Increasing the Impact of Business

How can the private sector help generate positive impact at scale?

Our Experience

Wasafiri works to unlock the potential of business in tackling complex issues. For over a decade, we’ve been working with multinationals to engage strategically and at scale on issues ranging from inclusive employment, sustainable supply chains, community engagement and net zero initiatives, including:

  • Supporting the UK’s National Grid to become Net-Zero; working with innovation team to unlock a new strategic sustainability strategy.
  • Design and implementation support to help Yara and Econet to establish Generation Africa; a continent-wide movement to drive tech-led, inclusive growth in agriculture.
  • Community engagement and conflict prevention with Tullow Oil in Northern Kenya through participatory processes to establish locally-owned engagement mechanism.
  • Research and advisory support for Mars to develop practical frameworks and tools for supply chain managers to improve farmer incomes in Africa.
  • Strategic advisory services for KPMG’s Global Sustainability team to design a corporate citizenship progamme to support the Sustainable Development Goals.

Our work is underpinned by an extensive track record working across sectors such as agriculture, healthcare, FMCG, financial services, energy, and working with the private sector across emerging markets such as East Africa and South-east Asia.

The Challenge

The world is facing an array of challenges that it has never encountered before. From climate change to inequality; from food security to migration; from gender equity to modern day slavery: the list goes on. These challenges are societal and environmental, and affect individuals, organisations and ecosystems alike.

These challenges are global and systemic. Is climate change one country’s responsibility? Can we feed the growing, global population without damaging the natural environment? Is economic prosperity possible without gender equality? And which organisation is responsible for addressing any, or all, of these problems?

The challenges that we face are deeply interconnected. As a result, we are experiencing trans-boundary, dynamic problems which are everyone’s responsibility, yet no-one’s. The lines of accountability are blurred, and it is no longer clear who should lead in addressing these problems. These challenges are global, systemic and complex.

Global leadership is looking to business to play a role. Increasingly, strategies and frameworks are acknowledging the shared responsibility of these complex, global challenges. The private sector, public sector, international organisations and civil society all have a role to play to mitigate negative impacts and to scale solutions.

For example, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) lays out 17 global goals for sustainable development, identifying indicators and targets which different sectors can contribute to. The idea is not to lay the blame at any one sector’s door, rather, it is to direct collaborative and cohesive efforts to address the most urgent challenges of our time. The role of business is clearly defined within the detail of the SDGs.

The role of business is also evident in the myriad multi-stakeholder platforms which exist to tackle complex problems. The World Economic Forum exists to convene partnerships across sectors to “improve the state of the world”, whilst the World Business Council for Sustainable Development brings together companies to collaborate on targeted business solutions for the SDGs.

Enlightened businesses are seizing the opportunities of impact at scale. There is no doubt that ‘business as usual’ has contributed in part to the challenges we face today; however, done right, a business can be a force for impact at scale. This is more than traditional CSR projects and corporate philanthropy; it is how the business operates and designs products and services for wider benefit. The business represents a potent lever for change because of its enormous reach and ability to influence myriad stakeholders – employees, consumers, communities, and suppliers.

In the face of today’s complex challenges, the business has an opportunity to innovate and scale socially responsible and net-positive products and services. Done well, new approaches and partnerships can deliver competitive advantages and real impact.

For over a decade, we’ve been working on issues ranging from inclusive employment, sustainable supply chains, community engagement and net zero initiatives.

The State of System Change

Businesses have a profound opportunity to help generate positive impact at scale on complex global problems. Below we offer a systems-based perspective on what it might take.

Building shared understanding: Increase stakeholders’ ability to recognise different perspectives.

Deepening awareness of why some problems exist can reveal new opportunities for impact. However, getting to grips with the relationships, behaviours, and incentives is hard and messy. Yet building a shared understanding of market and system dynamics is essential for private sector organisations with an interest in problem-solving and opportunity-spotting.

In response to the threat of climate change and the transition to Net Zero for example, such work is often done well at the global level by academia, think tanks and institutes. For example, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) works to examine the emerging scientific data on climate change and deepen the awareness of the nature of the threat. Similarly, the Royal Institute of International Affairs conducts research for policy makers considering more sustainable models of economic growth.

Yet local insights are also imperative. In this regard, representative bodies, trade associations and consumer groups are also able to provide insights into potential climate change related impacts. For example, farmers associations in Tanzania are able to represent the interests of smallholders in understanding the impact of shifts in agricultural or economic policy or variations in climate.

Securing Commitment: Align goals amongst those driving change.

Business has a vital role to play in establishing the shared commitment of stakeholders to tackle tough problems. Yet such work can be fraught with competing interests.

Take for example the challenge of global plastic consumption; a plastic manufacturer may seek to innovate new plastics, FMCG companies wants to sell more bottled drinks, consumers desire less plastic but more options, while environmental NGOs advocate for less plastic waste. These are not the same goals yet they are not mutually exclusive. Navigating a path to common ground and mutual benefit is extremely difficult.

Points of leverage can found at different levels, such as company CEOs responding to shareholder concerns in supporting the transition to sustainable packaging, or government policy shifting to new investments in recycling or waste collection. Multi-stakeholder platforms, such as the World Economic Forum, play an important role in helping divergent organisations to identify areas of common interest, interpreting different stakeholders’ terms of reference and aligning goals.

Changing the Dynamics: Create mutually reinforcing interventions that change incentives.

By coordinating interventions and targeting them at the way the system works, protagonists may be able to fundamentally change the dynamics. However, systems are resistant to change, and a coordinated combination of interventions may be needed to creating lasting change between the elements of a system. Strategies to consider include investment and resource allocation; policy; innovation; and, building human capacity.

Consider the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD)’s work on the problem of food insecurity and nutrition. The organisation provides a space for the private sector to collaborate, innovate, co-fund and pilot sustainable development solutions and by engaging a critical mass of companies in a sector, the initiatives can reach a tipping point for change.

Enabling Coordination: Enhance formal and informal structures that enable stakeholders to work together.

The work of coordinating with diverse stakeholders can be onerous, particularly for businesses responding to demands for returns on investment. Yet efforts to build shared understanding, secure commitment, change dynamics are likely to be worth it in the longer term.

The case of oil exploration in Northern Kenya is salutary. The fragmented and rushed response from new players seeking to take advantage of the find quickly led to an escalation of conflict across the region. Painstaking work over following years to establish locally owned, inclusive and participatory mechanisms for engagement from populations as diverse as local pastoralists, created new foundations to address sensitive issues such as land access, water use and resource allocation.

Augmenting Learning: Address asymmetries of learning and information flow.

Investing in inclusive, adaptive learning mechanisms is a powerful approach for organisations seeking to harness new opportunities for tackling systems problems.

Understanding data and how data flows is critical for understanding any tough problem; carbon emissions, water usage, technology access, political participation, social equality, urbanisation, migrant flows, you name it; understanding what is or isn’t happening is key. Data, or information, asymmetry can also exacerbate inequality and exclusion; information is power. In response, we are witnessing an emerging global movement for transparency and disclosure.

Measuring the changes taking place in the world around us is an emerging practice that goes beyond monitoring, measurement or evaluation of projects, investments or activities. Organisations such as the World Economic Forum and the University of Wageningen are pioneering new approaches to understand the impact of efforts to tackle global systems challenges. Others are more targeted; for instance the Global Reporting Initiative has been established to strengthen Sustainability Reporting, while the World Benchmarking Alliance seeks to assess companies’ performance on the Sustainable Development Goals.

Tools & Resources

UN Sustainable Development Goals

A shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future, developed by the United Nations.


World Business Council for Sustainable Development

Insight on “Why business should care about the SDGs”.


World Benchmarking Alliance

Seven Systems Transformations for benchmarking companies on the SDGs.


Global Reporting Initiatives

Guidance for sustainability reporting.


World Economic Forum

The Platform for Global Public Goods seeks to engage business and other sectors on a wide range of global challenges.


Related Case Studies

Generation Africa: Grow Entrepreneurs.Transform Food.

New approaches for preventing violent extremism in East Africa

Millions of smallholders reached through private investment

Systemcraft Labs: innovating new approaches for complex problems