RATINGS agencies have given SA six months to get its house in order, and concerned citizens may feel that there is little they can do to spur the economic growth needed to avoid a downgrade.

Given the country’s volatility — especially service delivery protests and pre-election violence — business leaders may retreat into simply ticking the boxes on black economic empowerment, corporate social investment and the triple bottom line; lapse into survival mode; and act out of pure self-interest. Self-interest is fine, says one of SA’s foremost business thinkers, Absa and Barclays Africa chairwoman Wendy Lucas-Bull, as long as it is the informed kind that embraces collaboration, cultural intelligence, and crowding — the phenomenon association with online fundraising.

"If we don’t get growth in SA, we won’t flourish. To grow, we need healthy communities," Lucas-Bull told a recent QualityLife Business Unusual breakfast forum.

But with a trend of the government promising to deliver and failing, social health seems like a goal beyond the ambit of the average citizen. The solution, she says, is to create social health "outside ourselves", going much wider than the triple bottom line.

The ratings agencies need a "changed story on growth" from SA, says Lucas-Bull, who was part of Team SA that went with Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan to meet the agencies in February.

"The ratings agency audience was incredible, and they were very interested," she says.

"They have confidence in the Treasury, finance ministry and solidness of the budget. But they need something else to shift."

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ESSENTIALLY, business, the government and labour are tasked with providing "a different narrative and a move into an action space". With various work streams having been created — on the creation of a fund to support the development of small and medium-sized enterprises and investment promotion, for example — the ratings agencies need South Africans to walk the talk more.

"How do we change the trajectory?" Lucas-Bull asks. She sees the solution in informed self-interest and inclusive growth.

"Informed self-interest starts with thinking outside yourself — exposing yourself to things wider than your circle. Do something different in your community to help you understand different people. See into others’ worlds."

Such an approach could have benefits, not only for individuals, but for their enterprises, communities and the economy. It involves a different kind of market research: business leaders and anyone interested in disrupting the current trajectory should increase their cultural intelligence levels, to gain more understanding across different cultures and settings, developing a deeper insight into the environment in which they are. To come up with an innovative business, you have to have a deeper understanding on the outside. If you don’t understand the pressures in the community around you, you won’t find the right solutions," Lucas-Ball says.

"Take the time to understand what would make a difference in Diepsloot, for example — the pressure for more schools? Primary healthcare? Or a mum with three children, who needs to find jobs for them all. If you understand their aspirations you can change lives."

Lucas-Bull, who does regular volunteering work, says "You get more than you give. You are able to be more productive and innovative, do better by reaching out, doing more. By extending basic community initiatives, you come away inspired.

"It’s about saying, what do I have in my network — at work and outside of that? Look at the problems and needs, and then to the links to strengths in the company, or is there someone you know? It’s about sharing, collaboration, partnering."

She cites a company that, facing a fine over emissions, found a partner that helped it out of its fix. "The industry used kilns, which pumped out CO², for which it faced a fine. What absorbs CO² is blue-green algae — spirulina — which can be grown in shallow tanks. It takes just three days to grow and is highly nutritious."

By producing spirulina, these companies ticked several boxes: one saved on the high cost of the emissions fine; it helped create a second business; and together, they created jobs and eliminated one of the barriers to education for children — insufficient nutrition.

"By asking the right questions you can provide solutions to problems in the community," Lucas-Ball says.

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AN EFFECTIVE way to do this is by examining how the power of an organisation can influence other people and organisations in the community. This is illustrated by the Development Bank of SA, which grants funding to municipalities.

"The problem the bank was frequently encountering was water wastage. So, it made maintenance of infrastructure a condition for funding," Lucas-Bull says.

"Look at every aspect of your life and business and ask questions such as, how does it work, can I create jobs? Think about procurement, packaging, infrastructure. For example, if you are planning a dinner event, consider placing a beaded item on the table instead of flowers."

Lucas-Bull also recommends using the National Development Plan (NDP) as a starting point and assimilating it into a business. "Ensure your areas of core competence line up with the NDP. Get critical mass into critical streams. It is all out there.

"Companies are more successful when they collaborate. If you are smaller, crowd with a corporate; if you are a big organisation, crowd with smaller ones."

She cites the example of the Absa portals in different centres throughout SA, where small operators can consult experts on anything from tax to logistics. "Look for opportunities to invite other companies in."

She says it is crucial to get involved in protecting SA’s constitutional integrity by supporting nongovernmental initiatives such as the Legal Resources Centre and Corruption Watch.

"Post-1994, resources have been channelled away from such organisations into health and education, but they need support so they can keep our politicians’ feet to the fire," Lucas-Bull says.

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