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Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

Something has been bugging me for a while now. It’s not a new issue but something that has been slapping me on the head daily for the last few months more than it has done in the past. Maybe it is the continued economic struggles the world is going through. Maybe it is the Occupy movement. Or maybe it is just me in desperate need of a vacation on my dream island of Kauai. Whatever the reason might be… The question I ask myself is whether we working in sustainability/CSR/Shared Value (or whatever you call it) are dealing with the fundamental challenges the world face today or are we just working on some of the symptoms and applying band-aid to a sickness that needs much more than what we have to offer?

I don’t question that we are doing the right thing for the right reason. We are trying to make this world a little bit more sustainable. We are trying to make companies be more responsible as good citizens of this world. We are trying to prove that good business can be done by doing good. That capitalism with a heart is possible. That money can be made by sharing value with society. That business has a social purpose that it should embrace. Yes, we are doing good work and we are making a difference. But is it enough?

The world is consuming at levels that are unsustainable. We cannot consume the way we have in the past and expect everything to be okay. But the economic system that we live and survive on is based on more consumption. Consumption of products. Consumption of credit. Consumption of energy. More and more of each and everything.

We’ve seen where this has got us so far. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. It’s been like a frog being boiled. It’s been a slow squeeze on the middle class and the working class over decades. When the system started running into problems we the people adapted and everyone started to work to pay the bills and buy those things we need – and those things we want. But income didn’t keep up. And slowly the world got into more debt to stay afloat. And then the bubble when kaboom.

The same is true of the environment. We consume so much more crap food, in the West especially, that farming had to change from providing us with food to providing us with GM foods, hormone injected meat, fields of corn for sugar and cereal and everything you can think of, and so much more crap. All because we wanted more and more of this crap food to feed our greed and insecurities. And we manufactured in ways and drove our cars without knowing that slowly but surely we are choking the world and messing with the climate.

And so it goes on. We know how we got here. We got here because we believed we needed things when we really just wanted it. And lines got blurred more and more between need and want. Between necessity and luxury. We consumed and we consumed and we consumed. It worked for a long time. It fed us and made us wealthy – or some of us. And we got addicted to it. Growth, growth, growth. The bigger the better – in what we have and how we looked. We consumed ourselves to a standstill.

But the “system” cannot live any other way. How do we get out of the economic slump? We’re told by consuming more. A key moment for me was when then President  Bush said right after 9/11 that people should go and shop and go on with their daily lives as if nothing happened. Well, something did happen. The same is going on right now. The world is suffering on a societal and environmental perspective. The world is a very different place from 3 or 4 years ago. But we’re told we need to consumer more to get us out this slump.

I always tell my kids and my clients that we can’t expect different outcomes by doing the same thing. The same is so true for us right now. We can’t go on the way we have and expect the outcome to be different. We cannot consume the way we have and expect a different outcome. We cannot do business the way we have and expect a different outcome. We as humans know this when we hit our heads against a wall – we stop doing it and go around the corner. We’re not stupid. Or are we?

So what does this have to do with sustainability? Well, we’re still telling people to consume. Yes, we are telling them “buy this product because it is so much more sustainable”. Energy? We’re not asking people to cut down on their use but rather to use renewable energy. Okay, sometimes we ask them to use less energy but not really to buy less energy using products. Do you really need so many televisions? Do you really need 2-4 cars? Do you really need a house that large? Do you really need spend so much money during Black Friday? No one is advertising asking people to please not buy so much of their products this coming festive season. Very nice of Patagonia to say they want people to buy less but we know they aren’t really saying that they need to grow a little bit less. Or not at all. They still want to grow but hoping that people will buy the slightly more expensive and sustainable product or buy the Patagonia product instead of buying from a competitor.

We in sustainability and CSR are making the world a better place. I don’t doubt that for a moment. If every company does what we in sustainability and CSR want them to do then we will be in a much, much better place. But are we dealing with the underlying weakness of the system or are we delaying the hurt to the next slump? Put it this way. Would the world be in a better economic place if every single product is made in the most responsible way possible? I don’t know – but I think we would’ve been heading to the same problem if we didn’t address the underlying addiction to consumption and growth.

That is really the 3 pillars of sustainability – product, profits and purchase.

Product – how the product is made. Make it as sustainable as possible. Make it by using renewable energy, sustainable sourcing, manufacturing without exploitation etc. Make it the best we can. And make the impact on society and the environment as light as possible.

