Ekuma Eze: There is No Future without Sustainable Communities

Ekuma Eze: There is No Future without Sustainable Communities

As countries around the world strive to achieve net zero emissions over the coming decades, corporates are investing in cost-effective and economically productive pathway, resulting in a clean, dynamic and resilient energy economy dominated by renewables. In Nigeria, Nigerian Bottling Company (NBC) Limited is leading in this regard. Corporate Affairs and Sustainability Director at NBC, Ekuma Eze talks to Eromosele Abiodun about the Coca-Cola Hellenic Company’s commitment to zero emission targets by 2040 and NBC’s investments in Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plants to further reduce carbon footprint

What is your job all about as the Corporate Affairs and Sustainability Director at NBC?

I like to describe myself as a business leader who solves business problems by leveraging my skills in reputation and brand management, public policy management, stakeholder engagement, community relations, crisis communication, sustainability, and corporate communications. I have been in the business of building winning reputation for businesses for over two decades with experience spanning the media, banking industry, and the FMCG sectors.

As the Corporate Affairs and Sustainability Director, one of my most important tasks is to manage one of the most critical assets of the organization, which is its reputation. As a forward-thinking organization, we believe that the reputation of businesses in the next five to ten years will be tied to two major drivers of business performance and valuation: sustainability and public policy. There is an increasing need for circularity in the way companies do business, a drive for climate-neutral operations, a renewed emphasis on human rights, social impact, diversity, and inclusion. Therefore, my job is clearly cut out to steer the business along this direction. For me, building a reputation for sustainability will be an important tool for building a competitive advantage for the business. In summary, my job entails deepening community trust, and strengthening partnerships with our key stakeholders so we continue to earn our license to operate.

As one of Nigeria’s leading manufacturers, what are some of the most important factors you consider when developing sustainability programmes for your host communities?

Across the Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company, which is our parent company, sustainability is embedded in every aspect of our value-chain – from how we source our raw materials to our packaging. At NBC, we say that sustainability is to us what oxygen is to life. It is the philosophy that shapes our values; what we do and how we do it. So, when designing our sustainability programs, our focus is always on our environmental, social, and governance priorities. For each intervention we design, we take the pain to ask ourselves the difficult questions: What is the impact on our people and communities? What are the material issues to our stakeholders? How do we manage risks? How would the programme affect the environment? We want to leave the environment better than we met it without compromising its sustainability for future generations.

All these questions help us design the best possible frameworks and strategies for our communities and the market where we operate. For you to do all of these, you must have an in-depth understanding of the operating environment and what the rules of engagement are. In essence, whenever we are designing any sustainability program or framework, these are some of the key considerations that motivate what we do. I can tell you that overseeing sustainability in the business is something that gives me oxygen. I am always excited when I see lives being transformed, societies being changed and the business making an impact in our communities.

What is NBC’s major sustainability commitment and how does this align with your business strategy?

Nigeria is one of the largest markets in the Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company, and our sustainability commitments are encapsulated in what we call the Coca-Cola Hellenic Mission Sustainability 2025 Commitments. These commitments address the following areas: how we reduce our emissions, water use and water stewardship, a world without waste and, our people and communities. This covers the six buckets that make up our sustainability commitments.

Now, let me dive a bit deeper into these buckets. When you visit any of our customers’ outlets, you see our coolers, which we use to provide chilled drinks to our consumers. So, our commitment is to increase the number of energy-efficient coolers to 50% of all our coolers in the market to help drive down our CO2 emissions by 2025. It is capital intensive to achieve this, but this is the responsibility that comes with being an industry leader. We are also committed to sourcing our electricity from clean and renewable energy sources. At NBC, we are committed to helping secure water availability for all our communities in water-risk areas.

In the area of world without waste, which speaks to our recycling initiatives, we are committed to collecting an equivalent of 75% of our primary package materials by 2025. Again, this is a tough call, considering the scale of investment you need to achieve this target. But the fact is that we are always happy to lead the way and be part of the solution. Diversity and inclusion are also big on our sustainability agenda. We are committed to ensuring that women hold 50% of the managerial positions at our Company and this would help us to create a gender-balanced and diverse workforce. Lastly, we are committed to empowering youths to build capacities to maximize their potential and make a difference in their communities. Since 2017, over 23,000 youths have been empowered through the Youth Empowered program, thus providing young people in our communities with the skills and knowledge they require to face the future with confidence.

You will observe that these are not just commitments we have made as NBC or Coca-Cola Hellenic, they are also fully aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. If we do a deeper dive into what I have enumerated as our commitments, especially on the issue of a world without waste, here in Nigeria, we have provided leadership to the industry to ensure that we develop strategies to ensure sustainable PET collection and recycling solutions. NBC is one of the companies that led the formation of the Food and Beverage Recycling Alliance, which is a producer responsibility organization for the food and beverage sector that is set up to implement the extended producer responsibility framework of the Federal Government of Nigeria. This is because we understand that plastic is becoming a challenge to the environment due mainly to how it is being disposed of, so we are committed to being part of the solution. We have over time evolved our package recovery strategy to end the challenge of plastic pollution in our drive to realize a world without waste.

On the issue of water use, we know that one of the most important ingredients in our products is water. So, we are committed to being a responsible steward of water resources in communities where we operate by using water in ways that are socially equitable, environmentally sustainable, and economically beneficial. In our facilities, we challenge ourselves with over-ambitious targets on how to reduce the liters of water we use to produce our beverages and over the last 5 years, we have made significant progress. These are part of the commitments we have made and are working towards them to ensure that we deliver on each of these goals way ahead of time.

We know that it is an industry-wide issue and plastic is not biodegradable. What is NBC’s contribution as regards recycling and the issue of waste management?

Let me begin by saying the Coca-Cola System in Nigeria spearheaded the recycling interventions we all see in the country today.  As far back as 2005, the Coca-Cola System, comprising the Nigerian Bottling Company and Coca-Cola Nigeria Limited pioneered a partnership with a recycler here in Lagos, on plastic recovery. We thought that it was the right thing to recover the plastics from the environment and recycle them. The partnership with the recycler lasted for about eight years within which period we were able to recover over seven billion bottles of plastics, which were converted to some other industrial use.

Let me also add that our world without waste roadmap has been designed to respond to the plastic challenge in Nigeria. We want to be the solution and we have said repeatedly that we want our PET bottles back because we want to recycle them. Our position is that there is value in every beverage package even after its initial use. We believe there is an opportunity to recover, recycle and reuse it. I believe that in the not-too-distant future, people will begin to see what we are cooking behind the scenes in this regard. We also believe that to achieve the most impact in addressing the problem of waste, it must be a shared responsibility among value chain players – private sector operators, government, NGOs, recyclers, regulators, and most importantly, development partners. As an organization, we continue to show leadership in this area in the industry, working closely with the Food and Beverage Recycling Alliance.

Furthermore, you will see that in the last two years, the Coca-Cola System has constructed over twenty-two functional recycling banks starting from Lagos and Abuja. The whole idea is to bring recycling closer to our communities to promote responsible recycling of plastic wastes and to let people know that there is value in what they throw away as plastics. What they throw away is actually wealth. I recall a few years ago, I was in Uganda, and I met a lady who had leveraged the plastic collection initiative to build houses and train her children in the university. So what people are throwing away as waste is wealth. We have also intensified consumer education by partnering with other organizations and some regulators to bring this message of responsible disposal of waste to communities.  We are confident that by working with all the critical stakeholders, we will be able to scale impact and make a difference.

Hydrocarbon and fossil fuels are much talked about as major contributors to climate change. What is your organization doing to mitigate climate change in Nigeria?

First and foremost, I think it needs to start with the awareness that climate change is not only real, but the impact is also all around us. I recall while growing up, you could predict when the rain or harmattan will start and end. But nowadays, things have changed. Sometimes, it rains up to December. It was not like this before. Now, we see droughts, desertification and flooding more than ever before. 

This is indicative that climate change is real. Look at our country Nigeria, a significant percentage of the Chad River basin has been lost due to climate change. Even the farmer-herder crisis has its root in climate change because, in those regions of the country, there is a significant depletion of natural resources such as grasslands and water. As a business, the Coca-Cola Hellenic Company has made a public commitment to achieve our zero emission targets by 2040. We know this is ambitious.  But as I said before, Nigeria is one of the largest markets in the Coca-Cola Hellenic group and that implies that the ability of Coca-Cola Hellenic to meet this target depends to a large extent on what we do here in Nigeria. And so, over ten years ago, we started investments in what we call Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plants to further reduce our carbon footprint. Today, about 50% of our manufacturing plants in Nigeria are using these Combined Heat and Power plants.

The whole idea is that the emission that should have been going into the atmosphere has been passed and recycled to power our boilers. This means we are significantly reducing CO2 emissions and the last time I checked, our CO2 equivalent emission reduction through these CHP plants is the equivalent of saving three million trees. All of these are capital-intensive investments. Every year, we spend some billions of naira to run these combined heat and power plants alone.

Now, if you look at the Nigerian Gas Master Plan, you will see that it has yet to cover the whole of Nigeria, so this Combined Heat and Power plant works very well in areas where you have access to CNG gas. For those locations that have not come into the Nigeria Gas Master plan, what we have also done is to commence the process of migrating our manufacturing plants to renewable energy sources through photovoltaic installation – what we commonly call solar power. Between 2020 and now, we have really scaled our investments in solar power infrastructure in four of our plants namely: Challawa, which is our plant in Kano, Asejire plant in Oyo state, Maiduguri plant, and of course our plant in Abuja. We are also extending the initiative to other plants with time. This effort has already delivered up to 2,650 kilowatts of power to our facilities, and as I said we are expanding and scaling it.

In addition, we have several energy efficiency improvement initiatives across our manufacturing operations. This year alone, if you aggregate the number of tons of CO2 equivalence that we are saving through different initiatives, it is over 124,000 tons. So that tells you that when it comes to sustainable manufacturing, we are one of the industry leaders. Apart from energy, another major source of emission comes from logistics and so to address this, what we have done is commence a pilot project of converting our fleet to CNG-powered trucks. Now we have ten trucks that are completely powered by CNG. Again, the challenge we have in this area is the fact that the Nigerian Gas Master Plan has not covered the entire nation, so it is a limiting factor to our ambition of converting all our fleets to CNG-powered trucks. As a member of Coca-Cola Hellenic, these innovations are geared towards achieving our NetZero emission targets. Now, this comes with a whole lot of investments. But we persist because we must leave the planet better than it is for the unborn generation. Also, almost 200 of our forklifts are now electric powered, meaning that we do not use fossil fuel to power most of our forklifts and we are hoping that before the end of this year or very early next year, we should be able to convert all our forklifts to electric powered forklifts. All of these have significant savings on emissions, and these are part of the actions we are already taking. A whole lot is in the pipeline to ensure that we drive this rigorously to achieve our 2040 NetZero emission target.

What strategies do you have for water usage and preservation?

More than ever before, we need to realize the importance of safe and potable water for our communities. A few years ago, we launched an intervention in a community about seven kilometers away from a state capital in the north-central area of Nigeria. This community’s only water source fell within the zone acquired by the Nigerian Air Force, so when the Nigerian Air Force fenced off their property, the community was cut off from this source of water. Also, the quality of water these people were drinking was clearly unfit for consumption. This led to an increase in burials in the community which they had attributed to all manner of things. But unknown to them, it was simply caused by water-borne diseases. Children would trek four to five kilometers almost every day to get this dirty water to use before going to school.

When we saw this challenge in the community, we made an investment that cost us less than 15,000 dollars to provide a borehole for this community, and power for the borehole. When we got back there six months after, the regular burials that they had every weekend dropped significantly because the people now had access to clean water. Children could go to school early without trekking for kilometers in search for water. That is how important access to clean water is to human beings. Access to clean water is first and foremost a human right, just the same way people have a right to life and personal dignity. If you look at areas where people lack access to water, one of the things you will see is very poor hygiene. Most times, you see a high incidence of open defecation because water and hygiene go together. There are situations where girls are unable to go to school during their monthly cycle because they do not have facilities in school that will enable them to attend to themselves hygienically. All of these constitute a challenge and as a business where water is material to what we do, we are investing a whole lot in this area to ensure that the water, health, and sanitation needs of our communities are met. Earlier this year, we announced a donation of one million euros to support communities in social impact programs, and a large chunk of this fund is being dedicated to support the Federal Government’s campaign to end open defecation by 2025.

As we speak, construction is ongoing in identified states in the country where we are building ultra-modern toilet facilities providing water so that people can have access to decent toilets, and most importantly access water for their personal use. We are currently working with Organized Private Sector in Water Sanitation and Hygiene to construct these facilities because they have a special capability in this area. As I said before, we are committed to helping secure water availability in water-risk areas across our host communities.  In 2019, we implemented a major project with the Kano State Water Board, where we provided access to water for over one million residents of Kano. Not only that, we also upgraded the Water Board’s laboratory to ensure that every test done in that laboratory meets global standards and can be reliable. We also provided training for employees of the Water Board to build their capability in service delivery and the technical aspect of what they do, and this is not to mention the several boreholes we have built across different communities and schools in the country. Similarly, in 2020, we launched a private sector partnership with the United States Agency for International Development to strengthen and expand the capacity of state water boards to deliver safe drinking water. This also provided a platform for us to leverage our technical capacity to assist these state water boards. As I have said, water is material to us and so we have built a special capability in this area and this is what we extended to these state water boards in terms of governance, service delivery, and technical know-how to enable them optimize delivery of this essential resource. We have equally designed robust systems that ensure we reduce water consumption, what we call water use ratio to support reuse as well as recycling water to levels that support aquatic life. So, across our facilities, all the water we use in our operations are channeled to our purpose-built Effluent Treatment Plants where they are thoroughly treated and discharged into approved sites. In all our 8 plants, we have a fishpond as the end process of the treatment plant. This is to show and prove that the water we release into these approved government sites is fit to support aquatic life. We harvest the fishes for consumption in our plant facilities.

