February 20, 2020

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"Real" Sustainability: Tipping Points to Leadership

In India, Africa and beyond, companies are finally bringing social innovation to scale.


By David Wilcox

At the recent Harvard Business School Africa Business Conference, Ibukun Awosika, CEO of The Chair Center Group, spoke at a session on empowering women. She was forthright in her advice to an audience of young women who hope to make a difference in the future:

“You are all too comfortable to be dreaming.”

In the first “Real” Sustainability post, I suggested one path to sustainability was to focus resources on scaling innovation solutions and the first question to be asked is, “Are resources focused on the most innovative and scalable solution to this challenge?”

In the spirit of Awosika’s concern then, is the dream big enough?

Sustainability Innovation Needed

For corporations, this question is more important than ever. Recently released data from the Ceres Roadmap to Sustainability makes it clear that implementing innovative modelsRoadmap to sustainability is not yet a priority in most corporations:

Additional innovation is needed to drive sustainable products and services. Of the 419 companies evaluated for this expectation, 14 percent (57 companies) have formal programs to invest in and promote sustainability products and services, compared to 10 percent in 2012.”

The report’s conclusion is to the point:

"We are still not seeing the speed of change that is required – or the scale of innovation that is possible. Incremental progress in tackling global climate change and other sustainability threats is simply not enough.”

Jumpstarting Sustainability Innovation

Reading the Ceres report—and others—suggests sustainability innovation may need more jumpstarts from outside.

Most large companies maintain innovation groups and many have a chief innovation officer. These efforts bring a wide range of designers, entrepreneurs, technologists and other innovation gurus into the company to shift viewpoints, seek out partners and models, and break down silos. Why should it be any different for innovation around sustainability?

Three Possible New Approaches

The modest progress since the 2012 Roadmap argues that new approaches are needed. A few to consider:

  1. Partner with on-the-ground innovation and sustainability leaders – those working in the environments that will suffer most from food and water security and climate change – to bring the reality of these issues to the forefront.
  2. Gain a more global view of the challenges. IBM, Dow Corning, John Deere and many other companies are enabling their executives to volunteer in countries where their skills can solve a range of challenges. Choosing to focus talent on impactful sustainability solutions in Africa or Asia—where some of the worst outcomes of climate change will be seen—can open eyes about the global sustainability landscape.
  3. Shift talent and resources to social enterprises that can scale and build partnerships that use company and NGO platforms to drive greater investment and scale. This leverages more company capabilities to create progress that is more impactful and opens up dialogues about sustainability innovation inside the organization.

Getting to the Tipping Points

While progress is slow, the news isn't all bleak. As Carl Pope pointed out from the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship in April, there are some Sustainability tipping pointbright spots:

"Even six months ago I could have written, ‘we're still waiting.’ But somewhere around Christmas the tipping point was crossed.

"In the last six months, the Asian Development Bank, Venture Funder DFJ, the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation, Solar City, Khosla Ventures, Solar Mosaic, the Dutch and British Aid agencies, have all placed bets on off-grid renewables as a major growth sector.

"Customer counts that used to climb by hundreds a month now scale by the thousands and the tens of thousands. More than a million solar lanterns were sold last year in Africa by a single company. Households in India who ostensibly have grid power are emerging as the strongest customer base for higher end home solar systems, with the kilowatts to power not just lights and cell charging, but fans, laptops, TV's and refrigerators – because solar is more reliable than the grid. The mobile-phone revolution is coming to energy."

Corporate Backing a Critical Factor

Corporate backing could be a big plus in this area. With M-Pesa as the leader, cell phone companies are supporting “pay as you go” models. Major energy technology companies like GE and Siemens should partner to extend light everywhere, not just for those with hook-ups for turbine-generated electricity.

In fact any company with business in Africa or Asia can learn from supporting efforts that give African entrepreneurs and students the light they need to learn and to create jobs.

