By Onome Amawhe
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is becoming more mainstream. Despite the growing speculations that the end is nigh for the notion of CSR , the emergence of a new generation of corporations solving social and environmental problems have increasingly shown that CSR may be one of the best hopes for a sustainable future. Ecobank, one of the major corporations leading the way in CSR, founded the Ecobank Foundation in 1985 with a clear cut focus on exploring ways to meet societal challenges around health, education and financial inclusion.
The creation of the foundation was an extension of the Pan-African bank’s transformation journey to focus on social transformation. Since it was established, the foundation has donated significantly to philanthropic causes, strengthening the communities in which it operates. To further enhance and drive its CSR strategy, the foundation was re- launched in 2015 to reassess its focus areas of development work in the communities in which it operates.
As CEO, Ecobank Foundation, Julie Essiam’s job is really like any business leader with one important distinction, she’s always applying business thinking to social challenges. Prior to joining Ecobank Transnational Incorporated, the parent company of the Ecobank Group with presence in 39 countries, Julie had worked at Citigroup in the United States where she held several senior HR roles.
Just before that, she honed her skills as Director and Head of Talent, Development, and Resourcing for Middle East and Africa, covering 22 countries. As part of her remit for The Ecobank Transnational, she combines the role of Group Head, Human Resources and Corporate Affairs with responsibility for the execution of corporate strategy. The Ghanaian born Julie Essiam, a graduate of the Carnegie Mellon in the United States, also represents the private sector stakeholders on the board of the Global Fund, an international financing organization established in 2002 with a sole aim of defeating AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.
When did Ecobank start paying attention to corporate social responsibility?
When Ecobank was created in 1985, the founding members outlined a vision with a dual objective – to create a world-class pan African bank, and to contribute to the economic development and financial integration of the continent. Subsequently, the Ecobank Foundation was created to drive the social transformation of the communities that we serve; and the communities in which the bank operates.
Building on the founding fathers vision, in 2015, Ecobank revamped its Foundation strategy to ensure that it becomes an impact driven foundation, with a focus on health, education and financial inclusion.
What is the main goal of the Ecobank Foundation?
Ecobank Foundation aims to lead and drive an impactful transformation across the communities that we serve, and across the continent.
How has that evolved over the years?
We are moving towards a shared value and impact driven foundation. We believe that our recently defined focus areas of health, education, and financial inclusion is key to accelerating impactful transformation of the continent.
Our financial inclusion focus is powered by our business digital financial services strategy, which is a key mechanism to expand services to communities and increase accountability for the investment made in the community.
Some would suggest corporate social responsibility is nothing but a PR ploy? What’s your take?
Let’s reframe it and call it shared value!I believe that corporate, or private sector for that matter, operating in any community for commercial gains has a morale responsibility to contribute to the development of that community. Whilst doing good, the incentives are clear – (i)an educated, capable, and talented workforce; (ii) a healthy workforce; (ii) and an expanded and inclusive economy, that enables a stronger economic growth. In all of this, if the platform offers an opportunity for brand recognition, then the Return on Investment is clear and it’s a win win for all.
Why has CSR become so important?
CSR is exactly that! Corporate Social Responsibility! Every corporation has a morale responsibility towards the communities that they derive their commercial gains from.
If Africa is to THRIVE, and if Africa is to become competitive, then increased corporate social responsibility is no longer a Choice – we, the private sector needs to lead the transformation of our continent to prosperity. In that sense CSR – corporate social responsibility is no longer a choice.
What are some of the challenges the foundation has faced in developing and executing strategy for fulfilling its social responsibilities?
Ecobank’s commitment to enabling a thriving and prosperous Africa remains intact. The challenge is also in the advantage we have – our scale! The advantage of operating in 36 African countries is the outstanding leverage of scale. The coordination of activities of this outstanding scale, also presents its minor challenges. We continue to make significant progress in that regard.
You‘re also in charge of the bank’s Group HR and Corporate Affairs strategy. How have you helped to tell Eco bank’s CSR story in a more compelling way?
I believe that fundamentally, in order for organizations to achieve sustainable shareholder returns they must, among other things, balance their approach to the following (i) Brand and Reputation (ii) A focus of People (HR) and (iii) Corporate Social Responsibility.
We will realize sustainable Shareholders returns by powering corporate social responsibility efforts and recognizing the invaluable opportunity of doing the right things such as Create environment that not only enhance the brand but also increase Employee Engagement
Are there any emerging trends that you think will shape the way that Ecobank approach CSR?
As the CEO of the Foundation, I am also partnering with two other developmental organizations, the MyAfricaThriving Foundation, in collaboration with the Global Fund on an initiative that calls for the Africa Private Sector to lead the sustainable transformation of the Continent.
“Africans for Africa” (A4A) is a catalytic social impact initiative positioned to accelerate the pace of sustainable transformation of the African Continent, through the mobilization of African resources, and specifically leveraging Private Sector mechanisms, systems, and process to achieve a transformed and prosperous Africa.
To take the continent to the next level in a sustainable manner, the trend now is to leverage the private sector to lead this journey – Ecobank, as a true Pan African private sector is positioned well to shape this trend.
What motivates you in your work, and what is the biggest challenge you have to overcome in relation to your work?
Passion, and a deep sense of purpose is fundamental to everything I do. My passion for Africa, this beautiful continent of ours, is what drives me today. It is my deep believe that Africa will reach its destined prosperity in our lifetimes. With the breadth of intellectual mindsets, rich natural resources, and outstanding people, there is absolutely no reason why we can’t achieve a thriving Africa.
What are the main CSR initiatives undertaken since the establishment of the foundation?
To name the key ones:We have been working with the Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria to accelerate the implementation of programmes requiring funding, financial management capabilities and advocacy in African and the rest of the world. We are investing in a social entrepreneurship model where nurses benefit from a loan subsidy to become business owners. They provide better access of health in communities in Rwanda. We are looking at replicating the model in other countries in Africa.
Many businesses have been known to declare that they are good corporate citizens, but only pay lip Service to the principles of Corporate Social Responsibility. How does the Ecobank Foundation ensure that it is different?
At Ecobank, we just cannot afford to pay lip service to transformation work – by definition, transformation of the continent is the basis on which our company was built. Transforming the continent is the principle on which we base our business imperative – it is who we are.
To ensure this its sustainability of our vision, we rely on 17,000 people in 36 countries to keep our fingers on the pulse of the continent. Recently, we got our staff to donate through our digital mobile services platform in order to contribute to World Malaria Day. We are making progress in ensuring that more staff extend their skills and resources to support communities.
How difficult is it to build a strong and ethical culture in a Pan-African company with many locations?
We have strong structures, systems, and process to ensure that Ecobank remains an ethical organization. We continue to apply consistent general ethical principles to the actions and decisions of businesses and the conduct of the Staff. It is also important to ensure that business actions are assessed in the context of society’s standards of right and wrong as business ethics are not materially different from ethical principles.
What is your favorite part of working for such a large and impactful corporate foundation?
In my line of work, the possibilities are endless – the privilege of making an impactful difference in our communities and in people’s lives is what keeps me continuously motivated. Been afforded the opportunity to witness what’s possible when we effectively mobilize and deploy resources is always in real time. Real lives are being saved, and an ongoing hope for prosperity and better tomorrow is recreated.
What do you consider to be the biggest strengths of the Ecobank Foundation that set it apart from other CSR initiatives?
It is the scale of our presence in 36 countries that allows us to cross-fertilize our decision making process, the same way this is done in the way we run our business. The roll out of one initiative immediately impacts 36 countries at a go – that, I believe is the most powerful strength that any organization can hope for.