As Jemila Abdulai sees it, a successful economy depends on shared growth, which takes in every sector of its people. She has made study and pursuit of growth a key part of her life’s work.
A writer, explorer, economist and freelance consultant, Abdulai created the award-winning Circumspecte, a digital platform, and a company dedicated to “capturing meaningful insights, imbibing digital skills, spurring interaction and inspiring creative action.”
She has seen the benefits in economies where everyone pulls together, which she recalled in a We Talk Biz conversation.
“Shared growth focuses on development that is both sustainable over time because it is inclusive — representative of a population,” Abdulai said. “It’s the use of resources to the benefit of the majority and taking into consideration the needs of many. It’s going for a win-win.
“The concept is largely related to economic development, as in the case of countries like my home country, Ghana, for instance,” she said. “Yet, it is equally applicable to any country, company, organization or society looking at addressing inequalities.”
Abdulai noted key elements of shared growth use in economic, human, social, natural and other resources in these ways:
- Rooted in common vision and goals
- Long-term oriented
- Equally distributed outputs
“I like to think of shared value as being beneficial both internally and externally,” Abdulai said. “Internally includes things like achieving goals, building common trust, developing a clear ‘culture’ for the unit — country, society, company – with a steady redefinition of that unit.
“External shared value is the development of a clear brand and value-add, track-record or reputation,” she said. “There also is the development of new competitive advantages, products, services, and markets, plus the ability to trade and not address present needs while anticipating future needs. Information is important.”
Shared value occurs at different levels.
“It would be at micro or individual and macro or national or even regional levels,” Abdulai said. “Each member of that landscape would be better equipped with the tools, knowledge, information, and environment needed to thrive or — at the very minimum — do better livelihood-wise.
“In economic terms, many would capture shared value as economic growth,” she said. “However, even that doesn’t fully capture the real human, social and cultural benefits of truly inclusive development that meets the needs and goals of a specific group, company or country. They define their needs.”
Abdulai believes it is important to make sure that, in business, shared growth not only benefits the shareholder but everyone in the company and greater society.
“In the context of Ghana and other African countries still figuring out their development and growth trajectory, it’s important because everything — even ‘business’ — is actually about economic, social, cultural and human development,” she said.
“Many of us seem to think ‘development’ or ‘policy’ is for the ‘economists’ or ‘researchers,’” Abdulai said. “The thing is, when you operate in a developing country context, a policy is about and affects everybody. If you don’t care about policy or development, it certainly cares about you.”
Successful entrepreneurs know a thriving company depends on more than money.
“You may run a for-profit business, but your ability to exist – register — and how you operate boil down to policy,” Abdulai said. “In manufacturing? The national energy framework influences your production. In services? Unemployment affects both your demand and ability to procure talent.
“Precisely for the fact that you are not excluded from ‘development’ just because you think you are, it is important to strive for shared growth,” she said. “Then you can invest in corporate social responsibility and help build the communities your business is in. Value goes around.”
Shared growth works best when opportunities in the public and private sectors are easily accessible to everyone.
“This is what initiatives like the Sustainable Development Goals and Millennium Development Goals have been trying to address,” Abdulai said. “From where I stand and work in digital education and entrepreneurship spheres with Circumspecte, it comes down to education and information access.
“As research by agencies like McKinsey has shown, education, skills, culture fit, and socialization ultimately determine who ends up getting opportunities, when and where,” she said. “By skills, I mean technical and soft skills that are transferable. That’s really important.”
In Abdulai’s view, education must be context driven.
“Fine tune to the needs and aspirations of a people, and not simply take a blanket approach,” Abdulai said. “Still going with a development context, that also means local content and knowledge should be prioritized. There is no one way of learning.
“Yes, the government should be the catalyst for this, but it’s really a combined effort,” she said. “For example, how many businesses actually document their processes? Which universities provide a platform for students to access previous student research? What language is used for all that?
Other hurdles await those working for shared growth.
“Language is often the first barrier to accessing opportunities,” Abdulai said. “This is especially true in the context of African countries where local languages often play second fiddle and large segments of the population don’t have those language skills. Think of putting out a job ad in a local language.
