With the COVID-19 pandemic threatening to overwhelm much of Africa, companies on the continent must broaden their perspective. Instead of focusing on short-term returns for owners and investors, they must consider the needs of a variety of stakeholders – employees, suppliers, customers, and the societies in which they operate. This stakeholder capitalism will help companies rewrite their rules of community engagement and rebuild their businesses faster post-COVID-19.
Business as usual will not help countries avert the peak of the epidemic. Across the continent, preventive measures are removing foot traffic from markets and malls. To continue adding value during the emergency, companies need to shift their thinking. Public-private partnerships are emerging, supported by a surge in solidarity funds across the continent.
South Africa, Senegal, and Ghana have all set up their own funds focussed on supporting vulnerable communities and preparing for the recovery. But companies also need to act directly to address the crisis not only for their employees and customers but for stakeholders as well. Former Unilever CEO Paul Polman has said the pandemic is an acid test for stakeholder capitalism.
Companies can start by looking to progress that has already been made. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, for example, the private sector built a platform to raise resources to send health workers from across the continent to the affected countries. The difference now is that the entire continent is at risk. We know that our healthcare systems, otherwise occupied with HIV, tuberculosis, severe diarrhoea, malaria, Lassa fever, and other tropical diseases, cannot deal with a COVID-19 peak. Stepping up prevention is the best way to avoid a tragedy.
Fortunately, Africa is a latecomer to the pandemic. We can learn from other countries and set the path for truly enabling behaviour change. We can flatten the curve of sickness while supporting households who have lost their livelihoods from the necessary social distancing.
Hand hygiene is key to prevention, and Africans can build on existing private-public partnerships to promote hand-washing. In Kenya, the National Business Compact on Coronavirus has the leading brands in hygiene working together, not competing. The main soap manufacturers along with other companies are putting their resources into a unified platform of communication. They bring together the best of advertising, media and branding to remind consumers that the preventive actions are a matter of life or death. They’re targeting the estimated 6 million Kenyans who are struggling to maintain hand hygiene and other key behaviours. And they work with the government, UN organisations, community-based organisations and digital agencies to distribute essential hygiene products.
Messaging on hand-washing with soap is not enough. Private companies are building facilities in informal settlements to improve access to water. This engagement will have to continue beyond COVID-19 to supply clean water and hand-washing facilities to households. Even more important, prevention and livelihoods must go hand in hand. Social distancing prevents many people from getting food or resources to get clean water, soap and other vital items. Companies must help our populations protect themselves whilst preserving a certain level of economic activity.
To get there, companies can work with a variety of community-based coalitions, such as SHOFCO, which is operating in Kibera, Nairobi, in order to use their platform to support emerging organisations stemming the spread of the disease in their community. These communities are also customers for many large corporations and smaller businesses. Retail distributors, who belong to local communities, are already talking to slum dwellers and villagers, and they can reinforce health messages. In this process, they can identify local products which may benefit from a distribution channel in the communities as COVID-19 may tip the scale in favour of local products.
These efforts can play out in the informal sector as well. From financial services to health issues, these value chains have multiple entry points to change the relationship between businesses and citizens. Companies can no longer simply focus on what they sell. They provide a piece of a dynamic puzzle and can make a big difference by collaborating with a purpose.
In Togo, the government collaborated with financial institutions and mobile network operators to use the digital infrastructure for cash transfers through Novissi, which means solidarity in local dialect. This initiative intends to ensure that informal workers are not caught between the virus and hunger.
We know that our communities willingly come together in times of joy and sorrow by pooling their resources. In taking that ethos to the national level, through collaborating with the private sector and appealing to shared humanity – we have a foundation for true stakeholder capitalism.
NOTE: Opinion expressed in this article are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the West Africa Civil Society Institute