Exclusive Interview With Accenture’s Director for Sustainability

Paul Gurney is a Director at Accenture and leads Sustainability Services in Africa. He has been with Accenture for over 10 years, with the last 7 spent building the Sustainability business around the world. As part of his role, he has worked with many leading clients, across multiple industries helping them enhance business performance from improving their economic, societal and environmental impacts.

As part of his personal focus on social impact, he set up and runs a charity initiative in partnership with VSO – a world leading international volunteering organisation. ‘VSO Challenge Events’ at Accenture raises money for skills enhancement projects in developing countries by sending Accenture employees on international challenge events (e.g. Kilimanjaro, Everest Base Camp etc.) which has now raised over $5m. He is also a Visiting Fellow at Nottingham in the International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility where he is a Visiting Fellow. One of his passions is writing and has published work on sustainability and change management.

Can you give us a brief of Accenture’s main focus and its work with clients in Africa?

Accenture works with companies from all industries; resources, products, financial services, health and public sector and communications, media and high tech.

Accenture is focused on supporting clients in three key areas;

(1)   Sustainability strategy; What does sustainability mean to our clients? How much is it worth? What are the main opportunities to drive value for clients etc.

(2)   Sustainability operational excellence: Helping clients measure, manage and report their sustainability performance (including technology implementation)

(3)   Technology and intelligent infrastructure: Supporting clients with services such as cities planning, enterprise energy management, Green IT, Smart Grid etc.

What are the key sustainability trends and issues in Africa that emanated from 2013 CEO report?

Accenture works with the UN Global Compact to write a report every 3 years on the ‘state of the nation’ of sustainability around the world. It is the biggest survey and analysis of its kind involving 1000 CEOs from over 100 countries across all industries. Within Africa, we have also published a separate report focusing on the views of African CEOs. It is very interesting to see the sustainability views of CEOs from Africa as there are a number of key trends we see that are unique to the continent.

The report from Africa presents a slightly different picture from what we see elsewhere. Back in 2010, at the time of our last study, our interviews with Global Compact CEOs demonstrated how companies were quite bullish in their ambitions to respond to sustainability pressures, and how leaders and innovators were trying to drive business advantage through sustainability. CEOs were clear in their belief that the environmental, social and economic challenges posed by unsustainable growth will directly affect their company’s ability to do business: 94% of CEOs globally believed that environmental, social and governance issues would be “important” or “very important” to the future success of their business.

From the CEO responses it is clear that there is an interesting global trend, in 2013 we had 93% of CEOs saying that sustainability is important or very important, similar to the 93% in 2010, but crucially we saw a global trend where sustainability shifted from being ‘very important’ to just ‘important’.

In Africa it is a very different story. It is the only region in the world where the trend was the other way round. Overall, 96% of responding CEOs from Africa saw sustainability as very important or important. In 2010, 60% of African business leaders believed sustainability to be ‘very important’ to their future success; in 2013, in the context of rising social and environmental challenges, and growing concerns over effective governance, this figure rises to 68%. Collectively, African business leaders are calling for a new chapter in corporate sustainability, in which companies work together, both within industries and across sectors, in collaboration with governments, policymakers, consumers and civil society, to align global markets with development and allow business and society to prosper.

For African businesses to succeed there is a greater need to be engaged with the communities in which they operate and be fully aware of stakeholder issues. In the absence of some of the government structures and services enjoyed in developed countries, it is companies that are often stepping in to provide infrastructure and social services. They are faced with some of the greatest challenges in the areas of sustainability compared to other businesses around the world.

African CEOs are thinking about how they can really use sustainability as a real differentiator and in a way establish a long term means of establishing relations with stakeholders, increasing revenue through new products, reducing costs, reducing risks and building brand in Africa.

How has Accenture helped in promoting sustainability in Africa given that different countries are using various approaches?

Accenture has physical offices in a number of African countries and has working in Africa for forty years. As a business we have a dedicated team that specialises in sustainability.

