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Africa’s Hidden Gems – Creating innovative business solutions to Sustainability Challenges

Africa is brimming with small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) leading the charge in tackling some of the continent’s most pressing Sustainability challenges in unique and innovative ways. They bring to mind the saying “little drops of water make a mighty ocean”. We call them “Africa’s hidden gems” because for the most part they stay undiscovered and unrecognised.

In Africa, SMEs make up 90% of the private sector, create between 60-80% of jobs and contribute 40-50% of most African GDP. They are quite simply the backbone of the continent’s economy.

In a new series, we will be shining a spotlight on some of Africa's hidden gems that are contributing to achieving the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs).

Through interviews with the founders of these enterprises, we will explore:

  • their ‘Why?’ – what motivates them and the challenges their businesses have been set up to meet;

  • their ‘How?’ – how they run their business to meet those challenges; and

  • their ‘What?’ – their creative solutions to those challenges.

In looking at their ‘How?’ we will also discuss:

  • the challenges they have faced in setting up and running their businesses,

  • what they have done to overcome these challenges, and

  • the support they will need in the future.

We will examine the impact they are having on their communities and the wider continent, and how they are paving the way for a more sustainable future.

An example of one of these hidden gems is duaba serwa, a Ghanaian fashion brand. The company is founded and run by Nelly Hagan who counts Lupita Nyong’o among her clients.

In the fashion and textiles sector, offcuts of material are creating a huge sustainability challenge with a whopping 15 percent of material being discarded as offcuts and often sent to landfill. Nelly has come up with a creative solution to waste management. She converts what would otherwise be waste material into ‘origami textures’ – or small triangles – that are then sewn together to create beautiful items of clothing.

In today's world, where sustainability and ethical business practices are becoming increasingly important to consumers, brands like duaba serwa are setting an example in a small but innovative way of how the fashion industry can become more sustainable.

Rethinking and reframing what ESG means in Africa means becoming more realistic about what these SMEs are already doing and can do. Rather than imposing standards or criteria which may not be appropriate for them, we should be focusing on building on the strengths and innovations of African SMEs - empowering them to make an even greater impact in their countries and communities.

African SMEs have demonstrated remarkable resilience and creativity, building sustainable businesses that benefit both their employees and communities. From grassroots social enterprises to tech startups, they are proving that a strong commitment to social responsibility and sustainability can go hand in hand with commercial success.

For African businesses, ESG is not just a box-ticking exercise or a set of external standards to comply with; it reflects their deep-rooted cultural values of natural resource management and social responsibility. By embracing ESG in a way that aligns with the variety of cultural values across the continent, these businesses are paving the way for a more holistic and sustainable approach to business that benefits both people and the planet.

By showcasing the creativity, ingenuity, and entrepreneurial spirit of these businesses we hope to amplify their voices and share their experiences.

Join and contribute to our conversation. If you are or know of an otherwise hidden gem, do share your story with us.

Written by Rosalind Kainyah MBE and Helen Stickler. Rosalind is an authority on Sustainability and responsible business with over 30 years of combined legal, international, executive and board level experience. Her focus and passion is supporting African businesses to operate sustainably and profitably. Helen is the Co-Founder of Triplo ESG, a Sustainability advice platform that empowers smaller businesses.


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