Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), now redefined as Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility, is obviously taking a more sustainable dimension in recent times. Mrs. Ini Onuk, lead consultant at ThistlePraxis, is Nigeria's leading icon in redefining CSR practice. In this interview with SAMSON ECHENIM, she speaks on the society's expectations from companies and the 2012 edition of her flagship annual CSR event, the African Roundtable on Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility (AR-CSR), which comes up in June.
As a management consultant, your focus on CSR reflects your passion for the welfare of the society; what informed your choice in this direction?
I wanted to do something else after about 15 years of working in the development sector. Management Consulting was a more structured approach to entrepreneurship. So, after a few years of toying with the idea, I decided to take the plunge. Our company is not entirely focused on CSR; we offer sustainability services, project design, assessments - impact and needs, project management services apart from the CSR-related range of services.
CSR now means Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility in your event documents and branding. Why did you effect this change?
It took ThistlePraxis a long while to change the meaning of the abbreviation CSR from Corporate Social Responsibility to Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility. A friend and senior colleague, Dr. Wayne Visser, proposed this and we had a long conversation about this even though his thoughts made a lot of sense from the first sentence. The change in the acronym does not affect the change in meaning. A number of organisations refer to CSR as CR (Corporate Responsibility), but for us at ThistlePraxis, we opted for this new meaning to reduce the use of CSR and Sustainability interchangeably because they mean two different things.
Critics have argued that the society takes care of itself somewhere in the mix and that the attention and focus around CSR will soon fizzle out; how would you react to this?
I have heard many of these schools of thought. It is quite interesting to note that when entities fail to live up to their responsibilities, other members of the society expect the society itself - as though it existed in isolation - to survive, somehow. The answer is simple: society does not exist in isolation and all members are collectively expected to contribute to its success. As for the assumption that CSR will soon fizzle out, this may be as good as saying businesses will no longer exist in societies or governments would no longer be made up of people, and I'm very certain that it is practically impossible.
What does ThistlePraxis seek to achieve in the Nigerian and African business environment?
Our presence here is just to support organisations to achieve their sustainability and optimal performance needs. It is important for us an organisation to ensure that many more indigenous enterprises succeed many generations of their founders and visionaries. Continuity at optimal performance is a huge challenge in these parts and that is key. Also, when we say optimal performance, we mean steady progress in the company's bottom line and tangible impact on society and all stakeholders. We also seek to do same across Africa as we steadily map our footprints with experts and with physical presence in the Western, Eastern and Southern sub-regions.
How would you assess your firm's impact since its entrance into the CSR scene?
In a very short time, we are convinced that we have one significant achievement and that is elevating the discourse. This is so important because the moment the understanding and subsequent discussions on Sustainable Development and CSR are elevated, the activities of organisations will change accordingly. Although a lot of organisations refuse to formally or publicly admit this, many individuals and business leaders are aware that the game has changed - business no longer exists just to make profits, stakeholders now demand much more. We believe our core strengths lie in drafting excellent strategies and policies for organisations. It is not that we cannot provide services in more areas; we have identified and carved our niche in these two areas.
The 2012 edition of your flagship event, the African Roundtable on Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility (AR-CSR), is around the corner; who are your target potential participants and what should they expect?
The AR-CSR is bigger and better this year. We are privileged to have the mother of Sustainable Development as keynote speaker. She is many things rolled into one and has one of the most relevant and impressive resumes in Sustainable Development. Not only is Dr. Gro Brundtland a two-time Prime Minister and DG of the World Health Organisation, she also started the global call for Sustainable Development as Chair of the UN Commission, which has been renamed the Brundtland Commission. She is currently a UN Special Envoy on Climate Change and will be joined by Graham Sinclair, President of Africa Sustainable Investment Forum, as Lead Discussant. So, there'll be a CEO Round-table, featuring the continent's leading c-suite professionals and chief executives; a CSR Conference with leading experts across the world; Sustainable Solutions Showcase - an exhibition of the continent's innovative and eco-friendly products and initiatives; an Eco-tourism tour for all delegates and a gala dinner.
How did you convince Dr. Brundtland to look to Africa at this time; why did you invite her?
