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Integrating Sustainability Principles into Business Continuity Plan: Mitigating COVID-19 Impacts in Africa

Integrating Sustainability Principles into Business Continuity Plan: Mitigating COVID-19 Impacts in Africa

The Organised Private Sector (OPS) players are the engines and drivers of economic growth in Africa, therefore faces considerable risks in light of the COVID-19 pandemic which has caused an unprecedented human and health crisis. “This is the defining global health emergency of our time and the greatest challenge we have faced since World War II. Since its emergence in Asia late last year, the virus has spread to every continent except Antarctica.” Cases are rising daily in America, Europe and slightly in Africa at the moment. Countries are racing to flatten the curve by testing and treating patients, carrying out contact tracing, limiting travel, quarantining citizens, and prohibiting large gatherings such as religious activities, sporting events, concerts, and schools.

“The pandemic is moving like a wave—one that may yet crash on those least able to cope. But COVID-19 is much more than a health crisis”. It has caused significant losses of life and property, and that has highlighted business vulnerabilities to sustainability issues – environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors.    The analysis by the World Bank shows that “the pandemic will cost the African region between $37 billion and $79 billion in output losses for 2020 due to a combination of effects. They include trade and value chain disruption, which impacts commodity exporters and countries with strong value chain participation; reduced foreign financing flows from remittances, tourism, foreign direct investment, foreign aid, combined with capital flight; and through direct impacts on health systems, and disruptions caused by containment measures and the public response.” In the past few weeks, there has been a number of discussions on the intersection between sustainability and business continuity. 

I have been asked how possible it is to implement business continuity plans adopting more sustainable business processes such as ISO 26000 Social Responsibility, ISO 45001 Occupational Health and Safety, ISO 14001 Environmental Management and ISO 9001 Quality Management either in isolation or as an integrated management system. These are valid concerns by business leaders especially in Africa where a majority of these organisations may not have a Business Continuity Plan (BCP). For the sake of clarification, “a Business Continuity Plan (BCP) is a process that outlines the potential impact of disaster situations, creates policies to respond to them and helps businesses recover quickly so they can function as usual”. A BCP is generally created in advance of a disaster and involves the company’s key stakeholders. The main goal of a BCP is to protect personnel and assets, both during and after an emergency. 

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On the other hand, “a Management System (MS) is a set of policies, processes and procedures used by an organisation to ensure that it can fulfil the tasks required to achieve its objectives while  an Integrated Sustainability Management System (ISMS) is a complete framework that combines all aspects of an organisation’s systems, processes, and any standards including business continuity plan that the business follows to achieve desired business goals in a sustainable manner.” This combined system allows a business to meet all its obligations, addressing all elements of the management system as a whole rather than looking at the individual standards and their requirements separately.

The COVID-19 crisis is providing a training ground for organisations to adopt a more proactive risk-based approach with regards to their operations as well consider the parts of the business that can — and must — be digitised. This will be a key requirement in order to become more resilient for the future. Sustainability is now more than ever, synonymous with business continuity and resiliency. The pandemic will make it relatively easy to discern which organisations are really committed to their sustainability goals and intentions. The main need in the short term will be the medical and economic support for those most affected by this crisis. At an organisational level, cash at hand during a crisis is key. It is important to sustain cash flow to make sure you have some level of liquidity for some time. Figure out what expenses you can cut and check your account receivable to see what you can collect. Don’t assume this will all be over in two weeks or a month. This is likely to be the new normal for some time. Remember, African countries do not have superb fiscal policies with built in space for social protection interventions, especially targeting the organised private sector and workers in the informal sector, that will also sow the seed for future resilience of our economies. All these are integral part of the sustainability framework as will be discussed below.

Plan-Do-Check-Act Framework (PDCA)

The widely accepted ISO Plan-Do-Check-Act Framework can get you started in integrating sustainability into your business continuity plan tailored to suit any area of business: 

The PDCA framework


Establish objectives and processes required to deliver the desired results. These may include the following-

  • Policy, purpose, and scope
  • Goals and objectives
  • Procedure and process documentation
  • Key roles and responsibilities
  • Risk mitigation plans including Environmental, Social and Governance 
  • List of tasks required to keep operations flowing
  • Explanation of where to go during an emergency
  • Information on data backups and site backup
  • Operational and service delivery backup 
  • Plan maintenance protocols
  • Coordination with local emergency personnel
  • Contact information of management personnel
  • Internal review process 
  • Define continual improvement and management review criteria 

2. DO

The “Do” phase allows the plan from the previous step to be done. Small changes are usually tested, and data is gathered to see how effective the change is. This is the main operational stage therefore I will discuss it in five subheadings as identified by Robin MeyerhoffBrand below: 

  • Pick your team

Get the right team together and identify your goals. Be realistic about what you can sustain and how you should prioritize. It is unlikely that your organisation is able to continue business as usual right now. That’s why you need to (virtually) bring together the people who understand your core business competencies well enough to make judgment calls with limited information. Leadership direction must come from the most senior levels (CEO and/or Board of Directors). Then form a steering committee that includes senior representatives from operations, finance, human resources, information technology, and legal as well as input from the heads of your various product or service lines. If you don’t have a plan now, you probably don’t have a business continuity planner on your team. You should identify a member of this core team who can serve in that function, get trained and lead your process.

