Five Ways Business Can Help to Change the World

Five Ways Business Can Help to Change the World

Can business help to change the world? Fortune thinks so. The magazine has published its first list of the top companies - from car manufacturers to healthcare organisations and mobile phone operators - that are trying to do well by doing good. According to Fortune, these 51 companies have made a sizeable impact on major global social or environmental problems as part of their competitive strategy

A company's commercial success and social progress are not mutually exclusive. By doing what business does best - using its innovation, firepower and reach to create prosperity - both industry and the society in which it operates can thrive.

Next month the UN will progress an ambitious new sustainable development agenda to defeat extreme poverty by 2030. If fulfilled, this will enable communities to prosper - and create a healthier marketplace for industry. So business plays an integral part in delivering sustainable development. Here are my five ways in which business can help to change the world:

Create inclusive systems to unlock prosperity

Growing up in Kenya, I believed we were poor because we were cashless. But we had land, cattle and crops. There just weren't inclusive systems to encourage us to convert our 'wealth' to cash currency. With technologies such as M-Pesa provided by Kenyan mobile phone company, Safaricom, people excluded from the formal banking sector now hold money on their cell phones. With the touch of a button, a woman in Moyale can pay for a good or service in Mombasa - a hospital bill for a husband, or grocery shopping. No wonder Vodafone and Safaricom take top billing on Fortune's list. They have helped unlock the financial potential of millions of people across East Africa and beyond. Some of the fastest-growing global businesses such as Airbnb have a strong element of inclusivity.

Drive and scale innovation inside and out

Business can be a driver and champion of the innovation needed to achieve sustainable development. The global community will simply not meet the goals for sustainable development with the tools currently at our disposal. New tools - from innovative medicines to progressive business models - will contribute to making sustainable development a reality. Fortune's list illustrates that companies can be a great incubator for this kind of innovation - both inside and outside their own walls. Business can offer the intellectual and financial resources to bring exciting ideas to life, be that progressing a malaria vaccine, clean energy or micro-loans.

Enable business big and small to play its part

Innovation is not limited to big business. Take healthcare. A rural pharmacy in Kenya should have the potential to sell essential healthcare products at an affordable price. Large companies can facilitate this by capping the price of medicines, and focusing on price-volume trade-offs. But more must be done for smaller enterprises too, augmenting government efforts. How can multinationals support the small and medium-sized businesses along their value chains - eg. distributors and wholesalers who move products in bulk - delivering goods to the sole traders in small communities? How to increase the numbers of these small traders closer to patients? Smaller enterprises will be the engine of job creation and prosperity, so we need to help them grow and play an integral part in the economic ecosystem.

Generate healthier lives and livelihoods

A country's most important asset is its human capital. Sound investment in health and education is a fundamental characteristic of prosperous nations. Health is one goal amongst the proposed global goals for sustainable development. A child who is treated early for malaria will hopefully have a better chance of doing well in school, getting a job and contributing to their nation's development for many years. Of course, healthcare companies can contribute to this by developing and making available the products and services to help people stay healthy. But all sectors can benefit from investing in healthcare. A healthy population leads to a stronger economy. So it makes sense for the private as well as the public sector to take a stake in improving health outcomes - a business can invest in health insurance for its own employees, invest in training frontline health workers or support supply chains that help medicines reach those who need them.

Build trust and partner

No institution is an island. Business and NGOs had long regarded each other with suspicion. But gradually, they have come to realise that they are often aiming for the same goal - to create value for individuals and societies, and to help communities thrive in a sustainable way. Our chances of achieving this are greater if we pull together, pooling our complementary skills and resources. This has resulted in some unexpected partnerships - like GSK and Save the Children working together to help develop child-friendly medicines and train health workers. While unusual and challenging to pull off, this kind of lateral partnership has huge potential.

None of this will be easy, nor will it happen overnight. And there lies one of the biggest hurdles - short-termism. Given the cycles of quarterly reporting, it is easy to be myopic and not consider the long-term change business can effect by reaching more people in different, often untraditional markets. But taking the plunge, investing in innovation and shaking up business models to help reach those at the bottom of the pyramid can ultimately enable both communities and industry to flourish.


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