It was not an issue of convincing her per se as she has been to Africa many times; but never to Nigeria. I presume she saw the platform as credible, viable and pertinent with an apt theme, necessitating her willingness to participate. I have utmost respect for Dr. Brundtland because very few people stay relevant in over three decades of active service. She is as fit as a fiddle, having very significant views in addition to being as vocal as ever. You would agree with me that chairing the Brundtland Commission, steering the World Health Organisation, being elected twice as a Prime Minister and also working as a medical practitioner gives you a very rare opportunity to experience issues from political, developmental and entrepreneurial perspectives. This is why she was the perfect choice.
You mentioned Sustainable Solutions Showcase, is that supposed to encourage business innovations or inventions?
It is, but not in its entirety. The first step we believe is to identify and promote these products and initiatives. Social entrepreneurship must be encouraged and at the same time, organisations need to be aware that more eco-friendly alternatives are available for their needs. This is the essence of the showcase - to bring these entrepreneurs, who would not often have platforms to promote their products meet directly with those, who need them and should use them. To directly answer your question, we intend to encourage business innovation and Sustainability while the showcase is just a practical aspect of the gospel we preach. The challenge, to me, is more exciting where we will invite and present three outstanding innovations at the CEO Round-table. In this regard, we are partnering the Nigeria Leadership Initiative (NLI).
So, how do you intend to ensure these ideas get off the ground?
ThistlePraxis Consulting can only guarantee that these ideas will be promoted and exhibited at our flagship event and so we actually do not encourage ideas without prototypes and proper tests. We intend to promote them beyond the event through our platforms, especially our news and information resource, CSR Files. We would also make recommendations to our clients if there are points of convergence or alignment. However, we do not guarantee funding or setting up any business idea.
Is a platform to discuss CSR relevant in the face of other more challenging societal problems and falling standard of living?
I believe it certainly is and I will explain. It's a simple case of the chicken and the egg. These problems are manifestations of failures from the public and private sectors. For the public sector, the failure in leadership and good governance to ensure that government meets her responsibilities and social contract with the populace. On the flip side, it is also a failure of leadership for the private sector, where businesses have failed to breed social change. For many years, the private sector has depended on the government for everything even to the detriment of their own survival as seen in the moribund state or total collapse of many industries. This platform seeks to discuss the fundamental challenge of Sustainable Development, which is key to the Human Development Indices - shelter, food, etc. If we fail to plan, brainstorm, share ideas, compare notes, we will continue without recourse to reinventing our strategies and efforts; hence, the importance of the AR-CSR platform at this time. Our theme aptly reflects how economic opportunities are invariably expanded through the synergy between the public and private sectors. These opportunities then need to be harnessed to entrench Sustainable Development across the board.
You recently partnered with the Etisalat CSR Centre of the Lagos Business School on Agriculture; does that mean that you have also found new love with Agriculture?
So many people have asked me that question. Sustainable Development cuts across all sectors and so Agriculture was the sector we felt was most timely to focus on. Our partnership with the centre was to execute an edition of one of our platforms, Sustainable Conversations - a thought-provoking leadership breakfast series on Sustainable Development with the theme, Sustainable Agriculture for National Development. Our conversations were focused on how the current emphasis on the sector and renewed potential can be harnessed for national growth, Sustainable Development plus economic and environmental Sustainability.
ThistlePraxis is also a knowledge partner to SON for the Nigeria adoption process of ISO 26000 Guidance Standard on Social Responsibility; what informed this partnership?
Our work with the Standards Organisation of Nigeria, which is Nigeria's ISO-member organisation/national body, is to ensure a smooth and successful adoption process. In our work so far, we have realised and experienced the fact that many organisations do not know where to begin with compliance. How and when, what and where to implement or 'do CSR', as it's often said. Our work, therefore, was to find that widely-accepted and easy-to-comprehend template that organisations can use to report their CSR activities. This guide will also help them ascertain areas of lack and continuously work towards full compliance. We are aware that there are other reporting guides and standards, however the challenges posed by local content make those very difficult for more organisations to adopt. Also, most of the organisations, who brandish their ratings from those guides merely fill in the template and are not as practical as they claim to be in meeting all the requirements.
