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Are African businesses finally ready to go green?

Those of you keeping an eye on Africa’s varying eco credentials over the past few years may have noticed an exciting trend beginning to emerge of late. We’ve known for some time that concern for ethical consumerism was on the rise among African shoppers – particularly in the continent’s trend-setting green hubs like Cape Town – but now it appears that big business may finally be getting in on the act.

Of course, organisations like Fairtrade and the HORTGRO growers’ association have previously enjoyed significant successes in pushing sustainability and locally sourced produce higher up the African consumer agenda. Indeed, HORTGRO’s ongoing Beautiful Country, Beautiful Fruit campaign, which champions the value of an ethical supply chain behind Africa’s worldwide stone fruit exports, has been ticking over since 2009. In that time, they’ve even managed to exert an impressive influence over major global retailers such as Tesco in the UK.

Fairtrade, too, have released figures in the past 18 months that reveal how its African revenues have snowballed since launching on the domestic market in 2010: a report released last year showed that between 2013-14 alone, its rooibos tea sales grew by 65%, along with impressive jumps in the performance of Fairtrade coffee (23%) and wine (18%).

Moreover, Fairtrade’s current LABELWISE campaign also echoes this sense of increased traction in Africa’s domestic grocery markets, where it says growing numbers of shoppers are choosing to make easy swaps to achieve a ‘greener’ shopping list. Recent press releases from the LABELWISE initiative note that today’s African consumers are expressing more and more interest in ‘challenges related to deforestation, climate change and overfishing, unethical labour practices and sharing of benefits’.

It seems, then, that a developing awareness has been building slowly since 2010 – but over the past 12 months, things appear to have accelerated dramatically. The first real sign that a real sea change might be brewing came at last year’s Sustainable Brands conference in Cape Town, where multinational packaging giants Tetra Pak shared a stage with South African Airways and the Forest Stewardship Council to present a keynote address based on ‘the importance of building market demand from environmentally conscious consumers’.

At the conference, Tetra Pak revealed the results of their own African market research, which showed that 63% of South Africans believe people pay attention to ecolabels. This, it was noted, placed South Africans ahead of consumers in India, China, the UK, and Turkey in similar surveys.

The key implication, according to representatives of the three corporations presenting the report, was that ‘society’s growing sense of responsibility for the environment opens up doors to consumer-focused companies across all industries to incorporate sustainability within their products and policies’. In other words, big business is starting to take note of the fact that improved eco credentials may actually increase their profits.

Fast forward to last month, and the World Travel Market Africa (WTMA) expo in Cape Town. We all expected the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to feature on the agenda, of course – 2017 is the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, after all – but the extent to which the SDG’s dominated discussion and planning between business leaders was genuinely exciting, and suggested a very bright future for Africa.

Between lattes at the nearby Origin Coffee Roasting franchise (serving ‘the best coffee in the world, poured by African baristas, using beans roasted with pride in Africa’ according to its website), WTMA delegates whittled down a list of Responsible Tourism Award winners that ultimately namechecked a wide range of ethical and sustainable African ventures, including Mozambique’s Ilha Blue Island Safaris, Namibia’s Damaraland Camp and the MTN Bushfire festival in Swaziland.

This apparent evidence for the increasing success of green consumerism in Africa also chimes with the findings of a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers African network, whose own study last year showed that 91% of citizens felt it was ‘important for businesses to sign up to the SDGs’. Even more importantly, the same report noted that 87% of businesses were aware of their customers’ concerns and were gearing up to address them directly.

The fact that this sort of enterprise and awareness is rapidly spreading beyond South Africa and into other areas of the continent – not to mention onto a fast-growing number of business conference agendas – is hugely encouraging, and bodes well indeed for Africa’s long-neglected environmental future, from grassroots and community level all the way up to the board room.

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