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Hedzole and the emergence of a new CSR paradigm

A few weeks ago, I attended an online event where I met a lady from Ghana. She ran an organisation called ‘Hedzole’ (pronounced “Heh-joleh”) which was technically an NGO, and the German foreign ministry sponsored this event. On closer examination however, Hedzole turned out to be something else altogether more striking and momentous than just another charity.

To understand why I was so taken with Hedzole and what it represents, a little back story is necessary. Prior to founding Hedzole, this lady – Pat Wilkins – devoted all her time to BASICS International, which was a more prosaic type of NGO that many Africans might be familiar with. That organisation focused on assisting underprivileged Ghanaian girls through basic and secondary education, with the hope that they would get into higher education and achieve better life outcomes using education as their key lever.

In practise, Pat told me, what often tended to happen was that after helping these girls through school with financial, mental and mentorship support, a large number of them either did not aspire to get into higher education, or even dropped out of secondary school. In one particular case she mentioned, the student dropped out in SS1 and now has 3 children at the ripe old age of 21. From the point of view of conventional CSO practise which uses a linear approach to solving such problems, this was a failure. End of the road. Hedzole however, changed all this.

Accept people as they are – A new paradigm for CSR

Typically, the practise of corporate social responsibility in Nigeria boils down to dipping a benevolent hand into a loaded corporate pocket and showering grateful beneficiaries with contents of said pocket. The medieval imagery of Malian King Mansa Musa showering beggars in Baghdad and Mecca with gold dust accurately captures the approach to poverty alleviation employed by Nigeria CSR – benevolent, indulgent, obliging, inadequate and patronising.

What tends to happen in practise after showering The Great Unwashed with these boreholes, laptops and assorted consumer widgets is that they proceed to furiously utilise said borehole with zero responsibility until it inevitably goes bad, then they are back to square one. They use said laptop exclusively to consume entertainment and then eventually sell it to buy something more useful, like say, food. They use the educational aid to attend school, meet someone with similarly low expectations, have a baby at 15 and drop out. The Nigerian CSR tap is thus forever busying itself emptying vast amounts of benevolence into the proverbial basket that will never retain water.

Hedzole was born out of frustration at this cycle of despair. Looking at this pregnant teenager with no future ahead of her one day, Pat thought to herself – “There must be something we can do to assist this person to make her life better.” The answer didn’t quite walk in fully formed, but it took shape over the next few months. First was an engagement with the aid recipient – what did she really want to do now? What did she believe she had the capacity to do? What was a realistic target income for her to live a dignified life?

Then came the skill training – tailoring in this case. More than just a skill acquisition framework however, Hedzole then took the concept further and thus achieved something I have never seen anywhere else before. I was so captivated by it that I promised myself that I would write this column no matter how long it took me to get round to it. What Hedzole did and is doing, I believe, can serve as a framework to radically alter the operation of CSR managers in corporate Nigeria as well as bodies operating in the aid-funded CSO/NGO sector.

No handouts, no employees – Just partners

After going through a skill acquisition program at a typical CSR/CSO organisation, it is usually up to the upskilled individual to find a way to monetise their skill. The trouble is that in an environment like Africa, that is often the very hardest part of the entire process of becoming economically productive. How for example, would a 19 year-old newly trained seamstress with 2 kids find the time and money to build a customer pipeline and grow a business? This is the failure point of the existing paradigm – one which Pat realised could be eliminated.

Instead of this “train ‘em up and turn ‘em loose” approach, what Hedzole did was to take it on itself to create a workspace with the relevant materials and facilities for the newly upskilled beneficiaries to start work. More importantly, Hedzole marketed the products and engaged consumers on behalf of the makers. For example, a cohort that learned shoe and bag making would have materials, work space and tools provided for them to create these items. Pat herself would then get to work knocking down doors that they might not have access to on their own, and voila – sales!

The beneficiaries get to keep the majority of their earnings while the organisation’s cut is then reinvested into it to obtain more work materials and spaces, and to train more people. Using this method, our “failure” mentioned at the outset now lives a dignified, independent life with her 3 children. She earns the equivalent of about N85,000/month and she is free to work outside of Hedzole and make more money on the side. She now has a gleam in her eyes and she thinks about expansion. For the first time in her life, she has plans, she has dreams, and she has ambitions that are not contingent on being “helped.”

What Hedzole – a nonprofit organisation – might have unwittingly showed African CSR practitioners is the blueprint for successful community engagement. It turns out that there is a middle ground between a one-sided relationship based on giving handouts and a one-sided relationship based on extracting value.

They just need to find that sweet spot.

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