My participation in the World Economic Forum on South Africa last month enriched my understanding of the role of the private sector within the international marketplace, especially as it relates to the unique needs and challenges across Africa.
A common refrain I heard throughout the Forum was about the importance of earning the trust of community leaders, NGO’s and local media who are often skeptical of the interests of the private sector. This is understandable given the history of regrettable business actions across the continent. To be successful, multinational corporations must engage on a local level by building a common understanding, identifying goals for social progress and establishing a role as community leaders. Companies that are able to align with local needs like accessible healthcare, skills development and social innovation sustain long-term growth from which everyone benefits.
While GE has operated in Africa for 100 years, the magnitude of our involvement has amplified in the past decade. I will tell you the spirit of entrepreneurism and innovation that is emerging in Africa is infectious. As participants in an increasingly global economy, it is vital that companies like GE identify how to implement sustainable business practices while simultaneously delivering social impact.
Infrastructure remains a critical barrier to goods, services, people and ideas. According to the World Bank, only one in three rural Africans have access to an all-season road, and more than 20 percent of the population in Cameroon, Ghana, Mauritania, Niger and Tanzania must travel more than two kilometers for their basic water supply*. Utilities, public works, transportation and technology are all required for a society to prosper –people need access to basic services that are too often taken for granted in more developed countries. Public governments can’t fill this void alone, which is where private companies can help close the funding gap.
Africa is not one country, but 54 diverse countries that possess different cultures, social and policy needs. As GE emerges as a leader in innovation across the continent, we are committed to help catalyze development and solve tough problems that have blocked growth in the past. This alignment with local needs and interests is essential to GE’s success. But it is not just a business strategy. It is the expressed desire of our colleagues in Africa who want to help improve the quality of life in their communities.
Gary Sheffer is Vice President, Corporate Communications & Public Affairs at GE.