All our plants are certified by AWS certification, which represents the highest global benchmark for responsible water stewardship. That also shows how important we regard the issue of water; we have also continued to expand our partnership to support disadvantaged communities with water and we also have, the Coca-Cola Foundation complementing the efforts of the Nigeria Bottling Company to provide access to water to different communities across Nigeria. These are some of the modest interventions we have made in different communities as it relates to water.

NBC celebrated its 70th-anniversary milestone last year. How has the company contributed to advancing Nigeria’s human capital development agenda as a corporate citizen?

Our 70th anniversary celebration, which climaxed on the 22nd of November 2021, was an opportunity to reflect on our storied heritage here in Nigeria and the contributions we have made to the society. We have been part of Nigeria’s history from its pre-independence era until now. We have been part of some milestones, critical transitions, and memorable moments. We have been part of Nigeria’s remarkable journey and are witnesses to both its good and bad times. We were here when the Civil War broke out in 1967 and we remained committed to Nigerians through those difficult moments, nourishing its people and making positive impact in communities. Over the years, we have been intentional about investing in people, not just our employees but also in communities where we operate. 

We pride ourselves on supporting millions of livelihoods across Nigeria. When you look at our value chain, there is no community you go to where you will not see someone selling Coca-Cola products. These are people who are empowered directly or indirectly by this Company. Although we directly employ about 3000 full-term employees, this is aside from our non-full-term employees and third-party employees. We support about 58,000 jobs annually in our value chain. So, when you talk about human capital development, there is no development better than employing people to earn a decent livelihood and we have done significantly well in that aspect.

We have what we used to call the technical training center now known as our Supply Chain Academy. The institution has also churned out thousands of young Nigerians, equipping them to be fit for purpose in the industry. We realize that the education in the University often does not give you all you need to transit into the workplace, especially for those who are in the Engineering field and other similar paths. The Supply Chain Academy is a school where we train young people to fit into the industry. We retain most of the graduates while others go to join other businesses, so it is phenomenal what we have achieved in that area. Beyond our immediate employees, we have also contributed to accelerating youth and women empowerment in Nigeria through our various locally relevant initiatives.

Specifically, in 2017, we launched a program called Youth Empowered. To date, we have trained over 23,000 youth across different cities and higher institutions in Nigeria. A whole lot of start-ups have emerged from beneficiaries of this intervention. Companies have been formed, and not less than 10% of these beneficiaries (the ones we have been able to track) have been able to gain employment because of the skill they have acquired through this training. We have done fairly well when it comes to capacity building, and we continue to push our boundaries to ensure that we provide young people with entrepreneurship and employability skills to help them transition seamlessly to work. These are some of the achievements we have recorded in this space.

It is one thing to put up programmes and another thing to measure the impact on society. How do you measure the success of a sustainability programme after implementation?

Every programme we design has the measurement and evaluation component of it so we understand the impact that the program has on the intended beneficiaries and so we have prioritized real measurable transformation as a key benchmark for assessing the success of our intervention. An important metric to gauge our impact is to evaluate what our programs achieved in communities against whatever the set baseline was prior to implementation and so for a program to be said to be successful, it has to deliver some outcomes that are tangible.

This means that we want more beneficiaries of our programs to lead more meaningful lives either through the skills they have acquired or through the maximization of opportunities that our interventions present. For instance, in our Youth Empowered program, one of the things we want to see is attitudinal change. How does this intervention for instance result in a reduction in crime in certain communities?

We want to see the child of a nobody become somebody because they partook in our program, and we have countless testimonies of such impact that we have shared over time. We equally track how many people gain employment after going through our youth programs or how many people are able to set up their businesses, and all that? When you execute water programs, what is the implication on the health of the people, does it reduce incidences of water-borne diseases and all of that? These are some of the things we factor into our programs even before we start them. We define what the baseline is and at the end of the program, we check the impact KPIs, have we been able to achieve them? It is only then we say yes, the program has been a success.

We all know the situation with the manufacturing industry in Nigeria, in your opinion, what are the challenges facing the industry and how can the government come in to eliminate some of these challenges?

Manufacturers in Nigeria are faced with a lot of challenges. But for us, we like to stay positive to see how we turn these challenges into competitive advantage. Generally speaking, the manufacturer in Nigeria faces challenges with energy. Energy takes a chunk of a manufacturer’s cost, so if a sustainable solution is provided in this direction, Nigeria will do better. Access to forex is also a challenge. The CBN is doing its best to prioritize the manufacturing sector in forex allocation, but we believe a lot more needs to be done in this area.

Indeed, the industry is facing systemic challenges such as inflationary pressure, low consumer purchasing power and high unemployment rate. I believe government’s policies should focus on strengthening private sector participation and contribution to the growth of the nation’s economy. While all these challenges exist, we also believe that Nigeria is a market to play in because of the sheer size of our population. So, Nigeria will be an investment haven if some of these challenges are mitigated to boost investors’ confidence in the economy.

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