Scaling the Mobile Phone and Energy Revolution: Simpa Networks

“The mobile-phone revolution is coming to energy,” covers two markets and social challenges that are scaled or are in the process of scaling.

Learning how to serve the massive Indian market represents great sustainability innovation. Simpa Networks is one of the social enterprises taking on this challenge and building trust (something that many early entrants did not do) using models designed with that purpose. Schneider Electric is an early corporate partner providing design support and discounts on key components of the Simpa solar home system.

A second partner, the HILTI group has provided grants to accelerate product development and cordless power drills that are critical to high quality installation. Going from a few thousand customers to 30-40,000 customers across three Indian states is the next scale step.

Another interesting “pay-as-you-go” model will launch in Rwanda this fall. With financial support from the Dutch development bank, WakaWaka will distribute a powerful yet highly portable unit that requires no installation and will bring light and phone charging to several thousand individuals followed by tens of thousands.

JIVA: Sustainability that Changes Minds and Hearts

JIVA Pyxera Global sustainability partnership

The intersection of food, water and energy security presents many opportunities to engage with innovative organizations working on solutions. One way to start is to ask how the skills within your company could engage partners and co-develop models that can be tested at scale.

The leader in skills-based volunteering is Pyxera Global and their annual conference each April is a showcase of their corporate partners' skills-based efforts. Most of the leaders mentioned by Ceres in their report are also skills-based volunteer leaders.


Pyxera Global’s Integrated Community Development model enables communities to lead and own the efforts they will co-develop with Pyxera and the corporate volunteer team. For example, the Joint Initiative for Village Advancement (“JIVA”) is an integrated development program supported by the John Deere Foundation and implemented by Pyxera Global and local partners in three rural villages of Rajasthan, India.

JIVA means “livelihood” or “life” in the local dialect. JIVA’s approach looks at the system as a whole, working to address overlapping challenges, leverage more resources, and maximize participation.

Starting with income security, JIVA works with farmers to increase their agricultural productivity. JIVA’s “Train the Trainer” approach allows farmers to become change agents in their communities.

In addition, JIVA’s 2012 baseline study found that 72 percent of school-age youths had dropped out. Establishing after-school tutoring programs in each village now provides access to education during off-school hours. JIVA also trained local teams to construct new toilets and washbasins at village schools.

At the intersection of water and food security, JIVA also reconstructed an old defective check dam that is expected to recharge 100 percent of the villages’ wells. For sustainability, JIVA trains local carpenters and masons in construction and maintenance, and works with beneficiaries to develop long-term funding plans.

John Deere invests in their skills-based volunteering because their employees become better leaders while bringing something valuable to society. Seeing how these programs can expand to reach more villages is the next step.

Future Tipping Points

Not all the opportunities will be as obvious as using the sun to turn on the lights at night. But the right partners and investors now at the tipping point for off grid solar could light up Africa in just one decade.

The corporations that work with leading social entrepreneurs to come up with the single decade collaborations will enhance their leadership and innovation across multiple sustainability challenges.

There are ample opportunities to test at scale and to find new tipping points. Another promising challenge is bringing digital connectivity to the two billion people at the base of the pyramid.

Concero Connect

Concero Connect social entrepreneurship

Concero Connect, a Grameen social business, recently agreed with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the Universal Postal Union (UPU) to test technology in Post Offices in South Africa. Their program will enable content and transactions (not phone calls) to flow to and from villagers at 90 percent lower costs.

Using the existing postal infrastructure and out-of-commission satellites, Concero Connect will open up a range of sustainability tipping points in local services such as solar power, health, education, training and entrepreneurship. Energy savings will flow from local services, reduced need to travel and bypassing dependence on cell towers for content and transactions.

Searching for these tipping point opportunities in demanding environments is a unique kind of problem solving and one that can permanently change the way an individual sees the world. Organizations change when the leadership does, and it is the wisdom of problem solving leaders that will move companies beyond incremental thinking to serious sustainability innovation.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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