Africa is indeed blessed with so many vibrant, dynamic, outstanding, successful and passionate change-makers. These change-makers do not necessarily control the economy, nor do they need to be political office holders. They are just dedicated individuals who envision a better continent, and in their own little ways, are working towards creating a community, country or continent that is good for all.
Globally, the call for sustainable practices has taken a more critical dimension. It became more articulated with the United Nations setting up an ambitious and universal 2030 agenda known as Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In most parts of the world, these goals are pursued imperatively, however, for some factors typical of most underdeveloped climes, pace of implementation in Africa has been really slow.
Steering a wave of change in Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, through sustainability advocacy, is Bekeme Olowola, a Harvard-trained, business savvy social entrepreneur and sustainability expert with a focussed drive. A woman in a league of her own, who has risen to become one of the few crucial figures pushing for sustainable development in Africa and spurring companies and communities to do better by rethinking all activities, with the future in mind.
Bekeme Olowola founded and runs CSR-in-Action – which in addition to corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainable development consulting and training services – drives pro bono social impact interventions geared towards entrenching sustainability at the very core of institutions and their activities. In the past eight years, CSR-in-Action has grown to “become the one-stop partner and consultancy firm of choice for collective social responsibility and corporate governance in Africa”, as its mission planned to do. It runs with a mission to localise the SDGs in African institutions. Olowola has used this platform to promote several initiatives geared towards entrenching sustainability at the very core of businesses and their activities.
Very recently, Olowola became the first and only West African to join the board of Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the world’s most recognised sustainability impact measurement and reporting standards body based in Amsterdam. Alongside two other counterparts, Jack Ehnes, Chief Executive Officer, The California State Teachers Employees’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), USA and Dr. Jianzhong Lu, China President of Weir Group, China, she will be commencing her 3-year appointment on 1 January, 2019, bringing on board her wealth of experience on issues relating to sustainable development in Africa and helping GRI tap into the gains of regional and background diversity. The board is replete with big names in the corporate sustainability and governance milieu with former Deloitte Global Partner, Eric Hespenheide, as Chairman, and some other board members being Dr. Jianzhong Lu, China President of Weir Group, Girish Ramachandran, President, Tata Consultancy Services Asia Pacific, Singapore, Mr. Peter H. Y.
Wong, Chairman of General Fiduciary Company Limited, Hong Kong SAR, Dr. Roberto F. de Ocampo, OBE, Founding Partner of Centennial Group International, Philippines and Sandra Guerra, Managing Director, Better Governance, Brazil.
This feat is in recognition of her ingenuity, consistency and grit. She has blazed the trail in Nigeria and built a track-record of success in just a short time. Her firm, CSR-in-Action, is a corporate household name and has catalysed the adoption of sustainability practices through advocacy, business support, oftentimes through corporations’ production of annual reports, and training. Today, the group comprises three sustainability-focused arms namely: CSR-in-Action Consulting, CSR-in-Action College of Sustainable Citizenship & CSR-in-Action Advocacy. CSR-in-Action currently works with big multinationals and famous brands to not only foster increased value on the economic, environmental, and social levels, but to also measure progress.
Over the years, Olowola has garnered over 15 years work experience spanning new business development, auditing, corporate sustainability and responsibility, business ethics, corporate culture, strategic planning and management, non-profit and rural development, project design and implementation, public-private partnerships and enterprise development. She honed her skills for development work during her stint at the Royal Borough of Kingston and Surrey County Council, both in the United Kingdom, and from there moved on to work with several local and international organisations. Her last employment before venturing to carve a niche in sustainability, was at the former Bank PHB, now Keystone Bank, where she led its ISO Implementation plan.
As a renowned policy maker and private sector leader, Bekeme was nominated to represent Nigeria, alongside other African nationals, to understudy the German green economy – Energiewiende – with a view to localising the principles and sustainability for economic diversification in Nigeria.
During her undergraduate days at the University of Lagos, Olowola has said she made her first million before she attained the age of 21, exploring her passion for entrepreneurship with her first company, MINCA. In 2008, she was one of the 18 young professionals selected from Africa and the Diaspora to participate in the premier edition of The Apprentice Africa. It was not hard to notice that she was exceptional and resourceful. She was one of the top contenders for the winning prize until a debilitating bout of typhoid removed her chances of progressing further.
“I am a natural entrepreneur who sees opportunities everywhere. My mother always saw that and joked that I wanted to do everything. But what really makes me tick is that I love to find solutions for issues around me, which led me to founding and currently managing CSR-in-Action, a business dedicated to promoting ethical and sustainable governance, women and youth empowerment, and sustainable development in Nigeria, through analytical strategies, established partnerships, impactful programmes and other strategic consultancy for businesses and governments,” Olowola says.