Profits – do your business to make a profit. No business can live without it. It is at the heart of business. But don’t confuse profits with growth. We’ve become addicted to growth because of the shift in investors from long-term to micr0-term. Not even short-term anymore. That would require a day or a week or two. The majority of investors of today don’t give a damn about the company and what it makes – only about the return they can get in the next 5 minutes, or seconds. And they are holding businesses ransom. We saw this during this recession. Profitable companies laid off workers. How is that for commitment? They didn’t say “we’re struggling on the growth front but still profitable – so we’re going to knuckle down and work, work, work to get out if it but won’t let our people go as long as we are profitable.” No, they let people go because the micro-term investor demanded it. Puh-lease don’t talk to me again about your employees being your greatest asset. Your don’t sell the crown jewels with the first sign of a bit of a struggle.

Purchase – people need to buy your stuff for you to be profitable. But the reality is that we also need to get people to buy less stuff. This is at the heart of the challenge to business. How do you make stuff and sell stuff but make sure people buy less stuff. Guess what… I don’t know.

There is another “P’s” we have to address within the system as well to make the world truly sustainable. Parity…

Parity – we can’t live in a world where so few has so much and so many has so little. It is not sustainable. It. Is. Not. Sustainable. Get it? The gap between the highest earners and the lowest earners are just too wide. The gap between the 1% and the 99% is unacceptable. The gap between the pay of the executive and the lowest paid workers is not good for the company or society. No one is asking for 100% equality in pay. But the gap is just too damn wide. It is greed and nothing more. Any reason given is just snake oil. It is not just and not right. And more importantly, it is not good for business and it is not good for capitalism.

But it goes further than that. The West cannot consume the way they have and allow the rest of the world to slowly die. We live in a global world. The West is the 1% and Africa is the 99%. It is not sustainable. It is capitalism gone bad. It is the dark underbelly of greed. It must stop.

So until then we in sustainability are using band-aid to deal with a much more serious disease – unless we start seriously dealing with all 4 of these P’s – Product, Profits, Purchase and Parity. The challenge is we can’t do this on our own. We need to widen our circle because this means we need to forge new partnerships outside of business to get this right. But that discussion is for another day.

Now I need to get to Kauai to consume some sun.

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Everything is green nowadays. It’s the talk of the town. Newspapers are full of the latest green apocalypse heading our way. Bloggers blog green left, right and center – with fonts and pictures to match. Activists are up in arms about green washing and washing our greens. Governments want to govern what green means. The celebs and stars shine their special green glow all over us. Business jockey to out-green each other. And consumers are turning green with envy when the Joneses outdo them with the latest hybrid, organic, recycled, wind powered and turtle free cup of joe.

It’s not a bad thing. Saving our planet before it burns is not a bad idea. Even if it won’t happen in the next year or 50 – depending on who you believe. Having a tree dedicated to you somewhere in the DRC ensures you a retirement spot one day. And some of the ideas even save us some money! Switching light bulbs save us money – even if we can save more by switching it off. Getting 60 MPG is not to be sneezed – especially with the high gas prices. Although most small European cars can do that on flat tires.

But not everyone cares about the changes in our climate or the validity of the latest eco-friendly product. It’s pretty much a worry of the more privileged parts of society – the rich and middle class societies. You don’t switch to CFL lightbulbs if you don’t have electricity. You don’t really care about organic food if you have to worry about where the next meal is coming from. Or worry about renewable energy if you don’t have a roof over your head. But you might become greener even if you don’t care. Governments will continue to green the things we buy. Activist will continue to put on their green campaigning hats. Business will continue to grow and make greener products. And bloggers will continue to out-green each other to be the next Big Green Voice of Authority. All of this will continue to make everything we use and buy greener than before – even if we don’t care or want it.

But green means almost nothing outside of the big markets – mostly in the West. There are bigger issues facing people in places like Burundi, Zimbabwe, Niger and Liberia. They continue to struggle to survive each day. The cheapest bidder always wins when you live off less than $1 a day. And you don’t know if there will be a tomorrow if you live in Malawi or Botswana – HIV, TB or malaria can strike at any time. And who cares about the rainforest if you could be killed by a landmine in Angola or a warlord in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Or care about sustainable farming when you have no food in Somalia.

The number one aim is to survive. If that means eating the last Rhino or chopping down the last tree for firewood – then so be it. Planning for day 2 comes when you manage to get past the survival stage. But this doesn’t mean you are going to start farming in a sustainable way. Or buy renewable energy for your manufacturing plants. Nope, you are now just planning for day 2 – securing tomorrow and competing with your neighbor. India, for example, continues to argue that they will start thinking of their impact on the climate once they are allowed to create as much trash per capita as the US – read: ‘you stuffed up your environment to create wealth, why can’t we?’ The alternative, of course, would be to pay the developing countries to play the game. We know where that debate will end up. They can’t solve trade and aid – imagine eco-aid for sustainability at a large enough global scale…

It is only when you don’t have to worry about might happen to you tomorrow – food, security, health, housing, job etc – that you can start worrying about tomorrow itself. Green debates will remain a rich and western debate and concern – unless we start dealing with these more immediate concerns that the majority of the world population still face day after day.

