Community Impact: A Sustainable Approach (Tabiasi Women's Enterprise Centre)


All community impact is not created equal. Charity and philanthropy are too often one and done, with minimal sustainable impact. Far better to create sustainable and replicable impact by aligning business, social and environmental impact, and by fostering local ownership and engagement.

It is often much easier just to give something, bask in the appreciation and adoration of the recipient and then rush to tell the world how you and your business care so much and do so much, selflessly giving to communities and local causes. A short term PR stunt and nothing more.

That may be a good approach if your objective is to feed your ego and try to make yourself and your company seem good in the short term, but it is not smart and not efficient. Not smart for your business and not smart for the community and not efficient at creating value. A short-term gain, too often achieved at the cost of local pride and ownership, and long-term impact, and, at the cost of business value.

How then to do it? Impact Sustainability takes planning, strategy and commitment, from all stakeholders. Efficiently creating and integrating business, social and environmental value takes planning, strategy and strategic frameworks. Let me use a real live case as an example. A project that I am actually implementing right now.

Baraka Shea Butter is beginning to work in a new community with a new group of women who gather and prepare shea nuts (seeds) for us to make into shea butter. Our business objective is to secure a steady source of high-quality shea nuts that we can use for making organic Baraka Shea Butter. And to set the process up in a way that will create meaningful local impact and benefits for the hard-working women who gather and prepare the nuts. We want to do what we can to ensure they have the dignity of income and can support their children and families.

Our business model is not based on charity, but on a mutually beneficial relationship that will build and grow over time. We will pay the women a fair price for what they do, and we will look for ways that we can collaborate with them to support other socio-economic objectives like education, healthcare and community development.

Our research and analysis, conducted over numerous visits spread out over the last year, revealed that the women didn’t have a group workspace for preparation, cleaning, washing, drying and preparing and storing crops of any kind. Their economic survival depended on working with a variety of plants and crops in season, using each to earn a little income. From groundnuts (peanuts) to maize to shea nuts to moringa to other local plants, seeds and herbs. Each in its season, each helping to generate a bit of income to be used for their children’s education and health and other family costs.

The women tended to work in their yards, having to clear space to use each time they worked. Not only was this extra work and cost them productivity, but it also made it nearly impossible to comply with proper hygiene and health requirements, let alone the more strict requirements of organic certification.

Lack of a local work centre meant the women had to work harder and yet earned less. We realized that helping to develop a local Women’s Enterprise Centre would have long-term impacts for the women. Amongst other things it would:

  • Make their work more productive
  • Improve the quality of their output
  • Increase their production
  • Increase their income
  • Make their work more social by creating space where more could work together
  • Give them the infrastructure to support organic certification

The Women’s Enterprise Centre wouldn’t just create value for the local women. Baraka isn’t a charity, doling out assistance. Its operational strategy is such that it can capture business value from community impact investments, enabling the company to ‘punch above its weight’ in terms of impact. That is because the company has built community impact into it’s brand story and uses it to capture and retain customers and help its customers to capture and retain customers.

If the story ended there it would be a nice story of mutual impact and benefit, an alignment of social and business value that benefits all parties. But, Baraka’s approach is to take the analysis further, asking how this project can be done in a way that minimizes environmental impact and maximizes community benefits and impact.

The ‘easy’ way would be to simply hire a contractor to build the workspace for processing, cleaning, drying and preparing and a warehouse for storing equipment and product. As this was a remote community they didn’t have a local contractor so it would have meant someone coming from the regional capital to do the construction using minimal local labour and materials. A cement workspace and warehouse would be constructed quickly.

Baraka’s analysis identified additional sustainability impact potential that would be realized by utilizing local workers and expertise, as well as local building material where possible. While it made sense to use cement for the workspace pad and the foundation and floor for the warehouse, it was possible and even desirable to use local made mud bricks for the building itself. This had several additional benefits including:

  • Reduced environmental impact, mud bricks are made with solar energy and local materials (clay and water), no transport costs (or carbon impact), no environmental impact from making and transporting cement
  • Increased local benefit. Baraka worked with the men of the community who organized themselves and ‘contracted’ to build the warehouse
  • Reduced cash cost for Baraka (but more time/supervision cost)
  • Enhanced marketing/branding story and content for Baraka
  • Increased local ‘ownership of the facility, including for the women.

On the latter, Baraka realized from experience that simply building the enterprise centre and giving it to the women to use detracted from local ownership and fostered dependency thinking. It wasn’t good given Baraka’s objective of fostering proud and independent local women’s groups.

A meeting was held with the women’s group to discuss the project and the need for them to contribute. After much discussion of various ways, they could contribute the women agreed to provide water for the construction. They will carry it by hand (in basins on balanced on their head) from the local well to the construction area where it is used to make the mud bricks and cement pad. Supplying water was something they could do at no cash cost and something that fit within their traditional community role and work structure.

This project is still going on – construction is happening as I write this, but we expect it will create a Women’s Enterprise Centre that will make a difference in the women’s lives and their ability to earn income. Simultaneously, it will support Baraka’s procurement of high-quality organic shea nuts. And, it will do it all in a way that minimizes environmental impact, maximizes local ownership and value and enhances shareholder value and reputational capital for Baraka.

This is an example of Impact Sustainability. An example of how to pragmatically apply the strategy of integrating and optimizing value and benefits along social, community, business and environment dimensions. Each step was analyzed and considered, keeping in mind constraints, issues and opportunities and with a focus on creating impacts and benefits that would sustain over time. No quick wins. No ego fixes. Just strategic impact and value. That is Impact Sustainability.

To see a Live From the Field video of the Tabiasi Women’s Enterprise Centre click here

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