Sustainable business in Africa (II/III): B Lab Africa

This is part two of a three-part series on sustainable business practices in Africa. You can find part one here.

Setting the stage: sustainability’s relevance in Africa

In my previous article, we delved into the merits of one particular sustainability certification: the B Corp certification. We thoroughly examined its advantages, drawbacks, and future outlook. Yet, a lingering question persists: Is this certification only pertinent to established markets? What exactly is the business case for sustainability in emerging markets, particularly in Africa? We’re witnessing the dawn of what some call the African Century (IMF, 2023), a time when the continent is projected to host nearly 2.5 billion people by 2050. In light of such exponential growth, businesses must leapfrog the extractive model and embrace sustainability right from the outset. Certification serves as a marker of credibility, and across Africa, the number of certified B Corps is on the rise, signaling a growing commitment to sustainable practices.

However, studies on B Corp in Africa remain scarce. For instance, only one academic paper touches this subject (Muiru, 2019). Within the intricate context of the continent, businesses frequently encounter voids—whether social, economic, or political (Sydow et al., 2022; Wang and Cuervo‐Cazurra, 2017; Mair and Marti, 2009). Given these challenges, one might wonder if companies have the bandwidth for sustainability, let alone certification.

Therefore, I’ve initiated a series of articles in partnership with B Lab Africa, spotlighting pioneering companies across the continent that are leading the charge in sustainability, impact, and transformative change. Together, we’ll delve into the practical wisdom of these changemakers, aiming to inspire and shed light on the often overlooked positive transformations taking place.

First, I sat down with Lucy Muigai, the Executive Director of B Lab Africa, to gather insights on the relevance of the B Corp certification for African companies. B Lab Africa, headquartered in Kenya, leads the movement’s development across the continent.

In our conversation, I wanted to uncover the business case for sustainability in Africa alongside Lucy. Her starting point revolves around shifting from a short-term approach to a long-term perspective. The essence lies in substituting immediate gains with a forward-looking vision that benefits all stakeholders. This viewpoint holds particular significance on the continent, where numerous entrepreneurs are adopting a social entrepreneurial ethos, utilizing profit-driven enterprises to tackle societal, environmental, and other challenges (Betts et al., 2018).

Navigating challenges: the path to B Corp certification in Africa

Here, she recognizes the distinctive features of B Corp Certification, which, as discussed in our previous article, strives to offer a comprehensive evaluation of businesses. Naturally, the certification process can be intricate, particularly for SMEs.

“One of the biggest challenges we see is a lack of capacity and documentation. You might say you’re doing this policy or process, but if you are not able to provide proper supporting documentation, then we cannot verify it.”

As a result, numerous African businesses face challenges in allocating resources to the certification process, which is often lengthy and arduous. The program’s stringent requirements necessitate thorough auditing, a task that many companies with limited capacities find daunting. Nevertheless, B Lab Africa has devised solutions such as B leaders—expert external consultants who guide businesses through the certification process. Additionally, B Lab Africa conducts introductory classes to familiarize firms with the certification criteria.

Challenges notwithstanding, opportunities abound. In fact, the assessment process can highlight gaps. Lucy stressed that the certification is not the only goal. Even just initiating the assessment is an important first step because even if you are not pursuing full certification, “that does not mean that you cannot work towards being a sustainable business.”

She observes that momentum is growing, stating, “the time is right now.” B Lab is actively engaged in policy advocacy for sustainable business practices. Lucy highlights that in countries like Kenya and South Africa, B Corps are mandated to incorporate stakeholder considerations into their governing documents. Moreover, B Lab collaborates with associations to advocate for policy changes supporting social enterprise. Additionally, B Lab Africa is refining the assessment process to suit the specific realities of emerging markets better. This commitment extends to the forthcoming review, which will further align standards with these objectives.

Spotlighting innovators: inspirational b corps across the continent

Inspirational stories are emerging across the continent, prompting me to inquire about companies that resonate with Lucy. She wanted to highlight all 64 B Corps on the continent, citing their remarkable tales of transformation and impact. However, she underscored that three of these companies hailed from less familiar locations, diverging from the expected narratives of Kenya or South Africa.

1) ApiAfrique, based in Senegal, is a company working on reusable women’s and baby products, reducing waste while addressing social challenges like menstrual health (still a significant issue for women and girls in many countries) which in many countries is still a problem for women and girls. 

2) Maïa Africa, in Burkina Faso, is improving the lives of many people fighting malaria, saving as many lives as possible in a country that often makes the headlines for political instability and violence.

3) Sunshine Nut Company, based in Mozambique, is working to alleviate the conditions of farmers in the cashew trade, as they “reinvest 90% of their profits back into Mozambique communities through initiatives that support family farming, and care for orphans, children and women.”

Lucy’s vision extends towards a landscape where every business becomes a catalyst for positive change. While certification serves as one avenue, B Lab is actively crafting programs to steer companies towards sustainable and responsible practices. She underscores the promising trajectory of B Corp in Africa, with a deliberate focus on inclusivity, equity, and reshaping economic systems.

“Any business can be a sustainable business, and B Lab Africa is here to support you,” Lucy affirms.

For Lucy, the pivotal step lies in initiating action, irrespective of scale, recognizing that “every individual is creating impact. It could either be positive or negative… . So just to be aware, that it’s not a foreign concept.” This series of articles stands as a testament to this objective, shedding light on African changemakers dedicated to fostering a more sustainable planet. The hybrid nature of many businesses adeptly addresses the profound social and economic challenges of the context. (Seelos and Mair, 2005)

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.


References

Betts, S. C., Laud, R., & Kretinin, A. (2018). Social entrepreneurship: A contemporary approach to solving social problems. Global Journal of Entrepreneurship (GJE), 2(1).

IMF (2023) The African century [online] https://www.imf.org/-/media/Files/Publications/Fandd/Article/2023/September/Picture-this-0923.ashx

Mair, J., & Marti, I. (2009) Entrepreneurship in and around institutional voids: A case study from Bangladesh. Journal of Business Venturing, 24(5), 419-435.

Muiru, O. W. (2019). The B Movement in East Africa: A shift in the culture of business. African Evaluation Journal, 7(1), 1-12.

Seelos, C., & Mair, J. (2005) Social entrepreneurship: Creating new business models to serve the poor. Business horizons, 48(3), 241-246.

Sydow, A., Cannatelli, B. L., Giudici, A., & Molteni, M. (2022). Entrepreneurial workaround practices in severe institutional voids: Evidence from Kenya. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 46(2), 331-367.

Wang, S. L., & Cuervo‐Cazurra, A. (2017). Overcoming human capital voids in underdeveloped countries. Global Strategy Journal, 7(1), 36-57.

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