It doesn’t mean it is right. It’s just the way the world rolls. We can’t talk about sustainability without looking at dealing with poverty, diseases and the quest for survival so many in Africa and elsewhere struggles with each day. We must balance all three pillars of CSR and sustainability to make it work – economic, environment AND social. So often, and too easily, we forget about that third pillar. It’s three pillars to help us focus but it is one single strategy when we implement.

And this is where business plays such a crucial role. They can create and deliver the products to deal with the diseases and hunger, they can advocate and lobby for the political changes needed, and they can invest in countries who need the economic lift and hope for a better future. Governments will play the political game, activists will be crucial in highlighting the problems and help run programs on the ground. But they can’t create wealth, they can only fight poverty. Each one plays a key role. Governments provide the supporting framework, NGOs fight poverty and deliver during these emergencies and business (large and small – multinational and the woman selling fruits in the market) grows the economy to bring a sliver of hope. And in this hope lies the future of sustainability. But we are not there yet.

In the meantime, newspapers will chop down trees to print their green stories, bloggers will use computers and networks created and supported by nonrenewable energy and conflict minerals, activist will spread the word flying all over the world – and push up their emission count, governments will continue to make war over oil, celebs and stars will drive their stretch limos and live in their big houses, business will continue to confuse eco-friendlier with eco-friendly, and consumers… well, they’ll continue to buy what they want. Green or not.

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I can’t help but be on the side of the unions fighting for their rights in Wisconsin and elsewhere. I am pro-union. And I am pro-business. I see no contradiction in this. As a South African (now working in the US) I saw how trade unions helped people and how they led the fight against injustice. And I saw first-hand how good companies partner with trade unions and how they believe in trade unions as much as the unions themselves. I am always fascinated by so many US businesses being anti-unions. It need not be like this.

For the next few days I will tell you about my own experience in becoming a trade unionist in South Africa. I always say I am an ex-unions. But I am not. You can never be an ex-unionist. I am with my brothers and sisters fighting for their rights and protecting those workers who need protection against exploitation. We need them and business need them – sustainable businesses that is…

One note: We unionist in South Africa call each other Comrade. Nothing to do with communism. Just part of the legacy of fighting Apartheid and fighting injustices. So here we go – the first part of my story as a trade unionist. Maybe you’ll understand why I support the unions – I am biase because of my experience. They were my home and made me fit into the new South Africa. I am forever grateful to all my Comrades and what they gave to me.

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I wasn’t born to be an activist or a trade unionist in South Africa. Quite the opposite, really. I was born to be the stereotypical ‘good, racist Afrikaner’ in Apartheid South Africa. My family supported Apartheid and all of them worked for the Apartheid regime at some stage in their lives.

My dad was a Brigadier in the South African Prison Services, and one of his last assignments was to look after political prisoners at Pollsmoor prison during the last few years of Apartheid. Both my sisters worked at the prison services and married guys who worked at the prison services. And my brother worked for the prison services on Robben Island – where Nelson Mandela was jailed.

I grew up in a home that did everything the Apartheid government wanted us to do. We were part of the Dutch Reformed Church – the Apartheid government in prayer. We watched rugby – then the sport of the white Afrikaner. I went to school at Paarl Gymnasium – one of the best Apartheid schools in South Africa. I attended the University of Stellenbosch – the ‘brain trust’ of the Apartheid policies and politics. We read the Apartheid government approved newspapers and watched their TV. I benefited from the education they provided and the money they paid my dad. I was made for a life supporting and working for the Apartheid government.

Somewhere along the line things didn’t work out the way they planned. I became everything that Apartheid was against – an activist with a social conscience who loves being an ‘African’ on the global stage. Instead of being the man they wanted me to be, I became the man I wanted to be. It hasn’t always been easy. It hasn’t always been fun. But it always felt right. From Stellenbosch to Seattle, Mali to Monterrey, and Lusaka to London – no matter where the road took me, it always felt right, and it always felt as if I belonged.

That’s the beauty of life – you can be who and what you want to be no matter where you come from.

I got my big break – an interview with Gordon Young for a job as Developmental Economist / Researcher at the LRS (Labour Research Services). The LRS was the leading trade union support organization in South Africa. Well respected by overseas donors and at the center of policy making in the trade union movement. And it played a huge role in the anti-Apartheid movement during the struggle years.

Of course I knew nothing about all this when I got the call from Gordon Young. Hey, I applied for a job that was advertised in the wrong newspaper. And I was only a minor player in the anti-Apartheid movement at my university. How was I supposed to know who they were? I would have thought that it had something to do with taxes if someone mentioned the LRS to me.

