Financing innovation in Africa: Rebranding the Sustainable Development Goals as an asset class

On Sunday, 2 December, the 7th Annual Global Citizen Festival arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa commemorating the centennial of the birth of Nelson Mandela. The concert, which featured artists like Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Ed Sheeran, Eddie Vedder also showcased African artists, art, fashion and culture. Unsurprisingly, it sold out the 94,700-capacity First National Bank (FNB) Stadium.

The festival was hosted by The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, who grew up in Soweto, the South African township that borders on the Stadium. Other highlights included a collaboration between Usher and South Africa’s most popular DJ and producer Black Coffee.

According to the organizers, the program led to 5.6 million individual actions by fans and brought in more than $7 billion in commitments surpassing its goals seven-fold, with its funding objectives aligned with the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its ambition of ending extreme poverty.

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UN 2030 comprises 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which recognize that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health, education, sanitation, infrastructure, peace and security, gender inequality, and spur economic growth, while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

The SDGs, once the conversation of academics and elites in New York and Geneva, have seeped into everyday vernacular, particularly so amongst Millennials. This generation considers social impact as important as return-on-investment, and their numbers flooded the festival at FNB.

But within African nations, meeting the SDG goals is more than a question of civic action, it is an urgent race-against-time. The continent is faced with unprecedented demographic growth and governance is not progressing fast enough to keep up to the expectations of Africa’s youth.

It’s not surprising then that the Global Citizen Festival wasn’t the only SDG-related event last week in Africa, nor is it unexpected that necessity is breeding invention in the social laboratories of the continent.

On 5 December, in Accra, Ghana, the government of Ghana held the Accra SDG Investment Fair to scale up financing for the implementation of the SDGs in Ghana. And while I didn’t make it to the Beyoncé concert in Johannesburg, I did attend the conference in Accra, where the organizing committee asked if I would conduct behind-the-scenes interviews with participants and guests.

Months earlier, Ghana took the unprecedented step of writing the SDGs into its measurement of national progress, only the second country to do so after Mexico, and the first in Africa.

Ghana’s 2018 SDG Budget Report 2018 calls for a re-coding of the budget from policy objectives to SDG targets to enable the tracking of all allocations to the SDGS. The report is the starting point of a bi-annual series of SDG Budget Reports to ensure that resources are channeled towards the 2030 deadline.

In an interview on the margins of the Fair, Amit Bhatai, CEO of the Global Steering Group for Impact Investment told me what Ghana is doing with its budget is more than bold. He called it “evolutionary.”

Bhatai explained that attaching economic performance to the SDGs democratizes the economy, ensuring inclusive growth with measurements that track real improvements in the daily lives of Ghana’s citizens.

Indeed, The Financial Times’ Africa Editor, David Pilling suggests that “the time has come to stop believing in the GDP.” In his new book, The Growth Delusion, Pilling explains, “for too long, economics has relied on a language which fails to resonate with people's actual experience, and we are now living with the consequences.”

Recognizing that the government alone cannot meet these poverty-reduction targets, the Accra SDG Investment Fair was organized to create a marketplace.

“With much of the world’s wealth in the hands of private enterprise and individuals, we need to partner with the private sector to finance the SDGs,” former banker, now Finance Minister, Ken Ofori-Atta informed the participants in written remarks.  He explained how this effort is an essential part of a Ghana Beyond Aid.

Yofi Grant, the CEO of Ghana’s Investment Promotion Center, talked about the need to re-brand the SDGs – away from donor-based handouts and towards shared investment opportunities. Grant said this is the only way to fill the annual $2.5 trillion financing gap in the world’s emerging markets.

He called the SDGs an “asset class” in Ghana where the government was intent on providing the conditions for private capital to invest profitably for the social good.

Panelist Kofi Dadzie, CEO and Co-founder of Rancard Solutions which connects global brands to mobile audiences with artificial-enabled conversational commerce, concurred. “We must look at the SDGs as 17 expressions of innovation,” he said.

Beyond budgetary allocations, the government of Ghana is implementing programs that court the private sector through fiscal, commercial and other incentives.

One such project is One District, One Factory, (1D1F) which seeks to make private investors part of Ghana’s industrial diversification and transform the structure of the economy from one dependent on the production of raw materials to value-added.

Nelplast Ghana Limited, a 1D1f beneficiary who has developed a technology to turn plastic garbage into stone-like pavement blocks, was one of many exhibitors at the fair in search of private capital to scale up. Its director, Kenneth Amponsah, informed me how the company helps support three of the SDGs: Clean water and sanitation; Industry, innovation and infrastructure; and Climate action.

Even with the precedents and policies, participants expressed the view that they wanted more from their government to galvanize the population towards action.

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“Ghana is talked about as Africa’s gold standard of democracy, with consecutive peaceful transfers of power from one leader to the next, but it’s not enough, our democracy must mature,” said Estelle Akofio-Sowah, the West African Manager of CSquared, a technology company born out of Google.

She said the burden falls on government to be inclusive, to create an enabling environment for investment and innovation, and to inculcate a sense of ownership and responsibility in each citizen which she argues is lacking.

Like the Global Citizen Festival, the Accra SDG Investment Fair is slated to become an annual event to galvanize support and measure progress, with an Accra Charter adopted at its close to set expectations for the coming year.

Young people were an integral part of the SDG fair including high school students who had debated the SDGs at their model UN clubs, college kids who had recently participated in the 2nd African Youth SDG Summit, and youth journalists signed up to educate their trade on the importance of measuring governance by its impact on lives.

I asked one 26-year-old student from Youth Advocates for Ghana what gave him the greatest hope for the future. He replied without hesitation – my faith lies in our young people, and my hope is for their empowerment, so that they – then he paused and edited himself – so that we, can realize our full potential. 

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson