Sustainable Enterprise Development: From Books to Real Life in Malawi
Malawi — Uniterra
For the past 4 years I have studied International Development at the University of Waterloo. I have spent these years learning from books and lectures about the many ‘wicked problems’ that the world faces; including issues like climate change, poverty, and income inequality. These topics, and ways in which they are working to be solved fascinated me in lectures. However, I was most looking forward to this year (my final year) where I would step outside the classroom and complete a 7 month placement learning first-hand how these development issues apply in the “real world”.
Two months ago this moment finally came when I landed in the bustling city of Blantyre Malawi, my home and place of work for the year. Here, I work with the Employers Consultative Association of Malawi (ECAM), an organization which promotes, guides, and protects employer’s interests in socio-economic issues. My role as the Marketing Officer for Youth Empowerment is mainly to help promote the importance of internships to employers, as well as connect students with internship programs in order to decrease rates of youth unemployment and create economic sustainability.
Sustainability can be defined as the focus of meeting the needs of the current population without compromising future generations from meeting their needs. When discussing sustainability in the classroom we focused on social sustainability, environmental sustainability and economic sustainability. These are also called the three Ps of sustainable development: people, planet and profit. The idea of the three Ps is to design development projects that will create greater opportunity for current populations while being self-sustaining, and not resulting in any issues or degradation to sources of livelihood, personal welfare or the environment.
The theory of sustainability can further be applied strictly to the private sector as a development practice called sustainable enterprise. Sustainable enterprise development applies the three Ps to all areas of business and business decisions. For example, a sustainable enterprise meets the needs of present and future generations of customers, employers and stakeholders while accelerating positive social change, protecting the environment and enhancing the economy through its business performance.
Sustainable enterprise development is at the forefront of ECAM’s mission in Malawi. The goal of our team at ECAM is to help foster and enable an environment that will allow businesses to excel economically in current political climates, while upholding to practices that do not inflict harm to social or environmental welfare. ECAM attempts to accomplish these goals by representing employers in all government decisions concerning labour laws and issues. For example, ECAM advices the ministry on processes such as revising minimum wage, international labour standards and human resource development. By representing employers in these governmental decisions ECAM gives a voice to employers, allowing businesses to be heard by the government, develop and run sustainably. Our team also manages development programmes that focus on creating positive social, environmental and economic change. ARISE (achieving reduction of child labour in support of education) is a project that ECAM took on to address the high rates of child labour used in Malawi’s tobacco industry. This project encourages businesses to fund school programmes that help keep children in school, while also training youth for high skill positions; creating a future climate of higher skilled workers. Furthermore, our team manages a youth internship programme called Jobs For Youth (J4Y); a project that I have been most heavily involved with. The idea of J4Y is to give youth practical work experience by connecting them with employers offering internships and apprenticeships. My team’s goal in implementing this project is to reduce the high rate of youth unemployment while simultaneously offering businesses fresh talent, and a more productive work force. In theory the J4Y project would, therefore, create an environment of sustainable enterprise development by giving economic opportunity to youth and by increasing the human capital of business to enhance the current and future economy.
While learning about sustainability and sustainable enterprise development in the classroom gave me a good understanding of the context and theory behind what ECAM is striving to do, I have found that in practice sustainable enterprise development is much more complex than I had anticipated. The theory that I learned behind social enterprise development tends to oversimplify the system of stakeholders, funding sources and moving parts that is needed for an organization to help foster economic, social and environmental sustainability. For example, the J4Y programme requires governmental funding in order to cover programme costs, give interns a small monthly salary, and pay employers for their training equipment. While the Government of Malawi had promised to release funding to our team in early September it has continued to delay funds, and given ECAM more hoops to jump through in order to stay approved. As a result, little has been able to be done to move the programme forward in the last few months, and ECAM has had to put the project on hold until further notice. Therefore, until funding is released and the project can resume, our team has been unable to work towards our goals of employing 100 youth interns, and furthering Blantyre’s human and economic capital. Furthermore, funding cuts to power companies means that Blantyre experiences daily power outages. As a result, ECAM is often without power and access to internet for hours per day, meaning our ability to perform all tasks that enable sustainable enterprise development is greatly slowed.
The organizational issues that ECAM faces has given me new insight into the challenges of working towards sustainable enterprise development. I was expecting that running programmes that foster sustainability in business would be very complex and challenging. However, I had not anticipated the complications that would arise before even being able to implement these programmes. Therefore, I now understand that enabling an environment for economic sustainability can be a slow process that is dependent upon other systematic factors: sustainable enterprise is dependent on good governance which is dependent upon other economic and social factors.
Going forward, I now know that working towards sustainable enterprise development requires an understanding of complex political and social climates. While ECAM faces obstacles due to governmental funding, a similar organization in Kenya or Uganda might face very different challenges when trying to foster an environment for sustainable enterprise development. Therefore, a development professional must change their understanding depending on the context in which they are working, and know that in order to make strides toward sustainable enterprise development, progress also needs to be made to other areas and stakeholders involved in the complex system of a country’s economy.