Promoting Sustainability to Africa’s Middle-Class

Promoting Sustainability to Africa’s Middle-Class

Promoting Sustainability to Africa’s Middle-Class

I recently attended the inaugural Sustainable Brands Conference in Cape Town, South Africa.  Sustainable Brands is a global community of business innovators who are shaping the future of business worldwide.  The community hosts several events in different locations all over the world every year and it is exciting that this wonderful think-tank is finally in Africa.

It would however seem that the continent still has some way to go in writing the African narrative for sustainability.  Tucked away in a fancy hotel in suburban Cape Town, I could not help thinking that sustainability is still being sold as a very elitist concept.  It continues to be discussed in mostly abstract terms in places far removed from the every day reality of most Africans.

What then, does sustainability mean in practical terms for the ‘ordinary mwananchi’?

According to the Harvard Business Review, our most pressing environmental challenge is not how many people the planet can support, but rather how many cellphone-toting, satellite-TV-watching, gas-guzzler driving members of the middle class it can bear.  In Africa, this description fits the budding middle class propelled by growth and urbanisation.
Promoting ideas like like switching to energy saving bulbs, unplugging devices such as mobile phones and televisions when not in use, consuming natural lighting as much as possible and using vehicles less to walk or cycle more is all well and good and may even sound very ‘new-age’ however in Africa these ideas are hardly original.  Many middle class Africans can relate to having to take a bath using a bucket and recycling what’s left of the bath water to clean the house. These types of messages are therefore unlikely to be successful as interventions for positive action.

Today, many in the middle-class segment are eager to consume. African consumers are driven not only by their basic needs, but by the desire to achieve a social status that until recently was out of their reach. It is unlikely that any ethical consumerism campaign or educational drive is going to take this away from them. These newly empowered masses want to show off their achievements and they want social recognition.

A new approach is therefore needed.  This needs to be based both on the innovation of a company’s offering and also on the development of strategies that aim to influence the experience and buying habits of today’s new consumers. They should to be encouraged to want products, services and lifestyles that provide them with benefits and meet their aspirations, but which are also more sustainable.  Brands can successfully attract consumers to the cause not by preaching to them, but by showing how their products lets them reduce carbon emissions or minimise waste in meaningful ways thus changing consumer behaviour.