But I managed to wing it at the interview. Gordon and myself did not hit it off straight away. I think that he thought I was a bit of a lightweight. He was right of course, but he also realized that I knew research methodology inside out. And that, combined with the lack of competition, got me through to the final round of interviews. With the LRS partner – NACTU – that I will be working with.

Again, I knew nothing of NACTU. Absolutely nothing. Thanks to my Apartheid education, I was never taught anything about trade unions in South Africa – not even at university. Never mind the smaller of the three trade union federations.

My initial research also let me down. I thought NACTU stood for the National Azanian Council of Trade Unions. It made sense. NACTU was closely aligned with the black consciousness movement and had close ties with organizations such as the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) and Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO) – two of the dominant black consciousness organizations in the fight against Apartheid. But I was wrong – although they were somewhat aligned with the PAC, NACTU stood for the National Council of Trade Unions. And their members had the freedom to choose who they wanted to support politically.

But I didn’t do that much research, thinking that I can wing it again as I did with Gordon. All I knew was that NACTU was a trade union federation and that the job would focus on supporting them with research.

Gordon told me I was to meet Cunningham in Johannesburg. If he liked me I would get the job as he would indirectly be my boss. Hey, they pay my salary – I just work for the LRS.

I started picturing Mr Cunningham. He sounded like a typical middle-aged white English guy – most likely from the ‘old country’ – England.

I got on the plane to Johannesburg from Cape Town to meet Mr Cunningham at the NACTU offices. Grabbed a taxi from the airport and off I went to Fox Street in the center of Jo’burg. I was shitting myself as I have only been to Jo’burg a few times, and the horror stories people told me sounded like something from Gotham City – muggings, car hijacking, stabbings etc. Not the place for a young white boy from a small town. But I made it to the NACTU offices in one piece.

As I entered the NACTU offices I immediately realized that I have never seen so many black people in one office. Everyone was black. It was a bit of a cultural shock – but a pleasant one. At last I found a place that looked like it represented South Africa. Anti-Apartheid slogans and pictures were posted all over the walls – clenched fists and all. I thought it was odd that a white middle-aged English guy would head up all of this, but this is South Africa and anything is possible.

So I sat around and waited for Mr Cunningham to come and call me for my interview. A tall, thin black guy in overalls walked past me and stopped. He looked back at me and said – ‘You must be Henk’. He came over and introduced himself. ‘Hi Comrade, I am Cunningham. Cunningham Ncgukana’. He wasn’t even middle-aged.

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Today I’m going to tackle Public Responsibility instead of Corporate Responsibility – the responsiblity of governments and government agencies within the broader sustainability and development debate. My focus is stakeholder engagement and materiality as seen happening in the discussions on Foreign Aid Reform in the US.

I must applaud the US government for taking on some reform that is way late – foreign aid. I don’t know any group, including USAID, that’s happy with the US foreign aid policies and practices. So it was great to read that Foreign Aid Reform is being discussed right now. And I like those already at the table – Oxfam America (full disclosure, I worked for Oxfam GB and love them to bits no matter what issues I might have with them – they remain an incredible organization doing incredible work), Center for Global Development and InterAction to name but a few. Good start and good company – but a few groups are missing and reform won’t work if we don’t have them around the table.

First let me just say that the idea of aid reform should be seen in the broader context of economic and social development. I read somewhere that Tony Blair asked for a shift from aid to trade. Nice to see you catching up Mister Blair… Trade not aid has been a slogan of African civil society for almost 10 years now. Others have caught on as well and nice to see world leaders starting to see the light. The US and EU actually agreeing on a trade regime that will benefit trade with the developing world is another question all together. Doha anyone?

Anyway, this trade not aid slogan and Blair now catching up highlights a major group absent from direct consultation on aid reform – African civil society. I know that the NGOs present will argue that they represent those interests and that they have a few of those participants in the meetings. That is not good enough though. I worked in Africa and represented African NGOs at numerous meetings in my life and the one thing I’ve learned is that we African civil society organizations tend not to tackle the big guys around the table too much or too often as it would be seen as biting the hand that feeds us. Really, we should speak out more often in public and not do it in the safety of our “homes” only.

We need these African (and other) civil society organizations to participate in these reform discussions to ensure that reform will reflect the actually reality on the ground and not what has been told through a game of “telephone”. In the case of Africa; if we truly believe that the “solution” to Africa lies in Africa then they need to be at the table and be the majority voice on all things Africa – especially on aid reform. The western NGOs do not represent Africans (or others). They have not been elected or appointed. They have their own expertise and should be at the table but not to represent the civil society (or society in general) of those countries who will bear the brunt of any reform.

