'Sustainable development is your business' — a multistakeholder approach

Arid Lands Information Network facilitates information and knowledge exchange on small-scale sustainable agriculture, natural resources management, climate change adaptation and other issues in remote communities in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. To ensure sustainable development, stakeholders need to work together to protect the land and its resources for the good of all. Photo by: Gates Foundation / CC BY-NC-ND

How do we ensure that development is truly sustainable? In this of all years, the question is surely at the forefront of many minds among the global development community as it embarks on a process of finalizing a post-2015 agenda and its associated sustainable development goals.

The first step is of course to recognize each and everyone’s share, interests and stake in the “business” of development, as well their potential added value in contributing toward making it more sustainable.

One way to get the most out of a multistakeholder engagement in sustainable development is to provide the space to work together on policies. In the case of Botswana, where Devex recently attended the Annual Democracy Forum 2014, the government had set up a specific cross-ministries technical working group open to civil society and the private sector. This, Devex learned, was aimed at ensuring that the concept of sustainability is mainstreamed within the 11th National Development Plan and its new vision beyond 2016, currently under elaboration.

As the only media participant present at the consultation workshop, Devex was able to witness heated discussions between participants representing organizations as diverse as the ministries of environment, national defense and security, infrastructure, local governance, nongovernmental organizations and the U.N. Development Program on how to ensure that the plan “is built on the foundation of sustainable development.”

‘Sustainable development is your business’

In his opening intervention, professor Barry Dalal-Clayton, director at Environment and Development Services International, reminded the diverse range of participants about their shared responsibility for protecting resources for the good of all.

“If we leave it to the environment sector to deal with sustainable development, they are not going to look at social or governance issues,” UNDP Technical Specialist Muyeye Chambwera said. A ministry representative agreed, pointing at the value that land had for her continent, explaining that “to us Africans, land is more than a way of making your living — it is a heritage, it is your identity.”

While there seemed to be general consensus about the need to work together to protect this land and its resources for the good of all, some representatives urged the workshop organizers to raise awareness about it among the country’s top decision-makers. After all, they argued, they are the ones that really need to understand this issue as they will ultimately decide on what projects to adopt — and keep — going forward.

So how can we convince these key decision-makers about the cause? By showing them value for money.

Dalal-Clayton gave the example of the Okavango Delta, an area shared by three countries including Botswana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and “undoubtedly one of the finest tourism products in the region.”

“In order to be able to continue benefiting from tourism activities in the area, regional initiatives aimed at establishing a consolidated, cross-border approach toward sustainable packaging of tourism products are needed,” he explained.

But governance and sound management remain key challenges in Botswana. The government has a tendency to prioritize physical infrastructure, equipment and facilities over investments in human capital and expertise needed for effective state reforms.

“We are doing buildings for the sake of buildings, whereas our focus should be on outcomes rather than outputs,” Chambwera said.

Focusing on human resources and expertise for sustainable development does not have to be costly, he argued, especially if we engage civil society and the private sector. But the representation of both civil society and private sector actors in the workshop meeting was strikingly scarce, so inevitably the question arose: how can we incentivize civil society and the private sector to participate and make their contributions?

Give and take relationship

Some ministry participants claimed civil society itself needed to be more organized. The government should be able to trust that those major umbrella organizations usually invited to policymaking processes would not only report back to their constituencies, but also rotate their structures or delegate their secretariat’s mandate of representation to members of the network, where needed.

“We have been trying very hard to bring them on board … but the message sent to CSO platforms is not adequately passed onto its members,” one ministry representative said.

But one of the two NGOs represented in the meeting explained that their members are often volunteers with full-time jobs, making it difficult to participate in workshops if these are held during office hours.

“If participation is to be secured, better timing and perhaps attendance allowances should be considered,” the representative said. At the very least, NGO participants argued, appropriate follow-up should be given by the government to CSO recommendations expressed during the consultations. There should be give and take, but while the government has been inviting CSOs to consultations and using their recommendations, it has yet to provide feedback to these civil society groups.

Understanding of policies and decision-making is another perceived barrier.

“We need to empower communities to participate in decision-making processes, to educate the people so that they know what to ask for,” said one CSO representative.

Ministry participants said there have been government efforts to empower communities, for example through regular training for village development committees. However, as this is part of a long-term process, results would not be seen overnight.

And what about the private sector’s role?

‘Wild foods’ for thought and for sale

It was in situ, against the backdrop of a team of dedicated and work-focused factory employees and buzzing machinery that we spoke to Frank Taylor, the founder and managing director of various sustainable health food companies located at the outskirts of Gaborone, to find out how the private sector can play a role for sustainable development.

