An unwavering commitment to empowering lives and giving wings to aspirations has continued to drive the interventions of the Sahara Foundation, which serves as the vehicle for Sahara Group’s Corporate Responsibility activities across the energy conglomerate’s locations in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. In this interview, Babatomiwa Adesida, Sahara Foundation’s Private Sector Engagement Specialist, speaks about the foundation’s achievements and growing profile as a global promoter of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
How did the Sahara Foundation journey begin?
Sahara Foundation initially began as a platform to enable Sahara Group contribute to the wellbeing of our immediate/host communities in our areas of operation. The main objective was to leave positive business footprints in these areas by empowering the people to become more productive and self-reliant. Though Sahara Foundation was formally institutionalised in 2007, several projects had been successfully implemented by Sahara since 2000. One of the first initiatives by the Foundation was the construction of hand pump boreholes in many hard-to-reach rural communities across Nigeria. These boreholes served as the only clean source of water supply in these communities that were struck by Guinea worm disease due to contaminated water supplies. Since the year 2000, we have donated clean water sources to over 200 communities across Nigeria, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.
What was the initial structure and focus of the Foundation?
The Foundation initially operated on specific and tailored community need basis working with community representatives and Sahara staff in the areas of education, healthcare, environment and sustainable community development projects. Activities carried out include provision of healthcare services to combat malaria and HIV/AIDS, eye care services, hospital upgrades, human capacity development projects for students and teachers as well as vocational skill training programmes.
What were the teething challenges the Foundation encountered?
I would say building trust between the Foundation, implementing partners and our host communities. This was a major setback before we developed a clear structure through our partner and project selection criteria.
Which of the early interventions linger in your memory?
Our eye care programmes across West Africa remain indelible in my memory. The instant relief and gratification the beneficiaries experienced from the surgeries was mind blowing. Imagine the joy of victims having their sight restored after 5years of blindness. All they needed was a platform to help them achieve their aspiration.
How did you arrive at the tag “PCSR” and it has shaped activities of the Foundation?
Sahara’s signature model of Personal and Corporate Social Responsibility (PCSR) is not about a single team, isolated from the core activities of the company, but a holistic way of doing business. The PCSR approach is hinged on the premium Sahara places on involving employees in the journey of serving and giving back to our ecosystem. Sahara employees have always played a critical role in the activities of the Foundation. Through their hard work and innovative thinking, the Foundation was able to scale up activities in all our countries of operation. The significant contribution of our staff volunteers paved the way for the Foundation’s Board to formally approve the adoption of PCSR with a specific emphasis on the ‘’Personal” to highlight the important contribution of our staff volunteers. Since the formal adoption, we have continued to see an increase in staff volunteer hours which has led to a more integrated and sustainable system of giving back. We have recorded over 10,000 staff volunteer hours across the Group on several interventions coordinated by the Foundation. I recall a medical outreach in Ebonyi State, Nigeria where a female Sahara volunteer carried an elderly woman on her back, from one section of the hospital to the other, in an attempt to perform various medical tests prescribed by doctors. This woman, who had difficulties walking, was extremely grateful for the kind gesture of the volunteer. We have also had staff volunteer teachers and counsellors who have been a huge source of inspiration for many young people across our locations in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
Foundation activities took you to several locations, would you say the issues are the same everywhere?
While the issues are generally similar, every location has its peculiarities. What we have tried to do is identify issues that are unique to the locations we operate. Upon identification of such issues, we work with the residents in these areas to develop local solutions to these general problems. By doing this, we continue to engage the local people and empower them to improve their lives.
Mention the partners have you worked with over the years and the outcomes
We have worked with many local and international civil society and private sector organisations. We have also partnered with various governments at the local, regional and federal levels. More recently, we have entered into partnerships with many of the United Nations agencies such as United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), International Trade Center (ITC) and International Labour Organisation (ILO). The outcomes have been transformational for our partners, the ecosystem we support and to us as an organization. It inspires us to do more and keep looking for every opportunity to remain consistent and scale up our impact rate.
Can you name some of the beneficiaries and the spread of interventions?
Since the establishment of Sahara Foundation, our programmes and interventions have directly impacted well over 2,000,000 beneficiaries across our locations. These interventions cut across health, education environmental and skills empowerment sectors. Some were also carried out in countries we do not operate in but were identified to be in dire need. In Nigeria and Zambia, we have setup vocational centres where about 2000 youth acquire skills from tailoring, hair making, catering, and employability skills on a yearly basis. Our eye care programme has benefited 50,000 people in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria since2011 while we have also invested in infrastructure projects such as school and hospital upgrades in our host communities, school libraries in Tanzania, provision of agricultural tools and seedlings for farmers in South Sudan and cancer care programmes in Singapore, Switzerland and United Arab Emirates. These are just some of the projects carried out over the years.
The Foundation maintains high profile partnerships with the United Nations. How has this shaped your activities and achievements?
With the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Fund (SDG-F) was tasked with coming up with a solution that would prevent some of the challenges they faced in the implementation of programs that were scalable and sustainable. The SDG-F looked to the private sector as a possible contributor to the success of sustainable goals mainly because they had observed how many private companies in various countries had carried out very successful and thriving CSR projects with little or no involvement of the host governments. 13 companies were selected globally for this partnership with Sahara Group and SAB Miller as the only African companies. Not only was Sahara selected to be part of this elite group, we were appointed to play a leading role. Our engagement with the UN led to the establishment and inauguration of the Private Sector Advisory Group in Nigeria by the President in February 2017. It has also led to co-designing, co-funding, co-implementing and evaluating an excellent project, the Food Africa project, in Nigeria. These engagements have put Sahara Foundation on the global stage and opened the doors for new partnerships not only with other UN agencies, but also with other global organizations such as the OECD in Paris. Based on these achievements, Sahara is now widely acknowledged as the go-to private sector organization in the drive to promote awareness of the SDGs.
What is the focus of the Sahara Foundation going forward?
From staff volunteer activities to global sustainable development projects, Sahara’s model reflects the values and business practices needed for the private sector to effectively contribute to the achievement of the SDGs. By codifying social responsibility into our corporate governance models, Sahara is leading the way as an ambassador of the global private sector, serving as a role model to companies across industries and geographic locations, on how business can transform the society. We intend to continue championing this cause by leveraging our global partnerships which offer us platforms for wider reach and more effective interventions. A starting point for us is the recently signed partnership with UNDP which focuses primarily on sustainable and renewable energy in a bid to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 for Africa –access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. Access to such energy is crucial to achieving multiple Sustainable Development Goals –from poverty eradication via advancements in health, education, water supply and industrialization, to mitigating climate change and achieving inclusive economic growth. Starting with a pilot phase from August 2019 to August 2021, this partnership between Sahara Group and UNDP Africa will focus on providing communities with access to clean and affordable energy and exploring collaborative ways to scale-up energy initiatives in Nigeria, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.