20 October 2022 

Article contributions by Nazmira Sayed - Senior Lecturer | Milpark Business School

South Africa needs extraordinary business leaders to take us into the future. But more importantly, we need socially responsible leaders who want to improve lives and livelihoods – while they’re boosting the bottom line. Business schools need to do more to ignite the social conscience of our future leaders, says Nazmira Sayed.  

As I and my fellow South Africans struggle to adjust to the consequences of our power crisis, I am heartened by the story of Koaile Monaheng, a graduate student from Lesotho. His company, Khantša Energy, has been shortlisted for an award for its work bringing solar-powered energy to Lesotho’s remote highlands. So far, the company has installed solar systems at six health centres and in 36 households, with families paying for their power according to a PayAsYouGo model.

In a world beset with challenges, Koaile’s story is a literal shining light. He is exactly the kind of innovative business leader we need to create solutions with purpose. But how do we create better leaders – can we?

This was a key point of discussion at the 2022 Association of MBAs (AMBA) and Business Graduates Association (BGA) conference held in Portugal. Conference delegates were told that business schools are responsible for developing leaders of the future who are more attuned to the importance of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability. CSR has come a long way, especially over the past three decades, with companies increasingly under pressure to show their commitment to the environment, communities, and social upliftment. And this even more pertinent in South Africa, the most unequal country in the world, where 10% of the population owns up to 80% of the wealth and access to decent education and health services is a struggle for the majority.

Here in South Africa, we need to show our business students the need to not only make a profit, but to add the kind of value that is harder to show on a spreadsheet – say, the importance of supporting school feeding programmes. The link to improved educational outcomes may not be easy to quantify right away but there is enough evidence to show that hungry children perform worse at school compared to children who receive proper meals daily.

Over the past few years, we have seen business schools around the world start to emphasise sustainability, ethical leadership, and social responsibility. Lecturers point out CSR is a moral obligation, but there is also a business case to be made: giving back is attractive to both customers and employees, engendering loyalty and improving staff retention. Socially responsible companies are also more appealing to investors, as this improves the overall reputation of a brand or organisation.

One survey conducted by the Financial Times looked at how business schools around the world contributed to or worked with social responsibility. It examined the results from various categories, from promoting research and writing business case studies on sustainability and finance, to researching the relationship between minimum wages and quality of life. There is evidence that such research contributed to changing minimum wage policy in countries like South Africa, making tangible impact.

Student projects also play a role in preparing future business leaders to incorporate social responsibility into their business strategy. At Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in China, faculty and students helped local villagers market goji berries, increasing income for local farmers by a third.

In South Africa, Milpark Business School introduced a Social Responsibility and Environmental Management module into their MBA programme. The core purpose of the SREM module is to ensure the Post Graduate students (PGDBA and MBA) explore the significance of social responsibility and environmental management from four perspectives, namely a corporate, government, individual and NGO. This is in keeping with Milpark Education’s philosophy of community outreach, community engagement and social responsibilities as part drivers of social environmental and economic sustainability. Students are made aware of the role and strategy of a public private partnership to achieve an integrated solution to sustainability through the lens of social responsibility and environmental management. 

As part of the project, students are required to compile an integrated presentation and assignment, motivating the choice of charity, alignment with the chosen company together with a recommended CSR strategy for the chosen company. Students then present their NGO selection to a panel and the winning pitch receives a donation from Milpark Education. In 2022, this resulted in a R300 000 contribution to Feenix an organisation which does innovative work in the space of higher education supporting students through crowd funding initiatives to be able to register and fund their fees for tertiary education.

As a student immerses themselves in an NGO – its operating conditions, its challenges, and objectives – they experience a mindset shift. For MBA graduate Gail Jaber, it meant becoming aware of the power of conscious giving, and the reciprocal benefits of doing good. “Giving to your community doesn’t necessarily mean spending money on it,” says Jaber. “There are more ways to give back – whether it’s with your time or a skill. The most important thing in life is giving. It supports our mental, emotional, and spiritual development.”

We need business leaders like Jaber to be looking for ways to support communities while also stimulating the economy. We need people like Koaile Monaheng, whose innovative concept has resulted in solar lights that provide energy for five lightbulbs and charging ports that last up to eight hours.

When it comes to the good that businesses can do, the sky is the limit. As Anita Roddick, founder of the hugely successful Body Shop chain once said, “There is no more powerful institution in society than business…The business of business should not be about money, it should be about responsibility. It should be about public good, not private greed.”

This is a lesson we should be teaching to future business leaders of our country. They are the ones who will help keep the lights on – while bringing us hope where we need it most.