If a just transition to a circular economy is to succeed, companies must move beyond ‘green’ box-ticking and embed sustainable environmental practices in their business strategies. But while their efforts need to be rooted in strong environmental principles, they cannot do this without the consent of local communities. Shared value and joint commitment are imperative. Panellists in a session at the Trialogue Business in Society Virtual Conference 2021 came together to discuss strategies and solutions.

Karen Basiye heads up the Sustainable Business and Social Impact Department at Safaricom, a telecommunications company headquartered in Kenya: “We take the social and moral responsibility of our impact on the environment very seriously. It is an integral part of our overall business sustainability and success,” she said. Thus far, the company has implemented nine of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, through such initiatives as tree growing (five million trees in five years), e-waste, water conservation, bee-keeping, and solid waste recycling, with a focus not just on conserving ecosystems, but on creating green jobs.

“As a business, we cannot thrive in a failed society,” she says, “and green ethical investors are asking business tough questions about transforming lives.”

Enabling a just transition

Sentle Nell, senior sustainability analyst at energy multinational Enel, agreed: “We don’t just have an environmental obligation, but the human aspect must also be capacitated in a transformative way. Each of our projects is customised to the context they work in, and communities are an integral part of the process.”

For Sentle, shared value results from synergies between business values and stakeholder needs. “We need to add value from an economic and entrepreneurial standpoint as we transition from coal to renewable energy. We also need to take the onus to ensure that communities are ready for the implementation of policies around carbon reduction and transition. We need to partner with government to alleviate fears of job loss and environmental impact. The call is on communities to understand the value derived from alternative sources of energy.”

Moderator Gugulethu Mfuphi stated that this needs to be a partnership journey, and this was supported by Bukelwa Nzimande, a climate justice researcher and activist who is completing her PhD at the Power Futures Lab at UCT’s Graduate School of Business: “There isn’t a more important question that we should be asking right now – why a business exists in a particular community. How does that business respond to what a community needs, and how can businesses better align with communities?”

She believes there is always room for greater communication and collaboration: “Openness is a good start – consulting at the very beginning! It may not be the most lucrative, business-friendly idea, but it makes people feel like that they are part of the process.”

Shared prosperity

Karen Basiye agreed. “When we wanted to plant five million trees, we had to be mindful of our growing population. We needed land for our people. It was a double-edged sword: we wanted to increase the forest cover, while being sensitive to the economic farming needs of the people,” she said.

Kenya adopted the Shamba system, giving citizens land to grow crops on while afforesting an area. It is a trade-off with the aim of shared prosperity: food security and the forest, as opposed to one or the other. “When we went in, there were fears. But they did understand the spirit of shared prosperity. For the trees to thrive, we needed to bring in the community, and bring in the forestry department. Because if we want to go far, we need to go together,” Basiye pointed out.

Sentle feels it is critical to demystify the project for the community, and this is achieved through conjoined project-steering committees: “At Enel, we involve the community and municipality from the get-go. We are not this multinational investor coming in gung-ho. We are given a mandate from local leadership. We work alongside the community, so they see that what we do is linked to their growth.”

Bukelwa added that all too often projects are strong at the start, but then ‘fizzle out’ along the way. “We need an end-to-end strategy to ensure that projects are long-lasting. And what real conversations are we having at the end of a project? What does it look like when companies hand over to communities? It has to be about standing in solidarity and lending a hand,” she concluded.

Written by Loren Anthony

Image: Gugulethu Mfuphi, Sentle Nell, Karen Basiye and Bukelwa Nzimande

Photo taken by Janelle Strydom