Photo: UNDP Japan, Sahba Sobhani and CEO of MUJI, Masaaki Kanai, at BCtA announcement

The Tipping Point: How Japanese Firms Can Shape the Inclusive Business Landscape

By Sahba Sobhani and Karen Newman

How Japanese Firms Can Shape the Inclusive Business Landscape

It was an honor to represent the Business Call to Action (BCtA) at a high-level side event last week in Japan—at the 5th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD V). The Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) hosted the event and supported Japan’s commitment and preparation for last week’s conference.

JICA organized seminars on inclusive development in Africa, which seemed an opportune time to announce that leading retailer MUJI has committed to the BCtA and its pro-business, anti-poverty agenda with plans to improve livelihoods by developing household products and capacity of local producers in Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, and Cambodia.

As a key proponent of inclusive business models, the BCtA—a multi-stakeholder initiative supported by key development agencies and housed at UNDP—serves as a platform for supporting companies from around the globe to devise core business initiatives that demonstrate dedication to eradicating poverty and bringing positive change to the developing world.

MUJI is the first Japanese retailer to join the BctA. We hope this will encourage other firms to recognize the value in exploring new and developing markets—in this case, in more transitional economies, where many local handicraft producers are women.

MUJI joins a growing portfolio of Japanese companies that have pledged through BCtA to upgrade skills of local suppliers, support local communities, farm production and advance industries by developing and selling products made from local raw materials. Other leading Japanese companies that have joined the BCtA include Unicharm, Itochu/Kurkku, and Sumitomo Chemical.

We hope to continue the dialogue with Japanese stakeholders to involve more private sector companies investing in poverty alleviation efforts in Africa as well as Asia and Latin America through inclusive business.

New reports bolster the case

These initiatives don’t happen in a vacuum. A new African Facility Markets (AFIM) Report draws on 43 in-depth case studies and a database of 600 institutions to underscore how involving low-income communities in markets and businesses across Africa is essential for economic growth and sustainable development. This is the first UNDP study of inclusive businesses in sub-Saharan Africa and region’s support systems. It shows that involving low-income communities in markets and businesses across Africa is essential for economic growth to translate into sustainable development.

Commitments such as MUJI’s signify a real shift in thinking, especially as Japanese companies have historically had a strong market presence in developing Asia and Latin America. Japanese firms also have held a strong interest in social responsibility and focused on seemingly “safer,” more traditional markets, with only a few companies working to integrate low-income populations or BoP into their supply chains and core businesses.

As in other developed countries, a strong knowledge of the BOP has often been limited to corporate social responsibility activities. But recent events signal that perhaps the tide is turning, and more sustainable opportunities and jobs are in the works.


The meeting last week served as an exciting reminder of this ongoing development. Leaders from 51 African nations and development practitioners attended the three-day conference, which focused not only on alleviating poverty but also on leveraging recent optimism about African economies.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged up to 3.2 trillion yen in public- and private-sector projects to assist African development, reflecting sentiment in much of the donor and development community in favor of enhanced cooperation between the private sector and government.

The conference coincided with the High Level Panel report on the post-2015 development priorities. The Report—which will guide the planning and framework for development goals beyond the MDG target of 2015—focused squarely on equity, jobs, and rights. Perhaps we’re nearing a tipping point, at which meaningful engagement by the private sector in development is simply the norm.

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