Furthermore, a big challenge of aid is the role of the middle man or, as I call them, the NGO wholesaler – the western NGO. They do great work and have strong voices but they do act as a barrier to aid in many cases. Too often aid is given to the western NGO who then give the money to their “partners” on the ground. Good old Reagan and trickle down economics – but this time on a global scale. The NGOs from developing countries should be the lead voices in reform talks to make sure that more money goes straight to programs on the ground instead of going through too many middle men and wholesalers – heck, even developing country NGOs are middle men, just much closer to the ground. The first principle of reform should be to get the aid to those who need it quicker, more efficient and a larger slice of the pie.

Lastly, if we truly believe in trade not aid then we should have more business voices at the table. Again, Western businesses should be present but it should be led by businesses from developing countries. They know what is needed to operate and be succesful in their countries and regions. Remember, it is about helping them be better equiped to trade with the West and not (just) to trade Western made goods in developing countries. For trade to replace aid we should get more developing country made goods sold in developing and developed countries. Bring those who will drive this to the table. They will tell you what stops them from trading with the West (higher tariffs on manufactured goods, non-tarrif barriers, infrastructure etc.)

This is a golden opportunity for aid to work and for trade to drive development. Let’s not forget to add the voices of those who are meant to benefit from these changes. It’s the number one principle of stakeholder engagement – ensuring that every important stakeholder is sitting at the table. We can talk about Corporate Responsibility but we should also remember that Public Responsibility should have the same materiality assessment we use for companies when it determining their CSR and sustainability work – what is material to your key stakeholders. So how can you discuss what is material to your stakeholders when you don’t have those stakeholders directly participating in those discussions? Look at your whole value chain and include all your key stakeholders from the ground up and right through your wholesalers. If not, then it just won’t be responsible or material. And it won’t be reform.

(Another issue I did not get into due to relevancy to this specific discussion and limited space: Another benefit of having the developing country stakeholders directly participating – identifying the changes they have to make to ensure your reform works. They will have to work within the new reforms and part of the reforms should be about how to ensure that the intended changes are implemented on the ground. It could require changes in how they work, new efficiencies on their side or new rules – whatever it is, their participation will ensure that they also change and reform to bring to life the changes we need in aid. Do not be surprised if even the best reform fails when your key stakeholders are not at the table.)

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I just landed in La Guardia and got into a taxi heading off to Manhattan. I settled in and gave the driver the details of my hotel. I was surprised – he was one of the few taxi drivers in New York with a New York accent. Imagine that. An ex-firefighter he told me. He leaned back in that taxi driver way and half looking over his shoulder asked me where I am from (out the corner of his mouth the way taxi driver do). “South Africa”, I replied, not really thinking about it. He went quiet for a little bit – no small feat for a New York taxi driver. I could see him frowning at himself – thinking what to say in reply. He leaned back and said, “So where is that?” Huh? “Hum, it is a country in the Southern part of Africa”, I replied – not sure what to actually say. Silence again. I could see his eyes in the review mirror and it was clear he had no idea where to go with this conversation. He looked at me in the review mirror and said, “So, who’s the President of Africa?” WTF? How do I answer that one? “Well. Hum”, was all I could initially think of saying. Silence from my side trying to figure out an answer. Do I ask if he has ever heard of Nelson Mandela? Do I explain Africa is a continent and not a country? Do I say South Africa is the name of a country? No wait – I got it. I looked at him and said, “Robert Mugabe”.

I mean really. What was I going to say?

I am from Africa. Here’s the problem with that. If I said I am from America what would you think? US of A right? There is only one America in the eyes of the world. When people talk about America they don’t mean the continent, they mean the country. But in Africa we have the opposite problem. People think Africa is just some uniform place somewhere off the coast of Australia or England. Yeah, many people think we are just a single entity with people who are all the same no matter where you go.

You can find Italian Americans in the USA and French Canadians in Canada, but there is no such thing as an Italian African or French African. Except if they got lost in the Dakar Rally somehow. No. To the world we are just Africans in Africa. All the same. A uniform country where we all speak Swahili or some or other version of clicking noises. (The God’s must be Crazy is seen as a hard hitting documentary!)

I wish we were this uniform. It would make things a bit easier. I mean really. In South Africa we have 11 official languages. And it doesn’t mean that if you knew one that you would know the other. Nope. It’s like Spanish and English – completely foreign to each other. Oh, we have some words we share – lekker and bakkie being a few we share in South Africa. Some more can be found at A-Broader View. Can you imagine 11 official languages? But we do have something in common. We are South African. And fiercely proud of it. Like all other countries we believe that our country is the greatest on this earth. A blessing from God. And we use our own criteria – like all other countries. The US measures it in wealth and the “American dream”. The German on their efficiency. The Brits on fish and chips, and warm beers. We measure ours on our past that we have overcome. That ours are the most just of societies. Where people from all backgrounds, ethnic groups, sexual orientation and religions can hang out together and have fun. Yes our great spirit is never better seen than when we are having a party. Which is most of the time. Oh, and don’t forget that we are the world champions in rugby, ranked number one in cricket for One Day Internationals and a string of players in the Top 20 in golf – and guess who will host the 2010 Soccer World Cup? Yeah! South Africa – the greatest nation in the world! (According to South Africans and a few of the most informed and wisest citizens of other countries.)

