The Case Against Business Sustainability In Africa

Based on my experiences, I believe I can now predict what most Nigerians' reactions will be when I tell them that I'm interested in business sustainability, or when I suggest some sustainability concept as a way of resolving an issue. They generally gravitate towards two main responses:

"It's a good idea, but that's something we can consider down the line, in the long term."

"Why should we bother when the people who caused these environmental issues haven't done anything much to resolve the situation".

I got this funny response too - "Sustainability of what? My salary?"

Skeptics of business sustainability actually bring up some good, and to be honest fair, points. A main one is that Africans should focus on our economic development instead of shifting focus primarily from profits. We should maximise our resources and our profits so that we can sustain a high GDP growth rate and quickly catch up with the developed world. 

The second main point is that the West, whose industrialisation has practically caused climate change and other environmental issues, and generally pushed our planetary boundaries to the limits, should act first. Africa doesn't have to take the lead on this because we didn't cause it; our environmental footprint is tiny compared to the West. For example, Americans are living like they have about 9 planets, Britons like they have about 5 planets, and Nigerian and Kenyan like we have about 1.2 planets each. They have polluted, so they should pay, and they should pay first. Fair points.  

So amidst these two admittedly good reasons, why do I still think Africa should focus on business sustainability?

Firstly, on our economic development, Africa has been wallowing in 'developing'/'emerging' status for ages since independence, attempting to develop using the traditional models of business and industry - by putting profit first. But the disparity is still huge (e.g. Nigeria's 2014 GDP of 574 billion USD (with 6.3% growth rate) compared to United States' 2014 GDP of 17,348 billion USD (with 2.4% growth rate). And this gap is even greater when you consider that Nigeria's 2015 growth rate has drastically reduced to 2.4%. What's more, 33% of countries with negative GDP in 2015 are African countries. The traditional model is obviously not working.

How about we try a new way, using a new model that takes into consideration all the factors that we already know influence development. With the endemic corruption in Africa (let's say Nigeria in particular), a business that considers social factors will stamp down on corrupt practices! In Nigeria again, the Niger Delta is said to be the most polluted area on the planet and the biggest potential clean up in history; but a company that considers environmental factors will ensure they have minimal negative impact on the environment, through efficient resource use (to make sure they have enough to sustain their future) and through pollution prevention. These considerations are necessary for us to have fast and sustained economic growth.

What's more, research has found economic growth actually has nothing to do with human development! So from this, we know that focusing on economics/profit alone is not enough to get us to progress from our abysmal 2014 Human Development Index of 152/187! 

Secondly, on insisting on action from the West because they are responsible for the pollution, I believe this argument has been overtaken by events. It would have been more valid about two years ago, when the biggest polluters were not ready to take responsibility in a global arena. But with the Paris Agreement at COP21, two of the biggest polluters, United States and China, who before now were not ready to agree, have finally done so. And this is spelling good signs for global cooperation and action. The dynamics of such collaboration is being framed going forward, and this will determine whether the biggest polluters pay the most. As I said above, this is fair. Africa should be part of this discourse, and we should position ourselves to have a strong voice over this topical issue that is gaining more and more traction.

In my mind, Africa as a whole is a work in progress, and so has the chance to do things right and holistically from the beginning. We've not fully set up our extraction, manufacturing, transportation, etc., systems, which means that we are at the unique opportunity to leapfrog to the use of clean technologies. This also means that a transition to business sustainability will be cheaper for us than it is for the developed countries. What's more, business sustainability provides a good opportunity for Africa to clean up our image and reputation and be seen as a responsible region.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree? What other arguments have you heard against and for business sustainability in Africa?