BFP: What do you do?
AW: I am the Group Head of Sustainable Development at SABMiller. My job is to help SABMiller understand the socio-economic and environmental issues they face as a business, and to identify the business risks associated with these issues as well as the opportunities they create. I work with partners both inside our business and with other organisations such as donors, NGOs and governments, to find the best ways to utilise these opportunities or address the challenges (there’s more on our work here).
In practice, this involves setting up partnerships on key sustainable development issues, for example partnering with the WWF and GIZ, part of the German government’s development agency, on our Water Futures programme which aims to address water scarcity; working with local smallholder farmers in countries like Tanzania and Zambia on supporting inclusive supply chains; and engaging with a wide range of stakeholders to help reduce the impacts of HIV/AIDS on our employees and their communities;
BFP: What is the best part about your job?
AW: Being able to connect senior business leaders in our Group with the most material social and environmental issues that matter to their business – in other words, engaging on a level that goes beyond philanthropic CSR. Not that CSR is not important – of course it has a valuable role to play – but I also need to show why these issues matter to the core business. I enjoy making that case.
BFP: What has been your greatest challenge?
AW: We have come a long way as businesses, governments, NGOs and donors in understanding how we can all work together towards common goals – but there is still much more to do. Many obstacles remain, due to the different agendas, different approaches, different languages and different timelines used by all these actors. I believe we’ve only scratched the surface: there is still enormous potential for partnerships to make a difference and have a real impact. The challenge has been to create opportunities for more partnerships; and also to extend existing partnerships to cover more markets, or to include more partners.
BFP: What has been the secret of your success?
AW: For me the most important skill is to listen: to the managing director about his most challenging business issues; to the government official about his delivery commitments; to donors about their programme priorities; to NGOs about the needs of their communities. Only by listening very carefully to each of the stakeholders can you identify intersections in objectives. Second, interpret the messages to find out what each party actually expects to get out of the process. Third, present your recommendations in the right context for each of the stakeholders you are dealing with, in a language that they can relate to.
BFP: If someone wants to do what you do, where should they start?
AW: Personally I completed a Master’s course with the Forum for the Future, which was a very good route to this line of work. This course is particularly good for covering issues from both sides of the spectrum (business and non-business). Whether you start from a business background or an NGO/government/donor background, it would be a good idea to get some real experience in the other sector. This kind of “cross-cultural” experience is critical for getting multi-stakeholder partnerships off the ground.
BFP: Finally: what do you hope to get out of being part of this community?
AW: Business Fights Poverty has developed a tremendous reputation and is a very efficient gathering place of like-minded people. The influence and reach of the network was demonstrated to me by a surprising surge in sales of my recent book (www.bigresponsibilities.org) after it was featured and debated on BFP – the response was much more noticeable than after a similar feature ran in a major UK newspaper.
There is clearly a lot of goodwill among the BFP community; the challenge is to optimise this goodwill and to provide maximum opportunities for members to interact around topics that are of interest to them.
I think the knowledge hubs have great potential to create more opportunities to engage, but they seem to be slow in getting up and running.
You can follow Andy Wales on twitter: @walesac