You know why Africans always smile and wave at each other? Because we are to sh*t scared of opening our mouths and having to speak to the other person. Which language do we pick? We have over 2,000 languages in Africa. So it makes it a bit difficult to pick one. Okay, we have the colonialist to thank for giving us English and French – most of us can speak one of the two. Badly, yes. But we can somehow communicate with each other. And a beer always helps to make the understanding a bit easier.

Here’s my other problem with people thinking of Africa as a country. I was on NewsBusters to “engage” them. If that’s what you want to call it… Well. Not everyone appreciated my superior wit and intelligence. (Hah – stop laughing!) What I found odd was that they always started talking about Africa and how bad it was – full or wars, Marxists, failed states, poverty etc. Well, they only did this when I pointed out flaws in some of their arguments – such as Obama not being Muslim or President Bush was maybe not a war hero. And then they got even more pissed when I started talking about Africa.

You see, Africa has many failed states. But we also have many good ones. Zambia, for instance, is more Swiss than the Swiss themselves. Yes, Zambia is as poor as you can get. Nothing there but some copper and poverty. They don’t even have a sea – they are landlocked. But Zambia has the friendliest people in the world Never been in a war – inside or outside their borders. And Botswana has been a fast growing economy for as long as I can remember. And Mozambique is growing at an enormous rate since the end of the war and offer so much in tourism. And Senegal has one of the greatest Presidents of Africa and the world – Wade. And…

Yes. There is a Zambia for every Zimbabwe. A Senegal for every Sudan. For every Equatorial Guinea an Egypt. A Botswana for Burundi. We are as diverse as the 52 independent states (60 if you include the territories) in Africa. As different as our languages. As straight or as crooked as our borders. We are black, brown, grey, white, pink, yellow – and any other shade you can think of. We are a crazy bunch who don’t get borders but will defend it to the death. We are mad, sometimes bad, too often sad, but always glad. We might not be a country. But we are Africans. And proud of it. Robert Mugabe or not.

So what does this mean for companies? 

In many places in Africa, people are starting to complain that Chinese companies are exploiting them and not respecting their culture and history. But don’t think that this just occurs in the developing world or in emerging markets. Remember the US stopping a certain Middle East company investing in the ports in the US a few months ago? This is one of the key challenges facing companies in a globalized world. How do you become local and global while expanding your market?

Are you a multinational or a US/UK/Chinese (fill in whatever country might be disliked in the marketplace) company that operates globally? Too often companies claim to be multinational, but they are driven by the culture of their origin. Very, very few companies are actually MULTInational in the way they operate and are managed. To become multinational they need to ensure that both the ‘numbers’ and the people make sense. It is fine to say that 90% of the people in their African/Asian/etc. offices are from the host country, but this still leaves two questions: (1) the 10% left – are they mostly senior management, and how senior are they? (2) Is the head office comprised of mainly western (mostly white males) or do they reflect where they operate?

How do you bring these cultural influences together to make your company truly MULTInational? It may require melding the Western model, which is largely focused on the individual with say an African or Confucianism culture of East Asia. What is the best way to manage the company, and interact with employees, communities and customers? At the moment, companies are not asking these questions as they think ‘diversity’ is a numbers game about ethnicity and not the way you do business. Until we start seeing ourselves as global AND local in the way we run our business, the idea of being a Chinese company, an American company, or an Arab company will continue to divide businesses and customers.

At least in Africa you will have the chance to speak any language you want and no one will understand you in any case…

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Give us a bit of water and some sand and we will build the Empire State building. It amazes me how innovative people in Africa can be. Natural born entrepreneurs. I know we have loads of issues and problems – and our own baggage to carry as well. But some of the things we do when we get our hands on something new is just “awesome”. (I have been in the US for too long! Picked that one up from my daughter…) The way people in Africa use mobile phones and the Internet in Africa is way beyond what any of us (or foreigners) predicted or dreamed of.

I know. I said that we in Africa are staying disconnected from the world. But that is just part of the story. Yes, we struggle to stay connected but don’t give us half a chance or we will rule the world. Once we get off World of Warcraft or Facebook. Boy are you lucky we don’t use that too often. Imagine people who like being connected to each other having the opportunity to do social networking while in different places! World here we come! I wonder if we will ever get off the Internet and still live and interact with each other if we were given that opportunity? Thank god for staying disconnected – it allows us to stay connected.

