The Pursuit of Sustainable Development in Africa : Conscious Capitalism vs Social Enterprises

It was December 2017 and I sat in a plainly furnished hotel room with an old friend catching up on the past few months of our lives. It had been a crazy year for me and this conversation with my friend turned out to be a way of taking stock as we meandered through dialogue that related the year’s events to each other. I think it is striking how narratives enable us process the worlds within and around us, usually exceeding the intended boundaries that we set up for what these conversations could achieve. Naturally, the talk about the future came up and so did my budding interest in social impact strategy.

We were soon talking about businesses and the government and their roles in social impact and sustainable development. One of the outcomes of the conversation for me was the term “business conscience”.  I would later come to find out that this term I had coined out pretty much exists conceptually as “conscious capitalism”. Essentially, it is a philosophy that posits that businesses should generate financial wealth but not at the expense of social, cultural, environmental and spiritual wellbeing. Conscious capitalism is neither a business strategy nor a business model.

At the crux of it, we talked about how government institutions and traditional forms of enterprise have seldom driven the much needed positive change in the educational and agricultural sectors. I was of the opinion that our strategy going forward should be to leverage social enterprise and hybrid business models in establishing and running business ventures especially startups. For me, the bull’s eye is having social impact at the heart of the organization’s strategy with profitability being the complementary strategic objective to drive the intended impact.

I posited that is one of the most sustainable systems through which the private sector can take responsibility for the economy without replicating outcomes of the past that have done little good. However, my friend on the other hand had an opinion that was different and interesting to explore.

He felt that the ideal situation should be one in which businesses were run with an ideal sense of morality in terms of how their operations affect all stakeholders physically, mentally, emotionally and socio-culturally. He felt that if businesses were conscious of the impact of their choices on people and the society, then there’d be no need to institutionalize social impact as a strategic objective. In his opinion, doing “good” should ideally come instinctively to the businesses. In exploring his perspective, I would later find out about the concept of “conscious capitalism”.

Conscious capitalism heralds free enterprise capitalism as the most powerful system for social cooperation and human progress but goes beyond that to inculcate a consciousness in business to the end that the culture of business should allow for the creation of financial, intellectual, social, emotional, spiritual, physical and ecological wealth for all their stakeholders. This sounds grand and even heroic but then I start to question what vehicle should be employed in bringing this to fruition.

Conscious capitalism strikes me as an ideology that organizations who buy into it would most likely entrench in their cultures and values through immersive programs such that business leaders and workers carry that awareness in delivering core business functions and herein lay the problem that I had with the idea of business conscience being a tool for sustainable change. (I am open to opposing opinions regarding this).

While I agree that businesses with consciences would definitely make for a positive climate for change in our communities, I do not believe that they would be sufficient to trigger and maintain sustainable development. My understanding of what my friend had in mind is companies with CSR, sustainability policies & practices and perhaps leaders who have a personal will to effect some form of positive social change and let this inform their business decision making activities. My problem with us depending on these kind of models in driving social change/sustainable development is that in these cases, the natural profit-making and cost-reduction objectives reign supreme, with every other factor being secondary, at most. Business conscience after all, is a function of the mindsets, values and biases of individuals at the helm of decision making in any business.

In many cases, traditional business enterprises that employ sustainability practices and CSR and other “conscious practices” tend do so with objectives like cost-reduction, regulatory compliance, improvement of indicators like diversity, visibility etc. at the forefront of their objectives.  The actual social impact benefits seem to be resultant benefits. The problem with this is that in business, key objectives are what drive strategy and I do not think that we should rely on systems that do not have social and/or environmental change as key strategic objectives as sustainable contributors to development in those areas. While I agree that business conscience/conscious capitalism makes for a more inclusive business ecosystem as far sustainable development is concerned, I think that greater demands can be placed on market forces as drivers of sustainable change.

The way I see it, government, donor organizations and traditional enterprises can deploy some resources, at their discretion, to causes that appeal to them in view of addressing developmental issues. However, solving these problems in a manner that is sustainable and scalable would require that we place a demand on the forces of the market to engage with these problems such that solutions ride on the aggressive evolution of commerce and industry in being propagated and improved upon. For this reason, I advocated and still advocate for social enterprises and hybrid organizations where solving these problems is a primary concern and profit-making becomes an enhancer.

I think that this is an important conversation to be had especially with all the efforts being made to drive entrepreneurship and sustainability to the forefront of global governance. We need to interrogate the approaches that we believe will yield the most value considering peculiarities of different geographical locations and regions.

Personally, I feel like my opinion is strengthened by the peculiarities of Nigeria and Africa in general. The shortcomings of the government, aid programs and traditional enterprises are too apparent for me not to agree with the exploration of models that institutionalize development objectives at a root level and leverage the autonomy of the market in driving this forward.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you stand with me or do you think that there are other models that government and traditional enterprises could adopt apart from social enterprise and hybrid models where businesses run social enterprises or foundations on the side?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *