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In search of a different perspective on sustainability

9 October 2017 – Hussein Sefian, Head of Strategy and Strategic Investments at BNP Paribas Global Markets, recently attended the 18th South African Senior Executives’ Seminar of The Prince of Wales’s Business & Sustainability Programme in Cape Town hoping to gain a broader perspective on emerging markets’ challenges. Elspeth Donovan, Deputy Director of the South African office of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership in Cape Town, spoke to Hussein about his experiences on the programme and what he gained.

What were the benefits of attending the Executive Programme in Cape Town?

Attending the Business & Sustainability Programme in Cape Town gave me an opportunity to get a different perspective and specifically to get a perspective from an emerging market on the topic of sustainability. The content is of course global but at the same time I thought it would be useful to also understand some of the local challenges that are being faced on the ground in South Africa. I wanted a wider perspective.

Did you find the emerging markets perspective you were looking for?

The diversity of people on the programme was fantastic – just hearing some of the challenges that some of our colleagues are facing was eye opening. For example the challenge of building a mine from scratch, and converting a mining town into a stable community so that it can potentially outlive the life of the mine. Some of the challenges that local governments face around South Africa were very interesting and the water crisis in Cape Town was high on the agenda.

“Suddenly sustainability was not a theoretical concept any more, but something very real that you could touch and feel.”

These are issues that we don’t necessarily face in the UK and Europe.  So for me it was critical to engage and understand the very real and tangible challenges that people are facing every day in places like South Africa or Namibia. Learning that Cape Town could run out of water by the summer due to the lack of rain really brought the some of the issues home.  Suddenly sustainability was not a theoretical concept any more, but something very real that you could touch and feel and talk to – that was really interesting for me.

What were the highlights of the programme?

We had expert input from Cambridge faculty including Will Day, Professor Bob Scholes, Malcolm Gray and Mashudu Ramano as well as a host of interesting guest speakers, covering the global system, pressure and trends. This was well balanced with focus group discussions and breakaway sessions that really encouraged dialogue and sharing. Topics covered included: cities of the future; understanding and navigating systems; the implications and disruptions for the financial system; the political economy as well as the role of the Sustainability Development Goals in driving sustainability.

One of the highlights was hearing about and understanding some of the practical solutions and innovations that are being implemented in South Africa in the circular economy; showing how industrial ecology can transform waste management and food production. Two inspiring examples were shared. The first from New Horizons Energy that has just commissioned Cape Town’s first waste-to-energy plant that is set to use 500 tons of organic household, municipal, and industrial waste per day, in an anaerobic digestive process, to produce methane, food-grade carbon dioxide, and organic fertilizer. The plant could replace around 4  to 5 per cent of the city's liquid petroleum gas requirement – while simultaneously addressing the landfill problem in the city.

The second example came from Waste to Food, an organisation that makes use of an innovative combination of in-vessel composting and large-scale earthworm composting (vermicomposting) to process a broad range of food waste. The vermicomposting system is a locally developed and patented design, based on appropriate technology principles. It uses renewable and easily recyclable materials; it is easy to construct and operate; it minimises the effort required, and employs human effort rather than mechanisation. The innovative business plan involves structuring the vermicomposting component as micro-franchising opportunities.

Did anything surprise you?

The group had frank and open discussions much faster than I would have imagined in other settings. I am not sure if this is the culture of South Africa or the nature of people we had on the programme, but we got into real topics of discussion very quickly and the quality of the conversation that we had in the classroom was really strong. We were a mature group of people who were willing to listen and engage, and importantly, to share personal stories as well as business challenges.

Because of this, the programme in Cape Town helped us get under the skin of the issues and through real discussions we were able to identify solutions with real potential to the sustainability challenge for business.


The Prince of Wales’s Business & Sustainability Programme is a global benchmark for sustainability leadership education, helping senior executives understand the complex global trends and implications that are shaping the future of business, and to develop business strategies to respond to these challenges in a commercially relevant way.

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About the author

Hussein Sefian is Head of Strategy and Strategic Investments at BNP Paribas Global Markets. He has more than 15 years’ experience as a strategist.

Hussein currently heads Strategy & Business Development for BNP Paribas Global Markets. In this role, he works with senior leaders of the organisation to identify key trends and challenges in the environment, develop a deeper understanding of the competitive environment and set the strategic agenda for the organisation. Hussein is also responsible for executing all strategic acquisitions, investments, joint ventures and divestments for Global Markets. Hussein's work experience spans the US, Europe, APAC and Africa where he spent more than four years working on various consulting engagements.

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Guest articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.