Dr. Ijeoma Nwagwu is Faculty at The Lagos Business School and also manages the LBS FirstBank Sustainability Centre. She earned her doctorate in Law (S.J.D) and Masters in Law (L.L .M) degrees from Harvard Law School and was awarded the Landon H.Gammon prize for academic excellence. After attending the Nigerian Law School, Ijeoma worked as legal counsel for the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), where she produced documentaries on law, human rights and development themes with Channels Television Lagos and the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA). A researcher and lecturer, Ijeoma recently taught International Trade Law and Human Rights at St. Marys University College, London and was on the research team for the World Bank Assisted Science and Technology Education Post-Basic (STEP-B) project in Nigeria. She has also conducted research trainings for the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) in Senegal. She is a member of the Advisory Board of the Sustainability Centres Community of the Network for Business Sustainability. An active member of the community, Ijeoma volunteers on youth/education programmes and is passionate about finding creative solutions to educational challenges in Africa. Read her interview below:
Run us through your activities at the First Bank Sustainability Centre of the LBS
We work on a number of research projects with Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability being our key focus; we do some work around Social Entrepreneurship and other key issues areas like sustainable infrastructure- water stewardship, education and employability and also sustainable finance.
The second thing we do are seminars, we are based in an academic Institution that has the mandate of producing responsible leaders and managers who can drive management and business development and growth across the continent. We hold series of seminars within a sustainability framework to help people develop and grow enterprises- whether in the human resources, operational and general management sides.
Finally, we anchor stakeholder engagements- conferences and roundtables to highlight key areas that we and the businesses we work with focus on. For instance, our annual International Sustainability Conference and The World Water Day Event on water stewardship organised with our beverage companies. What we do with these is to bring businesses together to know what each other are doing and also to be able to drive the sustainability agenda in a way that is thoughtful and practical.
What role do you think business schools can play in instilling ethics and environmental responsibility to prospective business graduates?
Business schools play a critical role in enabling graduates to perform around the ordinary metrics of business and financial performance which is very important because as a business you cannot have a meaningful commitment to sustainability if you do not have a thriving business. Helping business students to develop the basic competencies they need to drive enterprises is one major focus. Integral to vision is also a focus on ethics and responsibility and for LBS, this has always been a part of our identity – to develop managers with a sense of responsibility to the societies they operate. It is interesting to see that there are now international programs such as the UN PRME (United Nations Principles for Responsible Management Education) and the UNGC (United Nations Global Compact) that have that kind of a focus because it has always been a focus for us. What we do is to link up with critical stakeholders nationally and internationally, we work with them to ensure that our curriculum has ideas around human rights, labour rights environmental issues are infused in the classroom. Another area business schools are driving is experiential education – we try to run away from “pour and cram” thus we use case studies that help young people to deal with live cases and issues and discuss them, getting beyond the classroom to engage existing enterprises.
If you were asked to advise Nigerian organisations on a strategic plan to implement the SDGs – What is the one direction you would point them to?
What I would say right off the back is that there is no one size fits all and the beauty of the SDGs is that they offer a range of entry ways to engage.the beauty of the SDGs is that they offer a range of entry ways to engageClick To Tweet We encourage our organisations to have an introspection to understand their business and which SDGs they can contribute most impactfully to.
We have businesses working across the SDGs but in ways that are linked to their core business operations, e.g Beverage Companies focus on Water stewardship which is SDG 6 (Clean Water and sanitation). This SDG is interlinked to other SDGs like 5 (Gender Equality) and 1 (Poverty) and through that, there are measurable improvements in quality of life and other health and human development indicators in the process. It is not enough to do CSR, they must do more, they need to look holistically and in a long term way at how they engage with society. We encourage a lot of stakeholder engagement and partnerships which is goal 17 because we realize that a lot of businesses and even SMEs are doing a lot of CSR relative to their size and impact could be more if they were working together. We provide platforms at our events for people to find ways to collaborate. There is also need for awareness on environmental sustainability and companies can also help with such information while providing concerted responses to particular development problems.
Difference between CSR and Business Sustainability
CSR(Corporate Social Responsibility) is a subset of sustainability and is usually a range of activities or project through which a company expresses its corporate citizenship, for example – some companies make big donations in health, education etc. But the idea of sustainability is a lot broader. CSR is usually done after profit is made (end of the pipeline model) but what we increasingly understand as sustainability is a more comprehensive menu of approaches and activities which might include CSR, a model in which a company’s engagement with society is a strategic part of what the company does and how it does business; keeping in view their societal impacts and being mindful of three areas: people, planet and profit. Sustainability is a mindset and CSR can be a tool used to advance it.Sustainability is a mindset and CSR can be a tool used to advance it.Click To Tweet
What are your favorite SDGs and why?
SDG 1 and SDG 17 – They capture it all – combatting poverty through partnership. I believe that the empathic understanding of poverty and inequality and the willingness to collaborate and drive solutions is critical to achieving all the goals whether its access to education or access to justice – if there isn’t that “compassion” then we are not going to get anywhere. I find that when companies and individuals are attuned to what is going on beyond their factories and offices, they are able to do more and make greater impact relative to their resources and if they are really committed then they are able to do more with each other. The reason why partnership for me is felt is that one of the issues across the world and particularly here is that people are not working together in the ways that they need to. So for us as an academic institution, we are finding answers through research and feeding them to industry. Until we learn and understand how to work together we may not realize the SDGs.
What is your story? Have you always considered a job in the sustainability field and how did you transition from a legal background to where you are at the moment?
For me it was not too much of a leap or transition because, in terms of growing up, I have lived in a diverse range of countries and societies, my mother is particularly class blind so early on, I was exposed to people from all walks of life. My parents were educators and the times spent in Nigeria, we lived “exclusive” compounds surrounded by villages and I recall my mother buying buy fresh milk from nomadic communities and going to local markets where we interacted with people coming surrounding rural villages. This gave me some awareness early on about inequality, poverty, power, the limits of development and so on. I thought that studying law would be a good entry way to address some of these development programmes. My legal training at Harvard Law School was unique in the sense that it went beyond black letter law to encourage us to think very broadly and across disciplines about socio-economic issues. I focused on law and development policy and took courses at the Harvard Kennedy School where the focus on policy and international development is useful to the work I now do on corporate sustainability strategy and sustainable development. Interesting, what has been different for me is being in a business school environment and engaging with real businesses and the challenges they face in their daily operations, but it does enrich the possibility around addressing development issues and regulation because I realized that it is not just about tweaking the law or getting development aid for these poor people, our major challenge in Africa as I see it now is developing innovative business models where people can create and secure jobs to secure their livelihoods in a dignified manner.
How has the center been able to make sustainability relevant and relatable in the LBS?
That is a work in progress and one thing we are currently driving are case studies. We don’t have enough and even those written on Africa are written abroad (e.g. House of Tara ‘s case is written by Stanford University). We are happy African stories are being told. We are writing more cases and drawing our students into creating them. Nothing teaches you about a business like being in the business.
Our MBA students also do some small business advising, working with our sister organisation – Enterprise Development Centre and working on community service projects as part of the LBS MBA curriculum.
What are your other passions aside Sustainability and Law?
I enjoy cycling and swimming. Another passion I have is finding innovative ways to foster learning in the early years, because I believe that the best form of learning is the one that takes place in the sandbox, outside in the playground.
How can people reach you to learn more about your work?
Email: [email protected]
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.