“If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.” Kwena Mabotja, Global Director Purpose and Sustainability Marketing at SAP, talks about sustainable business in her home country of South Africa and beyond. Purpose and responsibility are not only possible for corporates, but absolutely necessary
by Natascha Zeljko | 22 Apr, 2021
Sustainability is the key issue of our times. In some people's minds, it's still an either/or conversation: either business or social and environmental responsibility. What is your take on this?
It’s no longer enough to think about business, society and the environment in isolation. For example, as businesses, if we don't take care of society and people, we won't have employees. We won't have consumers. Also, we find that consumers are becoming increasingly intentional about supporting companies that are sustainable, therefore there are business reasons to show value creation across the economy, across society and across the environment. As a society, it is important that we protect the environment to help avoid ecological disaster in the years ahead. Business and sustainability have become intertwined as more and more organizations are embedding Purpose and Sustainability as part of their core strategies and operations.
When did companies start taking these issues seriously? What was the tipping point?
The pandemic has really accelerated social and environmental challenges. Within the context of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), the world is realizing that to achieve the Goals by 2030, we can all come together and bring our collective influence and resources to accelerate change. It has shown us what's important, and how crucial it is for us to come together and build a better world. One that can allow us to be more resilient. So to prevent future crises from happening, being sustainable and responsible as businesses is crucial.
The United Nations' 17 SDGs are all important – but do you find any of them particularly pressing?
It's difficult to say that one is more pressing than the other, because I believe that the goals are interlinked. When you influence gender equality in a society, you're creating more opportunities for economic prosperity for women, who are the biggest portion of the population in most societies. In turn you’re also addressing poverty; you are addressing the need for quality education. It's almost systemic. In terms of focus, it’s about where you can make real impact as organizations, as people. It's part of our vision: to help the world run better and to improve people's lives. As an enabler and exemplar of purpose and sustainability, SAP supports all of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, and in particular five purpose and sustainability areas: circular economy; climate action; fostering equality; promoting social entrepreneurship; and building a skilled, healthy and inclusive workforce. SAP has global influence – 77% of the world's transaction revenue touches an SAP system. For example, SAP has joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a global network that is looking to accelerate the adoption of circular economy practices. We’re also part of the CEO Carbon Neutral Challenge, committing to help businesses use innovative technology to achieve their most ambitious climate goals. SAP also announced the first solution in our Climate 21 program, the SAP Product Carbon Footprint Analytics application, which delivers transparency on the carbon emissions of a product across the entire value chain, including production, raw materials, energy use, and transport. From a social and inclusive entrepreneurship perspective, we have a program called SAP One Billion Lives, where we leverage our talented people, as well as our technologies and resources, to solve societal challenges.
By becoming more responsible, businesses can help to accelerate the change that needs to happen.
There are three big players in this game: society, politics, and companies. Do you agree that companies might have the biggest impact?
I think we all have a role to play. You know, there's an African saying that says: “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.” I believe that all these different sectors have something to contribute, and that we can rally around common objectives. With this African saying in mind, I believe that we can go both fast and far by collaborating and partnering in meaningful ways. But business also plays a big role. Big business is a big contributor towards carbon emissions. So if corporations are saying to themselves: “We don’t want to destroy the planet,” there is the opportunity to actually tackle carbon emissions through more responsible and sustainable business practices. By becoming more responsible, businesses can help to accelerate the change that needs to happen. But it cannot happen with businesses alone: they will need the influence of the public sector and civic society. What's encouraging for me is that more and more companies understand that they have a role to play, and therefore they are seeking to create value beyond only profit.
That's the global perspective. But how important is sustainability in Africa? How is this topic dealt with around the continent?
SAP operates across selected sub-Saharan African countries. I would say that we are the continent that is most affected by the SDGs, because we have such unique challenges. So sustainable development is becoming an increasingly relevant topic. To tackle this, we're seeing the rise of social entrepreneurs coming in from African countries, who are looking at the real issues that are impacting their particular cities and countries, and starting projects. More and more innovators are realizing the opportunity in social entrepreneurship. Businesses exist to solve challenges, and social, economic and environmental challenges are amongst the biggest for the African continent. More and more young people are building profitable social enterprises. Some of the key topics include sustainable farming, addressing pollution, for example, solutions that are helping to reduce plastics in the environment, whilst creating jobs. One such example is an initiative that SAP is implementing with some of our customers and partners to connect waste pickers in Ghana to a global marketplace for plastic, in order to raise economic outcomes and demonstrate the potential for a circular economy. This leads to reduced plastics pollution, whilst creating jobs and income, which is a win-win.
Do you agree that tech will play a huge role to tackle these issues?
The role of tech is incredibly important in the space of sustainability. I feel quite passionate about the role of tech, and believe that as a technology company, we are well positioned to drive impact. Firstly, it's about data. Our software can collect the data that can help organizations to measure carbon footprint. And once you can measure and report on it, you can manage it. Organizations can leverage the data that is being generated in day-to-day operations to address purpose and sustainability objectives, and measure their effects. Social and inclusive entrepreneurship is another opportunity. Through SAP’s Ariba Network, we can connect purpose-driven social enterprises to a global marketplace with corporations across the world who want to make a difference with their spend.
I soon realized that companies have a real opportunity to change the world and that through by doing business responsibly, there is an opportunity to effect positive change in the world.
When did you get passionate about sustainability?
I've always been very enthusiastic about young people, and just looking at how the world is changing through technology. One of my passions was to create systems where we can include young people along the journey of digital transformation, making sure that they build skills and have opportunities to play a role in this field. This sparked my initial interest in purpose and sustainability. I soon realized that companies have a real opportunity to change the world and that through by doing business responsibly, there is an opportunity to effect positive change in the world. I've always thought of myself as someone who came to this earth to make it better than when I arrived. And that has always been my North Star.
Last question: if anybody wanted to know more about this topic, are there have any people (or blogs, or books, or podcasts...) that they should check out?
There are a number of resources that provide information around purpose and sustainability. From an SAP perspective, we generate thought leadership around our purpose and sustainability initiatives. So I would recommend going onto the Purpose section of our SAP website. There we share examples of how SAP unlocks the power of co-innovation at scale with purpose driven companies, institutions, non-profits, the public sector and citizens to discover new solutions to pressing global issues linked to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There is also SAP Purpose Network Live, a thought leadership platform focused on purpose and sustainability, fostering collaboration and conversations on the challenges and opportunities to create positive economic, environmental, and social impact. One book that I would highly recommend is AManifesto for Moral Revolutionby Jaqueline Novogratz, who's the CEO of Acumen. Acumen is a global venture capital fund whose aim is to support social entrepreneurs, with the ultimate goal to address global poverty. It's such a great resource about how we can marry business imperatives whilst tackling poverty and moving forward with moral leadership in mind.