SUBTLE and insidious changes are occurring in Africa. Some make headlines while others don’t. The magnitude of the changes and their effects on lives and livelihoods now and in the future are worth some attention and consideration. Unlike earlier decades, marked by gradual, isolated and predictable vagaries, the new realities warrant different sets of thinking, quicker responses and constantly challenging old and existing assumptions. The areas covered are vast and varied, cutting across demographics, skills and capabilities, climate and environment, food production, security, humanitarian crises, cost of living, health and longevity, education and technologies. What makes the present more daunting is that the externalities exert far more pressures on, and demand more resilience from, Africa within the context of global change.
We thus need to move past incrementalism or gradualism that largely characterises our responses to the unrelenting changes taking place around us. It must be recognised that Africa is wide and varied in attributes: from forest to savannah, from hills to plains, humid to dry lands, French speaking to Portuguese, to English or Arabic. All these have direct or remote bearing on livelihoods, geopolitics, power relations and wealth creation within the immediate environments and further afield, depending on livelihood options available to the people. These can be discernible from the disparate peculiarities across the continent from livelihood standpoint and factors that impinge on livelihood options. From the drought-stricken precincts of Cape Town in South Africa to the swampy coast of Calabar in Nigeria; from export flower farm in Naivasha countryside in Kenya to Njombe export-driven banana plantation in Cameroon; from Juaben palm oil processing factory in Ghana to Jos soya bean oil processing factory in Nigeria, policies need to vary to address their various peculiarities.
These all mean that evidence-based policy is increasingly important on livelihoods issues in the continent. In spite of divergent efforts in various countries, Africa still faces environmental and social challenges, including degradation of marine and terrestrial ecosystems, biodiversity conservation, poverty and inequality. All these have implications for the present time and for the future. Yet, a massive exploitation of natural resources continues unabated, requiring on-going and focused interventions. Considering the growing economies of many African nations, we have reasons to be concerned today, more than ever before, about sustainability, its policy dimensions and possible solutions. While the private sector, particularly the multinational, in Africa seems to be jumping on the sustainability train, chances of its abuse for parochial corporate gains should not be ruled out. And so, great care needs to be taken to avoid using the paradigm only for scoring cheap pecuniary goals.
Global sustainability reporting trends have shown that 48 per cent of S&P 500 companies now publish sustainability reports (State of Green Business reports). And, in Africa, big companies try to belong.
A sustainability report is a report published by a company or organization about the economic, environmental and social impacts caused by its everyday activities. If done practically and in a transparent manner, a sustainability report could very well be an extension of corporate reporting to include the social and environmental aspects of a business.
It is an organisational report that gives information about economic, environmental, social and governance performance.
It could be associated with the basis for developing a successful sustainability strategy and the strategic framework for action. Can it be rightly affirmed, therefore, that the private sector corporate organisations and the non-governmental organisations are leading the way in sustainability consideration in Africa today? And if that is true, why are national governments not leading? It should be assumed that, ordinarily, governments, with political structures, armed forces, government departments and many other functional organs, should be better equipped to ensure sustainability. But, in reality, the argument does not seem too straightforward because of many conflicting considerations, unlike in the private sector profit-driven organisations. Does that mean that Africa still has a long road to go?
The essence of mainstreaming sustainability issues should not be lost on African policy makers and implementers. The concept of “People, Planet and Profit”, otherwise referred to as the triple bottom line auditing, devised to ethically measure the track record in environmental and social responsibility, should not limit its application to business concerns. It should hold governments accountable on how their policies impact on the lives of the people, particularly the rural or urban poor, farming or non-farm endeavours and various formal and informal services which have profound cumulative impact on the environment, and upon which the environmental changes also impact. On agricultural innovation, what environmental impacts result from activities of smallholder farmers? Ironically, although small-scale agriculture is huge in Africa on aggregate, technologies to save the environment, bridge the spatial gap and connect primary producers to the markets need urgently to evolve. Good as commercial scale farming may seem, the risk factors that will continue to discourage private investors into it will stick around for a long time to come except and until countries design systems to ensure their survival.
Agriculture has been accused of using 70 per cent of the world’s fresh water and generates more than 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, (according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation). Much of deforestation, groundwater depletion and loss of biodiversity have been blamed on agriculture. But there will continue to be a rise in demand for food to sustain the growing global population, and production is expected to rise by 70 per cent to meet the needs of the over 9 billion people that are expected to inhabit the planet earth by 2050, according to projections. What happens to Africa in this context is of great importance. Ian Scoones, author of a publication on agrarian change and peasant studies, with the title “Sustainable livelihoods and rural development,” warned that “we must be wary of the political power of certain measures and remain alert to the assumptions and simplifications being made.” Applying this to Africa, it is safe to assume that there is still a long way ahead on sustainability issues.
Scoones, who has extensive knowledge and experience on the evolution of sustainability as we know it today, argued that individual livelihood outcomes be evaluated in a wider social and political context, as inequality may impede broader development. He called for an understanding of a broader causes of impoverishment, disempowerment and disadvantage, but also of opportunity and enterprise and with this the institutional and political processes that influence outcomes. According to Scoones, the sustainable livelihoods framework that has attracted much attention among development thinkers and practitioners, researchers and economists need to be properly understood and the various interwoven factors as well as their interplay need to be well understood.
He wants the sustainable livelihoods frameworks to be understood beyond mere reference to capitals, assets or resources, or livelihood strategies, or outcomes.
He emphasised, at some point in his book that “we need to ask why certain livelihoods are possible and others not,” with attention on wider political economy and global structural relations.”
The argument of Scoones will help us understand where we are in Africa on sustainable livelihoods as he argued that “institutions and organisations are the key element in the (sustainable livelihoods) framework, as they put in place the process and structures for mediating the assets deployed, the strategies pursued and the outcomes achieved for different people.”
But it is clear that, with the current realities, the search for sustainable livelihoods in Africa will go on. The outcomes will depend a great deal on the policies, the processes and the institutions of government in various countries. These will not all march in the same direction or at the same speed. It is, however, good enough to continue to remain hopeful that Africa will move only in the forward direction, securing the environment while providing adequate food, and improving the livelihoods of the teeming population as the future beckons.