May 21, 2011

SERA projects generate interest in CSR in Nigeria – Egbas

Ken Egbas is the Managing Partner TruContact. He has overseen the emergence of the consultancy brand from inception till date. Today, TruContact is seen by many to be one of Nigeria’s leading Public relations agencies.

He also developed the Social Enterprise and Reports (SERA awards) which focuses on Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability. The awards now in its fifth season has grown to become Nigeria’s core corporate awards that is seen by many to be most credible going by institutional partnerships of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS and Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON).

ken Egbas

In this interview with Saturday Vanguard Business, Egbas explains why private organisations should be deeply involved in corporate social responsibility in any environment they operate. Excerpt:

How does corporate organisations react when it comes to corporate social responsibility in country?

Well, it is very interesting journey for us. Nearly seven years ago, when we started promoting corporate social responsibility as something an additive to business practices that can further enhance business standing or the bottom line, a lot of people, companies or corporations did not see the direction we were coming from or going to at a time.

But when we set up our company, our mission statement in TruContact is to promote companies as company grow and they should also be growing in terms of their involvements with communities because we understood that seven years ago or even little before that, the future foundation of stakeholder engagement for every organisation was going to be through the instrumentality of CSR. That is owing to the fact that across the world, communities that demand more accountability, transparency, availability in terms of presence in communities. They’re demanding more of those three.

As at that time we have seen that movements heightened in other parts of the world like Europe and America and we knew that even though there were poor governance tools in Africa or Nigeria, with time this market will have to respond to the international market and bring CSR to the fore. And over the years that is what we have seen.

When we started Social Enterprise Report Award (SERA) in 2007, before then you could count may be five companies that operated CSR as a policy, that run or built into the fabric of the management of the organization, but when you look five years down the road, that number has shot up close to hundred and something now and the number keeps growing and people are now seeking ways of understanding how to build CSR or sustainability into their business practices and not only that, we also seen the fact that you hardly open any media today without reading one company or the other talking about their corporate-social responsibility.

I think we have been able through the instrumentality of SERA project, generate more interest in CSR in Nigeria. But what we are working on now is to move towards the era of not just participation but compliance with the best practices that you can find around the globe. That is part of what we have been doing for the past five years.

However, if you look around the quality of CSR practice, implementation or design has also continued to improve, and that was also in line because we found out there was a massive gap in terms of understanding. There are a lot of companies that want to get involved but don’t know how and that is why we ventured into training, bringing some of the best brains across the world to come and help our people see how to put their current performance along side the best practices so that we can further deepen the level of CSR in Nigeria.

Why have many organisations not shown interest yet?

I used to say that myself three, four years ago. But now, a lot of them are becoming interested in CSR. But their problem in the boardroom has always been how to make a business case for CSR; how do you show your shareholders? you know is important to look after all stakeholders. That is where people are beginning to understand that those days, the concept of profitability doesn’t hold anymore. The conception of single line profitability when you look at profitability from the issue of financial alone, it doesn’t hold water anymore. Everybody now understands that profitability is actually a three bottom line concept when you look at financial, you look at environment and social as well.

Do you think certain government policies hinder some companies from participating?

My answer to that will be yes and no. People who do not want to take responsibility even in the family will always find excuse or reasons for that. Four years ago, we saw companies came up with excuses and they told us, we pay taxes to the government, so it’s the duty of government to take care of social responsibility. Our own duty as corporate organisations is to pay taxes and we pay our taxes. Some of the companies will tell you that our major responsibility is to our shareholders, that is true. Milton Freidman in 1969, made this statement that, “the major responsibility of every business is to make profit for its shareholders”.

This statement was made in 1969 and repeated in 1987, and in the year 2011, companies are still quoting that but they have also forgotten that there was a time government across the world used to be the major financial power, but today you have some corporations that are larger than government of some countries and they have made major profits out of the environment and sometimes to the detriment of the environment and to the community.

