Susann Tischendorf and Alexandra Harris of the Inclusive Business Action Network advise how businesses can respond to growing consumer demands to embed equality in how they operate

2020 was a year of battles – from the global struggle against Covid-19 to the fight for racial justice spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter protests, to the combative US election.

One key issue brutally exposed by last year’s events is the prevailing inequality that exists around the globe. Even before the pandemic took hold, an Oxfam report revealed that the world’s 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up two thirds of the planet’s population.

Covid-19 has shown us how quickly we can transform the way we do business

Tackling the flagrant imbalances that 2020 revealed is long overdue. Thankfully, Covid-19 has also shown us how quickly we can transform the way we do business – showing us that it is possible to apply the same decisive, ground-up action to confront these more systemic inequalities in 2021.
Thanks to globalisation, expanding internet connectivity and the proliferation of social media, awareness of inequality has never been higher amongst the general public. And while the onus is on governments to tackle these issues amidst wider efforts to “build back better” from the Covid-19 crisis, businesses must play their part as well. Here are three ways how.
1. Involve consumers
After the challenges wrought by 2020, business leaders looking to turn over a new leaf this year must resolve to making equality a reality – especially as more consumers consider the social implications of their purchases when choosing where to spend their money.
Claudia Castellanos, co-founder and managing director of speciality food company Black Mamba Foods, notes a growing trend amongst consumers for demanding equality alongside fairness and good business practices.

Black Mamba also buys farmers’ produce for its range of chilli sauces, chutneys and jams. (Credit: Black Mamba)

Bridging the gap between buyers and producers is key to not only cultivating empathy in consumers, but also helping them understand how their choices can help bring about change.

Creating a positive feedback loop between producers and consumers so that both sides make better decisions is essential, according to David Chen and Phoebe Swinn Yap of Golden Sunland, an agribusiness that partners with rural smallholder farmers across Singapore and Myanmar to help them access international markets.
2. Develop new business models
To actively fight inequality, though, a focus on fairness and equity must permeate further than just marketing strategies. As emphasised by Caroline Ashley, director of Forum for the Future, merely “including” marginalised groups or buying from poor people is not enough.
Companies must be designed or remodelled from the ground up, around the needs and priorities of marginalised groups. And following the example set by social enterprises is a good place to start.
This approach, often referred to as “inclusive business”, is characterised by a conscious shifting of power to those often left out of decisions that impact them, enabling them to participate in governance and management. Centred around empowering people and ethical values, this model can provide both a template and valuable lessons for business leaders committed to making their own operations more equitable.

With an intentionally 'gender-biased' approach, Black Mamba actively seeks to empower women through sustainable employment

Black Mamba Foods, for instance, developed its business model around working directly with rural communities and women in Eswatini, southern Africa. Employing an intentionally “gender-biased” approach, the company actively seeks to empower women through providing sustainable employment that enables them to support their families, as well as delivering education and training on health, gender issues and women’s rights.

The company partners with Guba, a local NGO, to train smallholders in regenerative agriculture and permaculture, also buying the farmers’ fresh produce for its range of chilli sauces, chutneys and jams.

Thanks to its equitable approach to employment policy and wider operations, 80% of the workforce and 70% of the smallholder farmers it works with are women.
3. Work in partnership
Indeed, strategic partnerships can be another gateway to promote equality, enabling innovative solutions to be scaled up.
This is the thinking behind a new instrument developed by the MIT D-Lab and SEED, which aims to make it easier for business leaders and development practitioners who share the same values to co-design more equitable, hybrid partnership models.

With larger companies, NGOs and governments tending to view partnerships with social enterprises as risky, the MIT D-Lab and SEED addressed this challenge through a year-long joint learning lab. Consulting with social entrepreneurs, the lab developed the Partnership Co-design Toolkit (P.ACT), a four-stage co-design framework to ensure partners can more readily engage in developing partnership models that work for all sides.

One enterprise that has benefited from this new instrument is clinicPesa, a Ugandan healthcare financing platform founded by Chrispinus Onyancha. With a business model dependent on successful partnerships with Africa’s biggest telecommunications company and a large financial institution, Onyancha needed support to negotiate favourable terms for his enterprise. Working with him, the lab used the P.ACT tool to create a framework that helped him to segment values and costs, ultimately enabling him to ask for better terms in both partnerships.

MIT D-Lab aims to make it easier to co-design more equitable, hybrid partnership models. (Credit: MIT D-Lab) 

Taking a radical new approach may not be comfortable, but leaders committed to embedding equality into their operations would do well to consider disruptive and innovative structures in these uncertain times, especially if they want to fulfil wider social and environmental responsibilities that consumers are demanding.
2020 revealed the chasm of inequality facing the global business sector. This year presents an opportunity to close it – but only through rethinking priorities, making ambitious commitments and acting decisively to effect change from the inside out.
After a year of uncertainty, one thing is for sure: if we are to tackle inequality in 2021, business as usual will not suffice.

Susann Tischendorf is director at Inclusive Business Action Network (iBAN) and Alexandra Harris is a writer for the network. IBAN is a global initiative supporting the scaling and development of inclusive business models. Implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, iBAN is funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and the European Union.


Covid-19  Black Lives Matter  Black mamba Foods  Forum for the Future  Golden Sunland  MIT D-Lab  SEED  women's empowerment  clinicPesa 

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