Taylor and his team started out as an informal NGO in 1981 to research plant-based resources in Botswana, which had economic potential. Soon, he established a trust for pharmaceutical products made from medicinal plants native to Botswana, including devil’s claw. About a decade later, Taylor founded Wild Fruits of Africa, a private company manufacturing healthy snacks and drinks made out of sustainably harvested indigenous fruits, notably marula. In 2007, Taylor broadened his activities by setting up WildFoods, a rural community-based business providing the rural poor with income-generating opportunities by sustainably harvesting the wild resources in their areas.

Today, the company employs 17 workers and five management staff, “plus, of course, all the small producers and their families at community level benefiting from harvesting and selling us their raw material, as well as from seed banks we are setting up,” the businessman explained.

His recipe for success? Going into the agro-food industry in a country like Botswana, which had long been considered as a cattle rather than an agro-farming country due to its harsh, dry climate, was certainly a daring enterprise. It required innovative thinking and research, as well as creative approaches on how to make native natural resources appealing to local and international consumers.

“People are fascinated by the wild fruit taste,” Taylor explained. Promoting the products’ health benefits is also important, as marula for example has four times as much vitamin C as oranges and is high in dietary fiber.

Nearly 80-year-old Taylor’s drive and motivation is to see rural people earn a regular monthly income. While this very noble objective may not be shared by all private sector actors, the concept seems to be working, since WildFoods is expected to become profitable by the middle of next year, and it may even offer interesting investment opportunities for the purely “for-profit”-minded.

WildFoods products are currently being distributed to supermarkets, craft stores and on airlines in Botswana and South Africa. Taylor hopes to increase distribution to game reserve lodges in those countries.

The shift to for-profit

“I realized over the years that NGOs were coming in and then disappearing,” Taylor said of his move from nonprofit to for-profit. “The reason being that to keep going they needed to have new projects all the time to cover their overhead costs — but it was difficult to constantly come up with new project ideas.”

His idea was to set up a commercial operation, which would eventually allow him to set up a shareholder trust once it was making a profit. NGOs would then get a share of profits toward management, on condition that acceptable management standards were maintained.

Taylor however also founded a new nonprofit, Field Products Research and Development, to complement for-profit work by providing it with new findings from superior plant research. Interestingly enough, this nonprofit allowed Taylor to become a founding member of BOCONGO, now Botswana’s largest CSO platform.

According to Taylor, the platform’s work has had limited results so far, because there is a need for considerable improvement of the communication between the secretariat and members, as well as reporting back to its constituencies. This opinion seems to mirror the views expressed by participants in the governmental consultation workshop. Considering the immense added value that Taylor’s organization, in conjunction with WildFoods, could bring to the policymaking table, the idea of exploring rotational and delegating leadership structures for the CSO platform’s work seems all the more relevant.

Taylor also echoed another view expressed during the national consultation meeting that “Botswana has very good infrastructure — huge hospitals, first-class equipment at universities — but they cannot use it due to a lack of qualified personnel.”

He faced this challenge himself when he struggled to find local managers for one of his companies, so we asked him how he can ensure sustainability and local ownership of his businesses without adequate expertise.

“One idea is that I want to turn Field Products Research into a research institute — a facility receiving students from overseas interested in researching new ways of food processing — we would be a facilitator, provide accommodation and the necessary permits against a fee that would be a good source of income. At the same, we would benefit from the new expertise coming in,” Taylor said. Previous experience in that direction had shown good results.

Taylor’s own energy and ambitions seem unstoppable, although he admitted through what looked like an open invitation for expressions of interests that he was not a “born manager” but rather an innovator.

“I would love to get a professional manager in to take over some of my work,” the entrepreneur conceded, “and I would like to stop having the stress of looking for money.” As an innovator, he said he already had a number of new ideas for boosting his sustainable health food business and creating more jobs, but needs a donor to help with the startup.

How can we incentivize civil society and the private sector to participate and make their contributions to the “business” of sustainable development? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Sibylle Koenig

    Sibylle Koenig is a development consultant and policy adviser with 10 years of experience in managing, monitoring and evaluating international aid programs and grant schemes, as well as advocacy. She has worked for a variety of organizations, including the European Commission, U.N. and bilateral aid agencies and NGOs in Latin America (4 years) and Europe, with extensive work travel to Africa (Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique, Kenya, Botswana) and Asia (Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, India, South Korea).