  • Establish the facts

Reliable data underpins both crisis planning and response. It’s essential that the crisis plan outlines how information will flow and that everyone has confidence in its veracity. Strong data also reinforces a central element of crisis planning — exploring different scenarios and how they could affect the business in the short, medium and long term. Previous studies have found that three-quarters of those with documented BCP post-crisis strongly recognize the importance of establishing facts accurately during the crisis. They are more likely to say that in the midst of the crisis, they did gather facts accurately and quickly — and those facts were used effectively to inform their response strategy.

  • Understand your risks

Identify the current or potential risks that can adversely affect your organisation. Obviously, this includes the current pandemic, and you should think about how you can continue to operate if 20 percent of your workforce is out sick or 90 percent is affected by the lockdown policy. But you should also dig deeper. For example, work from home opens you up to all kinds of cyber vulnerabilities and other technical challenges such as Occupational Health and Safety issues and employee loyalty. Market intelligence is also crucial at this stage to access market constraints, risks (and even opportunities) created by the pandemic in line with your area of expertise. Once you have a list of top risks, assess those risks to determine the potential impacts, both positive and negative to your organisation, enabling you to determine the most effective use of resources to reduce potential impacts. 

  • Analyse the impact

Identify and prioritize your organisation’s key functions and processes to identify which ones will have the greatest impact if they aren’t available. For example, many of us are currently being forced to test how well we operate without access to certain facilities for a prolonged and ultimately unknown period of time. Others are now required to work remotely on projects with little or no training or supervision while a few environmental issues especially regarding waste disposal and power generation have also been identified. Once you’ve identified how the current scenario will impact your business, you need to analyse the findings to identify any gaps between the requirements for continuing acceptable service levels with minimal disruption and your current ability to deliver those requirements.

  • Devise a strategy

Use the analysis that you’ve just done to decide on a plan of action. You will need to come up with practical, cost-effective strategies to reduce the deficiencies you identified during the risk assessment and business impact analysis processes. You’ve identified what is at risk – social, environmental and economic, and how it will hurt your business. Now you can go through and brainstorm on how to minimize those risks with the information and resources you have at hand. Implement immediately to save cost and reduce downtime. 

Remember that though corporate sustainability managers work to develop and implement sustainability strategies for organisations but more importantly, they work with all business units to analyse sustainability challenges and opportunities in the marketplace. This could be through localisation of processes, product design or change in operational process. Therefore, in addition to improving on organisation’s public image and meeting regulatory requirements, it is their duty to also help improve the bottom line by instituting practices that minimize waste and maximize efficiency. 

3. CHECK: Test results and present recommendations

During the check phase, the data and results gathered from the ‘do phase’ are evaluated. Data is compared to the expected outcomes to see any similarities and differences. The testing process is also evaluated to see if there were any changes from the original test created during the planning phase. If the data is placed in a chart or dashboard, it can make it easier to see any trends if the PDCA cycle is conducted multiple times. This helps to see what changes work better than others, and if said changes can be improved as well. If the Business Continuity Plan is to recognise just one standard for instance ISO 26000 SR, then the seven core principles of SR need to be evaluated in details which include – Accountability, Transparency, Ethical behaviour, Respect for stakeholder interests, Respect for the rule of law, Respect for international norms of behaviour, Respect for human rights. Similarly, if two or more sustainability standards for instance ISO 45001 – OHS and ISO 14001 – EMS are to be implemented as part of the business continuity plan, the process is same but will include data collection and analysis based on these two standards. This is easily achieved using process and procedure documents as provided for during the planning stage. In case, you have difficulties, approach an experienced Sustainability Consultant with expertise in strategy implementation. 

4. ACT: Improve on the framework

Records from the “do” and “check” phases help identify issues with the process. These issues may include problems, non-conformities, opportunities for improvement, inefficiencies and other issues that result in outcomes that are evidently less-than-optimal. Root causes of such issues are investigated, found and eliminated by modifying the process. Risk is re-evaluated. At the end of the actions in this phase, the process has better instructions, standards or goals. During a crisis situation as it is presently, this process must not take more than a couple of days. The business can get back to normal now. Planning for the next cycle can proceed with a better baseline. Work in the next do phase should not create recurrence of the identified issues; if it does, then the action was not effective.

Getting back to Normal – Business as usual, getting back to normal is the goal once you have gotten through the main parts of a disaster or downtime in your business. Disaster recovery is the part of your plan that allows for you to get back to a form of normalcy where you can again perform the tasks that run your business. This may take some time, considering the global nature of the pandemic. If you don’t have employees that were infected by the COVID-19 virus, your organisation should be able to get back to normal business shortly after the lockdown.

Today, we face the Herculean task of protecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, the health of millions and the livelihoods of billions. Nothing should detract us from winning this war. But as we fight, we should seize the chance too to create a new, more resilient, healthy, equal society that lives in equilibrium with nature. This is a more practical approach to our present-day realities. 

Corporate behaviour is a microcosm of today’s economic system. As we have seen in past weeks in Nigeria, there has been some wonderful stories of corporate integrity, philanthropy, ingenuity and energy to help fight this pandemic. And there have also been some truly shocking stories of companies that have thrown loyal staff overboard at the first sight of trouble, while others have profited on our misfortune. However, most companies that will prosper in the next decade will be the ones that have taken the management-speak of “sustainability” and turned it into reality. Integrate sustainability principles into all their operations and relationships. They do the right things to their customers, employees, shareholders, host communities, the environment, etc. Above all, they are socially useful and relevant in all that they do. This is the future of business. 

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