesses. This means we have to talk about the intersection between people, profits and the planet, ensuring that the products and services that we design as a digital telecommunication company are not only for us to get profits, but to change your lives.” This according to Takalani Netshitenzhe, Vodacom’s chief officer of corporate affairs, who spoke on Vodacom’s approach to integrated corporate social investment (CSI) at The Trialogue Business in Society Conference 2019.
Today, more companies are committing to human rights, just labour practices and environmental stewardship in their daily operations. Along with companies taking this direction, they are prompted by a new generation of workers who are entering the labour market and demand a greater sense of responsibility from companies for the communities that they serve. “Millennials want to work for companies that invest in the communities in which they operate; investors want to invest in corporates that stand out as good corporate citizens, and customers are expecting more from us and want to be aligned to companies that give back,” said Netshitenzhe. She also mentioned that corporates are now able to encourage their employees to give back to the communities they live in, ploughing back with their skills.
Greater expectations for reporting
The narrative behind the need for more responsible business stems from the number of natural disasters, corporate scandals and the global economic crisis, according to Netshitenzhe. “The biggest lesson for me from the economic crisis is that no company is too big to fail. Governments and countries are still struggling to recover and, as a result, as a corporate we find ourselves operating in a very stringent and demanding social, regulatory and policy environment.” Stakeholders expect a lot more innovation and creativity from companies and that they streamline activities, cut costs and tighten their belts too. “What is required of us is an integrated approach to corporate social responsibility in all aspects of our business and to ensure that our strategies incorporate social investment.”
Companies are expected to have a long-term view of their role in responsible business practices. According to Netshitenzhe, this has been done by organisations such as the King Committee through the institutionalisation of social and ethics codes in the King IV Corporate Governance Report. These have created an expectation from management to present reports on sustainability, CSI, ethics and governance activities. Shareholders are also expecting environmental, social and governance reports. “There is no running away. We should ensure that we are not doing this as tick box exercises, we should be doing it in order to measure the long-term impact of our investments on socio-economic transformation,” she said.
Leveraging core business for good
Vodacom has been engaging in CSI for 25 years. In 2017 the company conducted a high-level assessment of how its Information and Communications Technology (ICT) footprint was being leveraged to impact each of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The assessment found that, while it wasn’t possible to make a meaningful impact in all of the SDG areas, the company was best able to contribute to seven of the SDGs. This led to strategic shifts in business operations. The Vodacom Foundation in turn leveraged the resources within the larger business and adopted some of the SDGs as well, streamlining the activities that it responded to in communities. The Foundation now focuses on gender empowerment; supporting non-profit organisations that have been integrated into the portfolio and an ICT programme that fights gender-based violence, jointly run with the Department of Social Development. The Foundation also supports digital literacy programmes delivered through the Vodacom Youth Academy, early childhood development centres, learning centres for teachers and zero-rated platforms for tertiary-level students.
“We are doing all we can to ensure that all our investments can be accounted for. The Youth Academy and the gender empowerment programme have been integrated,” said Netshitenzhe. The gender-based violence call centres have been extended into shelters for counselling and support and include a computer lab. Some of the NPOs that are supported are equipped with digital literacy training labs. These facilities are run by the graduates from the Youth Academy who can’t find employment in the broader market. It’s an effort to contribute to the migration into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But, importantly, it’s to circle back to the commitment the Vodacom Foundation has made to ‘connect for good’ by ensuring that the products and services benefit the communities they operate in.
IMAGE: Takalani Netshitenzhe, Vodacom chief officer of corporate affairs
Article written by Khumo Ntoane
Photo taken by Cobus Oosthuizen