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The importance of doing work that makes a tangible difference to the socio-economic framework in the communities that you serve

Written by Staff Writer

September 26, 2023

By Fezeka Stuurman, Founder of Cultiver Group and EmpowHER Cape Town finalist.



I was privileged to spend time at the Harvard Kennedy School for Executive Education in the USA recently went on a continuous improvement programme. The course was themed ‘Leading Successful Programmes: Evidence to Assess Effectiveness’.

As an entrepreneur facilitating social relations across various stakeholder groups in South Africa’s renewable energy sector, our organisation works in the frontline of communities designing and implementing socio-economic interventions on behalf of our clients. 

The pace of our work does not always afford us the opportunity, quite frankly the obligation, to reflect critically on the tangible impact of our work and whether interventions can indeed be measured against actual sustainable intervention for the industry. In other words, to pause and ask the question – does the work that we do make a tangible difference to the socio-economic framework in the communities which we serve?

Given the energy challenges we currently face in South Africa, and its far- reaching impact on virtually every sector of the economy and broader society, renewable energy has been identified as an immediate need with high potential to address our energy woes, whilst supporting decarbonisation and improving security of supply objectives.

The time at Harvard prompted me to pause and engage around this very issue, alongside 47 other executives from public and private sectors from across the globe. Discussions and debates during our time together were centred on the ‘Question Zero’ theory. According to Professor Herman Leonard from Harvard Business School, ‘Question Zero’ is a creative process of asking a series of ‘Why’ and ‘What’ to assess the core of a problem.

In essence, Question Zero is a guiding principle that, when well-thought through and articulated, can answer what organisations do in 10 words or less. The ‘Question Zero’ approach therefore points to finding and fixing the root cause rather than tackling the immediate problem.

On my return flight from Harvard, I spent much of my time trying to localise ‘Question Zero’ in the context of the renewable energy industry, through the lens of the work Cultiver Group does in bringing about socio-economic upliftment and development through the industry.

My starting point was to ask the question – What is our collective socio-economic development (SED) Question Zero?

Has the industry taken the time to define what the SED Question Zero is, or has the past decade been about reacting and remaining compliant for the sake of meeting contracted targets? Having done social facilitation work in different roles within the socio-economic space, it is evident that the SED Question Zero remains loosely defined, leaving room for interpretation and execution error.

I believe that because of the prevailing approach, we miss the opportunity to create transformative social change which will transcend the 20-year power purchase agreements (PPAs) timeframes while securing tenure for the industry’s social licence to operate.

Before I proceed further, it is prudent that I provide some working definitions of the key concepts:

Question Zero: what is the problem you’re trying to solve – in 10 words or less? What is it that you are really trying to make an impact on?

A clearly articulated Question Zero is followed by a Theory of Change (ToC) – a series of ‘if’ ‘then’ statements that define how one goes about addressing your Question Zero. It is worthwhile to note that you may have one ToC underpinned with cascading ToCs to help one gain clarity on their primary ToC.

By following these two steps one is able to identify their Logic Model – what inputs and processes one needs to achieve desired outcomes.

Essentially, an articulate ‘Question Zero’ statement should evolve into a clear ‘Theory of Change’ methodology. The end goal of the ‘Theory of Change’ methodology should be aligned with the ‘Question Zero’ statement to ultimately inform the logic models necessary to achieve a sustainable and equitable energy future with the co-operation and inclusion of all relevant and affected stakeholders.

Our country’s structural poverty and inequality necessitates that social inclusion is pre-eminent to secure long standing social licences within operating communities to empower the renewable energy industry to deliver on security of supply, decarbonisation, and the like.

And so, part of the challenge for the renewable energy industry, is the multiplicity of Question Zeros which address how:

  1. To provide alternative sources of energy to improve security of supply;
  2. To contribute to the climate change agenda;
  3. To supply alternative power at cost-effective tariff rates; and
  4. To ensure social inclusion and participation across the value chain.

It is therefore evident that a comprehensive, all-inclusive approach to planning, implementing, and maintaining renewable energy alternatives will likely require the integration of several other complex ‘Question Zero’ reflections.

My deduction and experience reveal that this can become complex in practice as outcomes analyses are likely to compete, and possibly also clash, with the most urgent priorities, which ultimately receive the most urgent attention. It is worth noting that what is considered the most urgent priority at a point in time is not necessarily the most critical.

Question Zero therefore provides an opportunity and platform for careful analysis, collaborative planning and an integrated outcomes-based approach where outcomes are measured against impact, to come into sharp focus for possible industry practice adoption.

Policy inclusion considerations

While industry may not yet have realised its optimal role in creating the desired socio-economic impact, there is support that can be provided at policy level to support the private sector to achieve social impact outcomes. These include, though not limited to:

  1. A shift from a punitive compliance approach to one that incentivises corporations to implement innovative interventions within their host communities;
  1. Development which takes effect over a collective set of quarters. Consequently, monitoring and evaluation needs to assess beyond ‘spend per quarter’ but rather ‘spend against development plan’. While continuous measurement and evaluation is critical, there is a need to review the short-term effect of quarterly reporting, even if the consequence has been unintended in our industry. And lastly;
  2. Review our focus on quality as opposed to quantity.

While the renewable energy industry has made several strides in its contribution to positive socio-economic impact, my time at Harvard also crystallised the significant impact that can be further realised through clearly defined ‘Question Zero’s’, underpinned by Theories of Change.

These define logic models which are needed to ensure that the renewable energy industry can achieve greater strides in advancing socio-economic impact.


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