/ 31 October 2022

Develop socially responsible business leaders for South Africa’s future

Oxford Corner
Oxford Corner. Business schools need to do more to ignite the social conscience of our future leaders.

As I and my fellow South Africans struggle to adjust to the consequences of our power crisis, I am heartened by the story of Koaile Monaheng, a graduate student from Lesotho. His company, Khantša Energy, has been shortlisted for an award for its work bringing solar-powered energy to Lesotho’s highlands. 

So far, the company has installed solar systems at six health centres and in 36 households, with families paying for their power according to a PayAsYouGo model.

In a world beset with challenges, Monaheng’s story is a literal shining light. He is exactly the kind of innovative business leader we need to create solutions with purpose. But how do we create better leaders?

This was a key point of discussion at the 2022 Association of MBAs and Business Graduates conference held in Portugal. Conference delegates were told that business schools are responsible for developing leaders of the future who are more attuned to the importance of corporate social responsibility and sustainability, which has come a long way, especially over the past three decades, with companies increasingly under pressure to show their commitment to the environment, communities, and social upliftment. 

And this is even more pertinent in South Africa, the most unequal country in the world, where 10% of the population owns up to 80% of the wealth, and access to decent education and health services is a struggle for the majority.

Here in South Africa, we need to show our business students the need to not only make a profit but to add the kind of value that is harder to show on a spreadsheet — say, the importance of supporting school feeding programmes. The link to improved educational outcomes may not be easy to quantify right away but there is enough evidence to show that hungry children perform worse at school compared to children who receive proper meals daily.

Over the past few years, we have seen business schools around the world start to emphasise sustainability, ethical leadership, and social responsibility. Lecturers point out corporate social responsibility is a moral obligation, but there is also a business case to be made: giving back is attractive to both customers and employees, engendering loyalty and improving staff retention. Socially responsible companies are also more appealing to investors, as this improves the overall reputation of a brand or organisation.

One survey by the Financial Times looked at how business schools around the world contributed to or worked with social responsibility. It examined the results from various categories, from promoting research and writing business case studies on sustainability and finance, to researching the relationship between minimum wage and quality of life. There is evidence that such research contributed to changing minimum wage policy in countries like South Africa, making a tangible impact.

Student projects also play a role in preparing future business leaders to incorporate social responsibility into their business strategy. At Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in China, faculty and students helped local villagers market goji berries, increasing income for local farmers by a third.

In South Africa, Milpark Business School introduced a social responsibility and environmental management module into their MBA programme. Students are required to choose a charity and compile an integrated proposal, which is presented to a panel at the end of the model. The winning pitch receives a donation from Milpark Education. In 2022, this resulted in a R300 000 contribution to Feenix, an organisation which helps students fund tertiary education.

This kind of immersive experience results in a mind shift for students, as they connect on a deeper level with the charities. For MBA graduate Gail Jaber, it meant becoming aware of the power of conscious giving, and the reciprocal benefits of doing good. 

“Giving to your community doesn’t necessarily mean spending money on it,” says Jaber. “There are more ways to give back — whether it’s with your time or skill. The most important thing in life is giving. It supports our mental, emotional, and spiritual development.”

We need business leaders like Jaber to be looking for ways to support communities while also stimulating the economy. We need people like Monaheng, whose innovative concept has resulted in solar lights that provide energy for five lightbulbs and charging ports that last up to eight hours.

When it comes to the good that businesses can do, the sky is the limit. As Anita Roddick, founder of the hugely successful Body Shop chain once said: “There is no more powerful institution in society than business … The business of business should not be about money, it should be about responsibility. It should be about public good, not private greed.”

This is a lesson we should be teaching to future business leaders of our country. They are the ones who will help keep the lights on — while bringing us hope where we need it most.

Nazmira Sayed is a senior lecturer at the Milpark Business School.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.