But I have two other stories about us and our version of web 2.0 to tell you about. The first one starts in Zimbabwe…

Yes. Zimbabwe. The country that is going through hell at the moment. And it has been going on for the last few years. But give someone a mobile phone and see us fly. OneWord Africa (one of my favourite sites – hidden agenda, I worked with them for a while a few years back. Hi Patricia!) reported on how people are using mobile phones to go hi-tech in campaigning for the upcoming election. It is not that easy to campaign in Zimbabwe at the moment. Crazy Uncle Bob isn’t what he used to be. Democracy isn’t what it used to be in Zimbabwe. He isn’t allowing much freedom for people to campaign for anyone other than him. And he instigates violence and riots against the opposition. So what are people to do?

Well. He made the mistake of allowing people to have mobile phone. And when you have some water and sand… We campaign. The people in Zimbabwe text each other left, right and centre to get the message across. But not just personal messages. No way. They do it African style. In a way to make sure people know where it comes from and who they all support. A group with no place to meet – but a group none the less. They text a message that identifies them as a supporter of a specific party or person. A simple “Vote for Simba” to highlight support for Makoni and a longer “Have you not suffered enough? Morgan is the solution” for Tsvangirai’s faithful. Simple, but beautiful and genius. Bob – you control the radio, television and newspapers, but you can’t control the keypads.

But they don’t stop there. No way. They go further. Ring-tones. Here it is more about opposition to Crazy Uncle Bob than support for an individual. The opposition play a local song, which asks in Shona: “How long will you vote for ZANU-PF?“. Pure genius. People phone you and others hear. One snag. Run when the phone rings and you are close to the police! Pure genius for keeping democracy alive though. I almost gave up hope on Zimbabwe, but the people proved me wrong again. And I like being wrong in cases like this.

My other story comes from one that was told to me by Martin Feinstein a few years back. He used to run Proudly South African, but now runs Enablis that tries to help entrepreneurs use the Internet to enhance their business – and support them financially and with management support. (I can’t vouch for them. They have good methodology, but I don’t know how effective they are. Just haven’t been keeping an eye on them. So this is not a plug for them.) He was telling me about this guy in Soweto who found a brilliant business idea – a pure win-win (almost). And all he needed was a computer and a shipping container for an office and storage. His plan? So simple. He used to go to one of the markets every single day to buy his stuff. And there were hundred, if not thousands, of women selling their goods. But they closed every single Monday to go to the wholesaler to buy their stuff they sell. They all got into the taxi’s and travelled into the city to buy their goods.

And what a loss for their business. No discount because they bought little amounts at a time. Loss of business for the day they were closed. And money for their travels. And the wholesale had to deal with so many people at the same time. His idea? Why not get them to place their order with him and he logs it into the computer and sends one order (with separate packaging) to the wholesaler. The wholesaler then delivers because it is a huge order and gives him 15% discount for the large order. That is his cut – the 15%. The women didn’t pay anything more than the usual and actually saved because they didn’t have to pay the taxi. And they were open on Monday’s for an extra day of business. Genius isn’t it? Everyone won. Okay – the taxi guys lost out, but less sympathy there with their driving skills… The plan was not rocket science, but still genius by the guy to see the opportunity. (Sorry – never got his name.) And what did he want from Martin and them? Just help to get a container and a computer. Less than $2,000 and bam you have a highly profitable business. I love that story – it tells us so much about the entrepreneurs hiding away all over Africa.

Okay, so it is not the typical web 2.0. But we are not “typical” in Africa either. We take technology and turn it into something that helps us make our society better – and ourselves better. The fastest growing mobile phone users in the world? USA? UK? Maybe India or China? Try Africa. We have few landlines. No problem – we’ll go wireless. Yes, we are disconnected from the world. But we are so connected between the ears.

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Fairtrade has the perfect brand name – it tells people that this brand is about being fair and implies that anything else is unfair. And Fairtrade is a great certification system. Yes, I know, they don’t like to be called a certification system. But they are. And an excellent one. Maybe even the best global certification system dealing with poverty. I can’t think of a single other certification system that tries to deal with poverty more effectively than Fairtrade. And they have, by far, the most recognizeable logo amongst ethical certification systems.

But, unfortunately, that doesn’t mean much in a world of such low standards. Bloody hell, everyone raves about ISO 14001 and all that ‘guarantees’ is that you do have an environmental management system. Mmm, not what your environmental impact is or whether it is good or bad. I like Fairtrade and always buy their brands when I can (affordability and availability rules apply), but I think they can do so much better.

I have 5 issues. Five issues they should focus on to truly make Fairtrade fair. Just 5 little things that really annoy me beyond what is good for me.

