Targets intended to shape development in the years up to 2030 are attracting private sector interest in Sri Lanka. Businesses are counting on bottom-line impact of development goals

Five companies announced partnerships with a UN agency and the government in order to assist Sri Lanka achieve development goals around reducing poverty, sustainable agriculture and renewable energy. The UN adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 covering a vast number of areas from world peace and clean energy, to education and more.

Unlike the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), the 17 SDGs have 169 associated targets, which made it possible for business- and market-driven measures to be more useful to the overarching aim of poverty reduction. Aid lobbies and governments are less hostile to private sector- and market-driven approaches. Businesses can directly benefit from reduced poverty, too.

According to the Business & Sustainable Development Commission (BSDC), success with the SDGs will generate business opportunities worth $5 trillion and create 230 million jobs in Asia by 2030. It says the large economic potential lies in four main areas: food & agriculture, cities, energy & minerals, and health & well-being.

In December 2017, Aitken Spence, Commercial Bank, Dialog Axiata, MAS and Unilever joined the government, United Nations agency UNDP and the UN’s Global Compact to unveil an action plan to make progress on three selected goals: ending poverty, sustainable agriculture and renewable energy.

“We want to create a movement of companies to align their sustainability projects with the country’s SDGs,” says Saumya Perera, Unilever Sri Lanka’s head of sustainability. Unilever’s local office initiated the public-private partnership initiative. It’s requesting other companies to join to help achieve Sri Lanka’s SDG goals.

As the non-profit and private sectors are also enthusiastically backing the SDGs, these targets will shape development strategy more than any others in the years to 2030. However, there are many associated target donors and private businesses putting greater emphasis on collecting data and measuring results. Without data, it’s challenging to understanding where the poor are and the type of opportunities that are most useful. However, private companies need to track their own actions anyway, which should make it easier to see the big picture.

“When we join a project, there needs to be measurement. We really had to push the government to give us the numbers, so we can see where we are now,” adds Unilever’s Mayanthi Wickremetilleke.


Private sector for SDGs

Supporting the Sustainable Development Goals of poverty reduction, agriculture productivity and renewable energy have piqued private sector interest

ON POVERTY: Over the past 15 years, the number of people living below the poverty line in Sri Lanka has decreased from nearly one-fourth of the population (22.7%) to the current 6.7%. Despite the achievement, nearly 1.5 million Sri Lankans are still poor. The government’s Grama Shakthi, which aims to eradicate poverty by sparking entrepreneurial potential, is focused on 1,000 villages with high poverty. Public-private partnerships present a great opportunity to give the ambitious yet vague plan a clear direction. For instance, Unilever’s Saubhaguya project has been extending rural women an opportunity to gain extra income by selling products in their locality. This project, which offers some trainings so these women can sell Unilever’s products, is now focused on select villages under Grama Shakthi. The initiative is now self-funded, with expenses for trainings, delivery and monitoring paid from the participant’s sales. Unilever is also able to build its future rural customer base.

ON SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE: More than a quarter of agriculture’s 8.5% GDP share is from tea. Of the tea crop, 70% is grown in small backyard plots. Despite the abundance, potential smallholders often lack knowledge to optimise yields. Dialog’s Govi Mithuru programme educates smallholder farmers on cultivation practices and provides timely, location-specific advice. The project has assisted to improve yields and prevent weather-related losses. A project called Sustainabilitea, jointly run by Aitken Spence and Unilever, focuses on retaining for producing better tea crops, but not at the expense of the environment or the living conditions of plantation workers. Land degradation and fertiliser misuse are issues in the tea industry, and Aitken Spence has exposure to plantations and Unilever markets tea.

ON RENEWABLE ENERGY: Sri Lanka’s year-round sunny climate makes it widely suitable for solar energy. That is the focus of project Sunlight. Named after Unilever’s famous soap brand, it will introduce solar panels across the country, starting with its own retailers. “When they hit their targets, we want to sponsor the first installment of the solar panels and persuade them in this way.” Commercial Bank will support the initiative by offering low interest rate loans to retailers.

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