So, social responsibility does not only mean I must do what is right because it suits my bottom line, but it also means that I have to do what is necessary because it makes everybody happy. It makes happy being part of the community, it makes the community happy to have me. So, that argument people used to make for a long time that government has to do this and do that, yes government has responsibilities, but with the amount of prosperity in the hands of private organisations today, you find out that it’s normal that communities will expect them to do something in its direction. For instance, it is like the normal African settings where a member is so wealthy and your sister’s children can’t go to school, and you just pretend it does not matter because it’s not your responsibility. So, business has moved to that point. We’re in an era where people are trying to run businesses with a conscience, businesses that try to balance what is good for them and the community.

If you look at that, people would not stand back and wait for government anymore. They will now change that panacea, now what can we do to support what government is doing? We’re aware that our government may not have all the capacity to deal with some of these things or the will power. How do we as corporate organisations use our own strength which is accountability and add to the government will to make sure these things work. If you see the UN, when the United Nations came up with Public and Private Sector Partnership (PPP) to get organisations to work with arms of government on project issues.

The only issue for example, like the African economies or other parts of the world, accountability was an issue of political leaders. So they say, how can we get private sectors who shall run on the basis of accountability and get them to work with government in bringing development to communities. That is why we have (PPP).

But I believe organisations themselves have to begin to look at things from that perspective and see more on how to partner with government to make sure that there is security in every expect of our operational system in this country.

Having traveled far and wide, how can you assess CSR globally?

Globally, it has grown. It’s one of the youngest field internationally in terms of choice of study. And if you go to Europe and America, a lot has been done in the area of Corporate Social Responsibility. And to prove to you how much it grown, it used to be corporate social responsibility, but in Europe and America, I think they have exhausted CSR as it were, now it is corporate responsibility and sustainability because they found out that the first CSR which is 1.0 had a limitation in terms of after putting your projects together, a lot of companies were getting stucked putting projects together and did not know how to move it to the next level.

So, there came the second CSR, that is corporate responsibility and sustainability which most people refer to as CSR 2.0 which now moves the argument towards, I put a project down, I rather make sure in ten years time this project continues to solve the problem of which it was designed which by so saying, the focus has shifted from corporate social responsibility to corporate responsibility but the major focus now being sustainability – how you can get strategies working, how you can make sure that if you have a plan for education or health whatever, you can measure exactly the impact that it is making.

That is the different between CSR practice and international level and here. But here what Nigerians try to do and most African companies, for example is to catch up. But I can tell you something that in the last three years, you can go and check this record, there is no country ever in the world where companies have turned to CSR like they have in Nigeria. And for us that is a very good step, because the market here people are quite aggressive in terms buying into ideas. And our challenge has always been to get them to see the new direction and we had no doubt that we could sell to them and convince them while they needed to that. In a short time, we will have many companies also toeing the line and that is the result of what we’re having.

We don’t have a doubt now that in the next three years or thereabout, we are very sure that Nigeria would have bridged that gap in terms of knowledge, application and measurement.

What has been the achievement of SERA as an annual event

since inception?

This year’s edition will make it the fifth SERA Award. When we started the first time in 2007, the project cost us almost N15m and we were in such huge debt after the event. I remember one of my shareholders in the company asked me a question, are you going to do this next year and I said sir, we have to keep it going and he said, where are you going to get the money from? I said well, we just have to keep it going until people buy to the message. He asked, are we going to be making money and throwing it away? I said well, may be that will become our own social responsibility to make sure that other people become socially responsible and we kept it going even though we have not made profit, not one.

For us, there are many things we can’t forego. For us you can’t preach responsibility and you are irresponsible in any way. For us, credibility has to be on high level. And if you are doing anything here and credibility is high, the chances are that you are not going to get many people to associate with you. Because we have had people in the past tell us this is what we want, but we said sorry, we don’t do that now. With that, people have come to know that we’re very credible.

I understand the basic tenets of setting up any business. I understand very clearly that credibility comes before profitability. So, what we have done over the years is to put together a project we believe is credible and had helped to improve the relationship between brand and community. We have put together a project today which governments itself – Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) is our major partner on our project. They have also found on our platform how to interface with brand and also strengthens the issues of tax payment and all the issues ranging from employee relations and environmental protection etc.