Many more things stand this process out; the ISO 26000 is a Guidance Standard on Social Responsibility, which means it is not a certification, but a mere guide. Also, it is usable for not just large corporations, but small and medium-scale enterprises, public sector offices and non-profit organisations, which make it much more encompassing. Finally, every country is expected to undergo an adoption process, where the private sector and other stakeholders hold technical meetings to edit and rework the guide to fit their local content and environment. This is the most endearing for us. So, as Nigerian organisations, we are not bound by foreign standards or policies and/or expectations. Consequently, each sector can advocate changes to reflect industry needs and peculiarities.
When will the standard be adopted?
The adoption process is scheduled to commence in May, 2012 and we will hold three (3) technical meetings that should be wrapped up in October, 2012. A commencement and adoption ceremonies will kick-start and round off these activities with representatives from the international organisation for standardization in attendance. After the adoption ceremony, organisations will be encouraged to publish their reports, using the guide as a template. For us at ThistlePraxis, the reports based on ISO 26000 mean much to us and it is only at that point that we can proudly say that the standard has been adopted in Nigeria.
Is this an attempt to regulate the practice and perhaps industry and do you believe CSR should be legislated?
I believe it should be regulated, not legislated. In many ways, yes; this guide will attempt to regulate the practice of CSR. However, regulation is not bad as against the recent calls for legislation. I think the guide is best described as a 'golden middle ground' between a strict legislation and a complete laissez-faire situation. So, it is meant to draw on existing knowledge and reference documents without stifling the creativity of companies to integrate Social Responsibility into their business strategies. Some instances include Canada, Germany and Norway that have national strategies on CSR. In some others, CSR is completely legislated. However, in Nigeria, we can attain an extensively and mutually-beneficial understanding that certain practices are not acceptable in our business environment. The Federal Ministry of Trade & Investments will then enforce this national standard or guide for Foreign Direct Investments. So, it is either you invest on these conditions or take your money away.
What is the value of CSR investments by corporate Nigeria?
I am often careful about putting a figure to this question because at the moment, it is a little tough to decipher. The investments are, no doubt, very huge to the tune of tens of billions of naira, but ascertaining how much exactly is the issue because most organisations still muddle up their CSR spending with sponsorships and marketing causes. It is our intention that with more awareness and structure to the industry, we will clearly define and value the investments more accurately.
What does the right practice of CSR do to the Nigerian business terrain?
Good question. I just tried to explain that. It does much more than we can imagine. A number of benefits, which I will quickly summarise: better informed decision-making based on a better understanding of stakeholder expectations are assured, improved risk-management practices are inevitable and enhanced reputation, greater public trust and social licence to operate easily achieved. Effective CSR compliance also generates innovation, which indirectly improves competitiveness and access to finance especially for SMEs;
New perspectives through better relationships with stakeholders and enhanced employee attraction, loyalty, participation, morale and retention. Companies also save money due to increased productivity and resource efficiency (lower energy and water use, decreased waste and recovery of by-products). The issues of conflicts with consumers about products or services will become history.
How does your work build expertise in the Sustainability and CSR industry?
We provide support and resources for organisations in developing effective in-house capacity and expertise by organising bespoke trainings and setting up departments, divisions and Human Resource for Sustainability. Nevertheless, these decisions are best taken after the management of such organisations clearly understand and commit to aligning their businesses with sustainable practices. We are also open to partnerships and synergy with other firms and this; we have exhibited in past events, platforms and hope to do much more in future. By working with other organisations, we learn from them and also offer them expertise where useful for the development of the industry.
With your wealth of experience, what do you envisage is the future of CSR in Nigeria and Africa?
The future of CSR is very promising. So, I am excited and eager to see the changes that will transform our continent.
CSR will gain increasing acceptance and compliance in the African business environment. Very soon, organisations will look mundane without the appropriate structure, resources and effective reporting. I am also confident that very soon CSR will determine and define a lot of business milestones such as Stock Exchange listings, Foreign Direct Investments, Public-Private Partnerships in many countries in Africa.