According to her, when CSR-in-Action was founded in 2010, the goal was for it to become the one-stop partner for driving collective social action in Nigeria first, and then in West Africa. Today, her presence on the board of GRI as the only West African shows that CSR-in-Action’s leaps have not only been recognised in West Africa, but globally.
For years, CSR-in-Action has been campaigning for change in the culture of organisations in Nigeria. Based on the harsh terrain where businesses operate and realities that demand desperate measures, this mandate has been had to drive, but nonetheless, worthwhile.
“I started this first-of-its-kind enterprise in 2010 because there was a challenge that wasn’t being addressed. What I started is a movement for good corporate and private citizenry and collective action. I remember that all those years ago, people told me the country wasn’t ready for this, but I was persistent. I’m nothing if not persistent”, she shared recently in an interview.
“I was met with a lot of pushback. Many businesses just did not see what the ‘fuss’ was about, in a country where a number of ‘businesses’ are willing to throw a few hundreds of thousands of naira at a project and max it out using millions on PR, and a larger number simply not caring…not knowing the value of well-thought out systems and follow through. I mean what doesn’t get sorted comes back and bites you in the behind. Through consistency and focus, this narrative is changing and there has been a lot of remarkable improvement.”
As she will later explain, “I am an aspirational person, and to be honest, we have always looked to impact beyond local boundaries. From the onset, we signed up to global bodies like the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), United Nations Framework on Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC), United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Global Reporting Initiative’s Gold Community, and engaged international reputable organisations whose association we thought would buttress our strengths”.
CSR-in-Action successfully produces the first ever social investment report in Nigeria, The Collective Social Report: Nigeria. The compendium, which includes a rating of business sustainability performance known as the 3-C Index, is now known as The Corporate Sustainable Investor Report.
Furthermore, through the annual Sustainability in The Extractive Industries (SITEI) conference organised by CSR-in-Action, Olowola has further distinguished herself, and is pushing stakeholders in the oil and gas sector to rethink the short-term and long-term effect of their activities. This conference, which is in its 8th year, has been very effective in creating awareness for sustainable practices and has successfully brought relevant stakeholders together yearly to address social and environmental problems affecting the sector. Olowola has been known to say that she delegates contact with male government contacts, in pursuance of the conference planning logistics, to her male subordinates as they would often derisively refer to her as “small girl” and have often been more amenable to discussing ‘business ‘with her male colleagues. The conference has since serving and past Ministers in attendance, including Dr Ibe Kachikwu, Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr Kayode Fayemi, then Minister for Mines and Steel Development, and Dr Oby Ezekwesili, now a 2019 Presidential Aspirant.
In May 2014, Olowola helped establish the Business Coalition for Sustainable Development Nigeria (BCSDN), an indigenous affiliate of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, made up of a coalition of leading businesses across all sectors to drive collective development, floated by the then Chair of Shell Companies in Nigeria, Mutiu Sunmonu, and chaired by co-founder of Access Bank, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede. She continues to engage stakeholders throughout the economic value chain – government, business, civil society organisations and communities – which in 2018, led to the design and development of a Community Engagement Standards for Extractive Communities in Nigeria funded by Facility for Oil Sector Reform (FOSTER), where she and her team of consultants traversed the 9 oil-producing communities to fastidiously engage host communities, local, state and federal government and business leaders.
Olowola is on the ‘faculty’ of Patito’s Gang, a TV nation-building initiative by Pat Utomi which has been on for decades, and where eggheads dissect national issues with a view to proffering solutions. She is the producer of The Good Citizen Radio Show on Inspiration FM 92.3. The Good Citizen Radio Show is an offshoot of her Good Citizen initiative, which seeks to encourage a unified and collective approach for solving national issues. Through the radio show, which started in May, Olowola has stimulated dialogues on critical national issues ranging from political to social, environmental and economical in order to drive active citizen leadership.
She has received leadership awards, is a Fellow of the National Institute of Marketing Nigeria and a Member of the Nigerian Institute for Public Relations, amongst other professional institutions, and is a certified trainer of the Centre for Management Development and the globally renowned Global Reporting Initiative’s GRI Standards framework, while CSR-in-Action is a member of the GRI Gold Community. She has been on the board of several non-profit and for-profit organisations ,including Sustainable Waste Recycling Community of Nigeria, United Nations Global Compact Local Network, Africa Clean Up Initiative, Buzz Digital and Zenera Consulting.
Olowola has proven in her packed and dynamic professional career that with focus, perseverance, hard work and self-belief, women, no matter their age or creed, can shatter glass ceilings.