Firstly, Fairtrade focuses almost exclusively on small farmers who are organized in cooperatives and associations. Unfortunately, this excludes small framers who are not organized in this way. Most small farmers are not organized in this way – at least not where I come from – Africa. And the problem is that the poorest of the poor farmers are not organized in cooperatives. So, Fairtrade actually doesn’t work with the poorest of the poor – more like the “middle class” of the poor. To really affect change for the poorest of the poor, Fairtrade does not have a choice but to include ALL farmers in their system. Including those not organized in cooperatives. I know that it makes it more expensive, but it also makes it more fair.

Secondly, Fairtrade really needs to jack up on their environmental criteria. They have always had a half hearted attempt at sustainability. But what it came down to was poverty – but not a systematic way of addressing this. Only paying the price and not looking into making it better for the farmer in a sustainable way. Fairtrade needs to strengthen on the environmental side of sustainability – but also strengthen the labor rights aspect. This will ensure that Fairtrade is truly fair for everyone involved – farmer, environment, worker, Oxfam and consumer. I know that they have strengtened these areas, but there are huge gaps that still needs to be filled. They do work with the farmers to make them more sustainable, but they lag behind say a Rainforest Alliance when it comes to this.

Thirdly, Fairtrade should be a bit more clear about what the farmer actually gets paid and stop false advertising. They don’t need to do this as they are already better than almost all other systems. No need to lie or hide the truth – it will only come back to bite you. Really, the farmer does NOT get $1.25 per pound of coffee. Not even close. It varies from cooperative to cooperative – and what the cooperative decides the farmer should get. In some cases the farmer will receive as little as 70 cents/pound. The rest is distributed to other parts of the cooperative. Nothing wrong with that. But don’t try to spin it to make it sound as if the farmer receives $1.25/pound. They don’t – and never have.

Fourthly, if you really want more companies to take up Fairtrade then say so, be consistent and ensure your business model can handle it. Not everyone within Fairtrade agrees that large businesses should become part of Fairtrade. But don’t tell them your system is the best if you don’t want them to join. A classic example was when Oxfam asked Nestle (and others) to start buying Fairtrade. And when Nestle agreed? Well, certain Fairtrade bodies refused to sell to Nestle. Lesson? Be careful what you ask for, you might get it.

Finally, stop charging farmers such a ridiculous amount of money to qualify for certification. In many cases the yearly fee is way more than what the average income in the poorest of the poor countries – and well over $1 a day. The financial commitment that cooperatives must make to become Fairtrade suppliers is ridiculous. Not everyone believes that suppliers should carry the burden of compliance or certification – neither Starbucks or Nestle charges their suppliers – and they shouldn’t, and neither should you. And Oxfam and others generally ask for the company to pay in any case for any certification – just ask Nike or Levi’s – so way is Fairtrade different? All Fairtrade suppliers pay to become certified. The financial commitment by producers to be certified can vary from over $5,000.00 dollars for initial certification – and that does not guarantee certification, only assessment. Annual fees are over $500, and then another few cents per pound certified as well. I wonder how much the farmer actually gets in the end of the day? I know they benefit from Fairtrade, but they could benefit more if they didn’t have to pay Fairtrade for certification.

Another extra one thrown in. Remember that it is only the commodity that is certified Fairtrade. The coffee bean. Not the making, grinding, roasting, container, wages in manufacturing or anything else that is certified. Only the raw material – the coffee bean. Same with cotton. Not the manufacturing – only the cotton. One can make a general assumption that buyers of the Fairtrade commodity will also be good employers and manufacturers, but these parts are not certified – only implied and assumed.

Okay, I have one more problem. Not every country has a Fairtrade organization. Even when a Fairtrade organization is present, a purveyor of Fairtrade goods will have to negotiate with each Fairtrade organization in each country to be able to sell in that specific country alone. There are 19 national Fairtrade organizations – covering mostly Europe and North America. If someone wants to sell in each country – they have to negotiate with 19 different organizations to enable them to sell in each of those countries. And no guarentee that they will allow you to sell in each country – just ask Nestle. Yes for the UK, no for Italy. Furthermore, what if you want to sell in every part of the world – and in most cases there isn’t any Fairtrade presence at all. This makes it extremely problematic to sell a Fairtrade certified product in countries where there are no Fairtrade offices to negotiate with. Supporting Fairtrade would be much easier if there was a single co-ordinating body through which each buyer, or any other large multinational for that matter, could drive all its Fairtrade needs. Hum, something like a cooperative…

But the aim was not to slam Fairtrade. I worked with them and in support of them for many years. It is not a perfect system. And I don’t expect it to be perfect. But imagine if we get it to push on a bit and work at 80% of potential – not 50% of potential. Now that would be closer to being fair to all those who need it most – the farmer in Africa and elsewhere. Come on Fairtrade, try to be a bit more fair.

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