FD Nelly Kiogora-Toroitich says if ESG is not measured, it doesn’t get done

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At a recent company annual general meeting “activists outnumbered shareholders”, Nelly Kiogora-Toroitich, the finance director of Unilever East Africa, recently explained at the CFO East Africa ESG Summit. This, she says, shows that people are more informed and pushing for the agenda of sustainability.

“On ESG, we need to be proactive rather than reactive. We are seeing the regulator coming in to really enforce ESG by taking measures such as the introduction of an eco-tax on plastics. When developing products, you need to be mindful of your customers as all innovations need to have the mindset of considering what it means from an ESG point of view. When it comes to human resources, you find younger, well-informed employees decline opportunities to work for entities if they do not adhere to certain sustainability ideals,” Nelly said.

She added that the purpose of products is important, recalling a conversation with an intern who was encouraging fellow employees not to change phones frequently because of allegations of child labour in the production of phones. This, Nelly said, indicates the emergence of a more informed society that is mindful of the value chain that leads to the products being used.

“CFOs have no choice but to be proactive in ESG implementation. We sit in different forums that influence innovation and the crafting of taxes. Finance leaders integrate the entire organisation, and that’s a key role because decisions are made in every discussion and board session we sit in. Shareholders are no longer looking for short-term benefits; they are keen on value generation,” Nelly explained.

She went on to detail the areas that Unilever is focused on in “the impactful, ruthless prioritisation” of the ESG agenda. The first consideration is the climate with the reduction of carbon emissions. Secondly, they are looking to enhance the nature agenda through addressing deforestation and sourcing of raw and packaging materials. Thirdly, the entity is working on the elimination of plastics and finally enriching livelihoods.

“We are working with an organisation called Mr. Green who have employed people from low-income areas to collect plastics which are crushed and reused. Three of our canisters, Vim, Domestos and Sunlight, are 100 percent from recyclable plastics. By 2030, we need to have zero virgin plastic,” she explained.

Nelly revealed that Unilever has piloted a sustainability initiative in Ethiopia, focusing on the 85 percent of the population who live in rural areas, where access to quality, affordable products is limited and the route to market is costly. Starting with a network of 5,000 women two years ago, this initiative has grown to 17,000 women, with a target of 25,000 by the end of the year. The programme provides these women with products at discounted rates through a dedicated supplier, empowering them to sell door-to-door and through their own kiosks. This approach not only create employment opportunities for many unemployed women but also addresses last-mile delivery challenges, reducing overall distribution costs. By bringing essential products to underserved areas and enhancing livelihoods, Unilever's initiative has made a significant impact on both economic and social fronts.

The company has made significant strides in localising its supply chain in Kenya, transforming the sourcing of raw and packaging materials from 80 percent imported in 2023 to 75 percent locally produced in the current year. This shift not only mitigates the impact of currency devaluation, but also fosters local economic growth by creating employment and supporting local suppliers. They have empowered local farmers with credit for seedlings, planting, and training, thereby enhancing their livelihoods.

The company has introduced Sunlight dispensers, which allow consumers to purchase powder detergent in a manner that reduces plastic use. This innovation supports the sustainability agenda while providing economic benefits to women entrepreneurs. Furthermore, Unilever has created the Jaza Duka programne, which, in partnership with finance organisations, offers affordable credit to small-scale retailers.

“Everything we do is measured — if it’s not measured, it doesn’t get done. Our approach has transformed lives, creating employment for retailers who previously lacked capital and enabling them to make a profit. By doing so, we tick the box for improving livelihoods. It's a win-win, as we invest in ESG initiatives that benefit everyone involved. Jaza Duka also addresses the last-mile challenge effectively, ensuring our products reach the final retailer, and creating livelihoods from sourcing to retail,” she concluded.

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