“I have more questions than answers,” she said. “It’s more complex than simply saying, create a government education program or get all children in school. Opportunities are defined by people, companies, communities, society’s expectations and so on.”
Abdulai emphasized the importance of shared growth in workplaces, companies and communities.
“First, ask why we want shared growth,” she said. “Then ask who will be involved in that process. We need to look at these issues not as inhumane, technical or economic issues, but as the very fabric of who we are. It’s really about shaping our shared futures.
“When we start off with those questions, we open the doors to invite other and more people to sit at the decision-making table,” Abdulai said. “We begin a process of co-creation and, as a result, co-accountability. We also allow for more creative approaches that are true to the unit.”
In any venture, it’s essential to think before you act.
“Many of us begin projects with our eye already set on how the end should look,” Abdulai said. “Many companies will simply build something — a borehole or school block for the community they operate in — more to assuage guilt or check off corporate social responsibility without actually asking the community or listening.
“There is great value in coming to the table as equals — realizing that we have different advantages – or disadvantages — and goals,” she said. “Yet, there is room for common ground. At the very minimum, a common trust will be nurtured. That goes a long way for sustainable business.”
That means making flexibility your friend.
“Given that shared value is a long-term approach, it also means being adaptable,” Abdulai said. “Pay attention to the changing landscape, needs, and resources. Yes, technology is a big part of that, but not always. Sometimes old, simpler tech might do the job better. So, stay open, too.”
Effective value and growth can benefit society in general, particularly by reducing unemployment.
“The first thing shared value or growth offers is an invitation to rethink what we think we know, along with how and why we do things,” Abdulai said. “When I was finishing high school, internships and volunteering weren’t a thing. The value wasn’t clear.
“Now, many students are encouraged to explore internships and volunteer,” she said. “Why? It’s an opportunity to build skills, but also to redefine themselves, their strengths and selling points. Such students are more likely to find a job after school or create their own opportunities.”
Businesses also have to do their part.
“Shared value will only be achieved if the companies approaching interns focus on giving them real work — not simply coffee runs, although that has its value add, too,” Abdulai said. “Entrepreneurs end up having a ready pool of candidates to draw on.”
She noted how the government could be drawn into the mix.
“With a clear value in students interning with companies and gaining practical skills, the government could jumpstart an official company-intern pairing project or business policy,” Abdulai said. “This helps address the skills mismatch that also fuels unemployment.
“By looking at growth or value as inclusive, we also have the opportunity to expand our ideas of what skills are necessary or valuable,” she said. “Many of us place a priority on white-collar jobs, but vocational and technical skills are equally important. It all boils down to context.”
All of these elements – individuals and business, public and private sectors – must work in harmony to achieve Abdulai’s vision.
“With a shared vision on how growth or value should look, we bring everyone to the table,” she said. “If we have 10,000 minds and hands chipping away at the unemployment problem — and creating jobs and opportunities — we’d have a better chance at addressing it.
“Everything around us was once an idea,” Abdulai said. “It was once novel. It required an expansion in one’s understanding of self, of opportunity, of possibility to come alive. So really, we do have the key ingredients to make things happen, but only if we try.”
Her shared value and growth call to action starts simple.
“Begin where you are, with what you have, taking into consideration the context you find yourself in,” Abdulai said. “Strive to add value. Then pay attention and listen to how people respond to that value. Fine tune, experiment and collaborate with those who have a similar vision.
“Document your process however you feel comfortable with,” she said. “Then share your insights and learnings. In a competitive business, information is power, yes, but sharing and collaborating is also powerful. Ask your customers, clients or audiences what they want and listen.”
As you do that, don’t get enamored with catchy labels or jargon.
“We like to give fancy names to the things we do, but what we do daily is give, take and share value,” Abdulai said. “If you find yourself doing more of the taking, consider giving for once. If you find yourself giving, consider asking for value. Ask yourself why you do what you do.
“Take advantage of social technologies,” she said. “Expand your view of the world and see how other people elsewhere are doing things. There is some value everywhere if you look hard enough. Also, let’s not try to push our ideas down people’s throats. Learn. Communicate for the average person.”