There is limited research on how Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs) are working towards the Sustainable Development Goals, especially in a developing country like South Africa. Photo: Freepik
There is limited research on how Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs) are working towards the Sustainable Development Goals, especially in a developing country like South Africa. Photo: Freepik

A lack of knowledge of Sustainable Development Goals by SME employees in SA

By Opinion Time of article published Jan 27, 2021

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By Chinomnso Onwunta and Zaid Railoun

Since the introduction of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the United Nations in 2015, research has mainly sought to understand how larger organisations and governmental agencies are working towards advancing these goals.

However, there is limited research on how Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs) are working towards these goals, especially in a developing country like South Africa. SMEs are generally classified as having between 1 and 250 employees and constitute up to 90 percent of companies in South Africa.

The organisational incorporation of the SDGs constitutes a step towards the achievement of the goals. Given that employees are the driving force of organisations, it makes sense to understand their views on the SDGs. So how are we doing against major emerging national economies namely the BRICS nations?

Emerging countries like South Africa are interesting when it comes to implementing SDGs as they represent large developing economies; South Africa  being part of the multinationals in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the G20 is proof of its significance but with SME’s lacking detailed attention.

However, amongst the BRICS countries, it is stated that multinationals in South Africa were the last to adopt the SDGs - keeping in mind that the Global Competitiveness Report of 2011 ranked SA as the most favourable amongst the BRICS nations.

There is a clear indication what the importance of these goals means within the South African society and also a sign the SDGs are not fully understood as in other countries. From a recent study conducted, it appears that SA Small Medium Enterprises (SME) employees have some knowledge of the SDGs and perceive that their organisations are implementing these goals implicitly and by chance.

Surprisingly or unsurprisingly depending on who you ask, the research showed that South African SME employees have limited knowledge of the SDGs and that greater awareness and education of the topic of SDGs in required in South Africa. However, like many other ‘things’ in South Africa the process of advancing the SDGs is not without challenges and more effort is required by SMEs for successful and holistic advancement of the goals.

In our view a holistic approach to tackle these challenges should be implemented in phases:

P1: A collective and targeted effort is required both from SMEs and other societal stakeholders related the SMEs; management, as well as employees, are necessary for advancing these goals, even though much of the driving force seems to be assigned to management.

P2: Create awareness through specialized and localized courses centred on critical issues within the South African context, focusing on tailoring the issues per industry. In that way, the globalised concept of the SDGs can be made tangible and practical for the organisations and their employees to work with it.

P3: Employees, in realising that they are key stakeholders, should be looking to take initiative when it comes to the SDGs. But for that to happen, organisations are to recognise the value of the goals and look to embed them as part of their sustainability strategy.

To ensure the ‘sustainable’ contribution from SMEs towards the advancement of the SDGs, management is required to envision and look for ways to incorporate the SDGs within the organisation in an explicit manner. This incorporation requires incentives or enforcement.

The implication is that organisations require a level of economic incentive or some type of legitimization (eg. certification); otherwise, coercive enforcement is required for increased contribution.

The economic incentive can be in the form of a tax-ease or rebate for achieving the set-out SDG targets for the previous year. Alternatively, a sustainability levy can be created and paid into a fund, which can be used for funding sustainability initiatives that companies take part in.

This pool of funds can be claimed annually, depending on the achievement of the SDG target set the previous year. This might encourage a higher level of SDG incorporation within organisations. Such a step will require a clear and standardised matrix for measurement.

Financial incentives and recognition are also critical for the employees’ engagement. The implementation of a government mandate could add accountability and credibility to SDG incorporation within SMEs.

Research shows that SMEs are interested in doing what makes economic sense but are also willing to comply with the law. The SDGs should be made easy to implement within organisations, through an easy-to-use and comprehensive data collection/reporting method.

For instance, the chamber of commerce or business cohorts in SA and other African countries can include a section on the SDGs in all new applications for SMEs. This registration requirement begins the process of organisations thinking about the SDGs and localising these goals.

We, as South Africans and Africans in general, must realise and acknowledge that today’s problems and challenges require solutions that incorporate diverse skills and creative thinking. It is up to us to solve these problems with new ways of thinking and not base it on foreign or old ways of thinking.

Africa will in due course have the biggest and youngest population on the earth, so there is still much-untapped creativeness that must be born not only to achieve the SDGs but think out new ways to restore the balance between natural and economic ecosystems. We have to combine our efforts and act NOW.

Chinomnso Onwunta is the Vice President of the International Liaison and Partnerships at The Green Institute in Nigeria and Zaid Railoun is a Research Water Scientist at the Investment Fund Africa looking at Water infrastructure investment projects in Africa


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