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African Businesses Discuss Recovery After Covid-19

Business leaders gathered at virtual summit to share insights into COVID-19 relief efforts

A high-level summit of African business leaders has provided a necessary platform for discussion of insights, experiences and the actions the continent’s private sector has taken to address the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic fallout challenges.

The 2020 Africa Shared Value Leadership Summit, which drew 60 speakers and more than 2500 audience members from 68 countries, attracted business leaders from throughout the continent to discuss COVID-19 experiences, share challenges and knowledge, and discuss a possible way forward. An annual event convened by Shared Value Africa Initiative (SVAI), this event on 2-5 June 2020 was the first time a Shared Value Summit was held virtually worldwide.

Several speakers shared that as a result of the social inequalities and challenges that have become clear during the pandemic, COVID-19 has compelled business leaders to rethink their corporate purpose and strategy. In n a time of COVID-19 it became clear that purpose-led businesses were better able to not only respond to society’s needs but also to pivot as a business, further proving the importance of purpose-led organisations.

There is a need to devise business models that are inclusive of all sectors of society is the only way to address the inequality that COVID-19 unsurfaced not only in Africa but in the globe. Moreover, said panellists, the pandemic had prompted a rethink of employees critical to the business given that contracted workers such as cleaners had through the crisis emerged more critical than previously realised.

Another key direction set at the summit was the need for the private sector to increase its focus on affordable but high-volume services offered to low-income citizens. Recommendations for a more inclusive society included the transformation of health care in Africa through less centralised models involving community care, as well as strategies for health insurance that are affordable and accessible.

Linked to this, business leaders stressed the social and economic benefits of improving financial literacy for those at the bottom of the pyramid, to improve the impact of poverty reduction initiatives as well as to present new opportunities such as financial products for the financial sector. Absa’s Ready to Work initiative was cited as one such example. Financial education was seen to be an industry standard imperative in all economies.

A strong theme coming out of the summit was the need for African businesses to expand markets across borders. Entrepreneurs were advised to target growth outside of national borders, starting with opportunity identification through to growing and scaling enterprises.

The Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), bringing together the 55 member states of the African Union and covering a market of more than 1.2 billion people, is aimed at freeing movement of capital and persons for investment across the continent to create a single market for goods and services, and contribute to more sustainable and inclusive socio economic development.

Business leaders at the summit identified several requirements for them to take advantage of this opportunity. First, entrepreneurs should ensure they are informed about Technical Barriers to Trade, custom process and quality requirements in order to tap into this market. Second, embedding Shared Value and social responsibility in business models could help entrepreneurs succeed at a time when community solidarity is in high demand. Third, entrepreneurs should aim to use technology to boost their productivity and the quality of their products and services.

Two key recurring themes were collaboration and adaptability. Collaboration between manufacturers was strongly supported as a way to boost productivity especially during times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The need for collaboration across public and private sectors was also discussed. A number of recommendations were shared by panellists to spur innovation on the African continent. COVID-19 has compelled us to think innovatively about how we can lead and do business. The summit proved to be a launch pad for platforms including CEO Dialogues, Youth Forums and further research on relevant topics.

“We are at a pivotal moment where there is a moral, democratic and economic imperative to build a world that works for everyone. Business recognises that it has an important role to play, with companies joining governments across our continent to scale up social relief,” says summit convenor and SVAI CEO Tiekie Barnard. “The message we are driving is that Africa’s private sector should continue its social impact work after the pandemic – not as philanthropy but as a core part of their businesses.”

Barnard says the Purpose Playbook, launched at the summit to guide companies wanting to start their purpose journey, has been well received. Those with questions about the Playbook can contact SVAI.

What COVID-19 has clearly demonstrated is that change is needed and whatever we thought was enough in the past, clearly was not. Keynote speaker Prof. Mark Kramer of the Harvard Business School said companies often believe that by producing sustainability reports and doing corporate social investment they have satisfied stakeholders. Instead we need authentic leadership, who will foster workplace inclusion, make it easier for smaller entities to participate and plan the move into economic recovery.

“At the Summit, we spoke about Shared Value becoming the business norm in a post-COVID-19 world. But many companies in the SVAI network have for years understood the need to focus on “profit with purpose” to improve their business resilience,” says Barnard.

The eSummit sessions are on the SVAI YouTube channel.