Africa is a key growth area for Accenture and we have been helping clients across the continent. It is not surprising that the main focus is in the larger markets of South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Angola, but we also support clients all across Africa. From a sustainability perspective, we are focused on helping improve our client’s business performance by helping them drive their social, economic and environmental impacts.

In addition to the commercial work we offer to our corporate clients, we also have a very exciting capability called Accenture Development Partnerships. This initiative is a not for profit part of our business that specifically focus on development. We work closely with many of the leading NGOs across Africa, helping them to deliver high performance.

Country Approaches

Countries in Africa have different approaches to environmental, social and governance challenges. What we see in South Africa is often them taking a lead in reporting, where the minimum requirements are integrated reports for all companies listed on the JSE. Companies are required to report on their sustainability performance alongside financial performance. Legislation and regulation of course varies across the continent but we are seeing a significant increase in activity in this space. Leading companies are increasingly going beyond regulation to use sustainability as a means to develop new products and new services, reduce costs, reduce risks and to build the

Business is for profit making. What attracts business to act sustainably, and what are the benefits especially for business in Africa?

Sustainability contributes towards profit making and should not be seen as automatically competing with social and environmental interests.

There are four things we typically talk about when discussing how a focus on sustainability can benefit companies – increasing revenues, reducing costs, reducing risks and building their brand and reputation.

Firstly, developing new products and services to deliver beneficial social and environmental outcomes can of course help increase sales and revenues. In a western market we might see things like, energy efficient light bulbs, electric cars, etc, but in Africa some of the examples are arguably more impactful. For example, in financial services one of the key focus areas is financial inclusion – providing financial services to consumers who are currently unbanked or underbanked.

As economies across Africa grow there are huge opportunities to develop products and platforms to provide micro finance. For example, through the M-PESA mobile money platform, Safaricom has enabled millions of people in East Africa and beyond to transfer money through local cell phone networks. As the reach of M-PESA has grown, the platform has been used to provide tailor-made solutions targeted directly at customer needs – driving revenues and of course delivering a clear social benefit.

Secondly, focusing on sustainability can help reduce costs. Regardless of where you are in the world if you are able to reduce your resource consumption whether that be energy, or water, or other raw materials, you are able to drive significant cost savings. If you look at a company’s supply chain there is an opportunity to drive benefits across your whole value chain where you can share the savings.

The third area is around, risk management. This can include a number of strategic and operational risks, whether that be future regulation, taxes or operational risks. For example, most people are very familiar with the health and safety risks in the resources industry in Africa.  By having a robust strategy and processes in place, you can systematically measure, manage and reduce the risks you face as a business.

Fourthly, sustainability can be used as a means to reinforce a company’s licence to operate and build its brand and reputation. Companies that have a demonstrable positive social, economic and environmental impact are typically more trusted and are viewed more positively by stakeholders.

How have you been promoting best Practice, and in a way promoting sustainability leadership?

As Accenture we have been working with the world’s leading companies to understand what it is that makes them successful as business and sustainability leaders. We have published a huge amount of research focused on how leaders are developing strategies, organising their businesses and delivering value from their strategies on sustainability. We bring these leading practices to all of our clients and continually seek to develop innovative ideas that help companies enhance their business and stakeholder performance.

What are the Opportunities for African CEOs in addressing sustainability?

There is an enormous opportunity for businesses operating in Africa. Africa is on a remarkable growth trajectory, with many analysts predicting economic growth to remain above 5 per cent for the foreseeable future. The opportunity for sustainability is great, largely due to the huge size of the challenges faced across the continent. With Africa following behind other regions in terms of development, it has the opportunity to learn from other areas and bypass some of the mistakes that have been made elsewhere. If African companies are able to effectively deliver products and services that respond to some of the social, economic and environmental challenges, we have no doubt that they will enjoy sustained growth and be key contributors to the future success of the continent.

Interview by Ronald Chawatama,  Animus Sustainability Portal (www.animus-csr.com)

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