Sustainable SMEs: Time for a Closer Look at the African Context
Sustainable entrepreneurs in Africa, even those who view sustainable practices as the ‘‘right approach” for society at large, need to see these values and beliefs reinforced and sustained, researchers in the field of sustainable management say. But that support, far from being offered in a standardized way, must be tailored to entrepreneurs’ receptiveness to sustainability and local managerial practices.
“Western-style sustainability approaches don’t necessarily take into account the innate practices of firms in developing nations,” says professor Martine Spence of the Telfer School of Management. Those same firms come under intense pressure to integrate those practices, so much so that this often becomes a prerequisite to participate in global value chains. “A closer look at sustainable development in the international context is therefore needed with emphasis on the managerial practices across nations as they relate to sustainability,” explains Dr. Spence, the School's Vice-Dean (Research). She adds that this type of approach can bring to light specific entrepreneurial and organizational characteristics as well as the socio-cultural context unique to each firm, while analyzing firm commitment to sustainable development.
The differences in those characteristics can be profound. In many African countries, communal entrepreneurship prevails, and business owners feel responsible not only for their own family and their employees, but also for the employees’ families and the extended family linked by ethnicity, language and religion. To paraphrase one researcher, what someone in the West might call corporate social responsibility, a business owner in Africa might consider ordinary social etiquette. As such, the welfare provided by firms is not just culturally embedded but provides a social safety net where public institutions are weak.
No universal prescription
That is just one example of contextual factors that emerged in the cases from Cameroon and Tunisia that Spence and her colleagues analysed in their cross-country study of sustainable entrepreneurship fundamentals that also included Canada. In order to study, compare and correctly interpret the management practices of small businesses, the firms’ socio-cultural and institutional contexts had to be considered. The researchers say they were anxious to avoid using “an essentially ‘western’ lens that carried the risk of discounting certain practices widely used elsewhere and which contribute to our collective understanding.”
In spite of drastic differences in institutional and cultural factors, the three countries featured a full array of entrepreneurial attitudes with regards to sustainability. Regardless of the operating environment, some entrepreneurs were found to be visionary, fully committed to sustainability and prepared to invest in it; some were familiar with the cause but uncertain of which strategies to adopt; and some were indifferent or did not feel concerned. Committed entrepreneurs were also driven by different motives – competitiveness in Canada, opportunism in Tunisia, social considerations in Cameroon.
The study showed that using a standardised approach for the diffusion of sustainable behaviours among small business owners would run against the values of some entrepreneurs and be counter-productive within and across countries. Moreover, the research concluded, programs to support the adoption of sustainable practices and education about the issue have to be tailored to the entrepreneur’s motives, the firms’ levels of openness to sustainability, socio-cultural practices, and the countries’ priorities.
“The debate over what sustainable entrepreneurship ought to encompass in an international context has become better informed by the evidence in recent years,” Dr. Spence explains. “While that’s a welcome development, the SME owner-manager’s point of view still tends to get overlooked in the discussion.” That’s unfortunate, given that these actors are often best-placed to integrate sustainability practices in their countries. However, the study opens up exciting research possibilities going forward. Qualitative, comparative interviews should be carried out between sectors to account for differences in behaviors and the contextual factors behind them, Spence said. “Additional in-depth studies using a more ethnographic approach with each type of entrepreneur should also be conducted in each country to gain a better understanding of cultural differences.”
The research was published in the Journal of Business Ethics.