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European Business Magazine talks to Esha Mansingh, our front cover feature and winner of most influential woman in Africa 2022 from our readers. Esha serves on the Executive Committee of Imperial Logistics (Imperial) as the Group Executive responsible for corporate affairs, ESG and sustainability, internal & stakeholder communications, brand, sponsorships and investor relations.

Esha has many accolades to her name. Not only is she serving as Young Global Leaders within the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2022, she is also serving as the co-chairman on the WEF New Champions South Africa Board. She was recognised as the Top 100 Women in Business in the World by the Global Trade Chamber in 2021 and was also established in the M&G Top 50 Power of Women 2021.

Imperial is an African focused provider of integrated market access and logistics solutions. With a focus on the following key industries – healthcare, consumer, automotive, chemicals, industrial and commodities – Imperial takes its clients’ and principals’ products to some of the fastest growing and most challenging markets in the world. 

European Business Magazine (EBM) –You’re currently the only woman serving on Imperial Logistics’ executive committee responsible for the key stakeholders’ sustainability, communications and integrated reporting. Can you tell us and the readers how you integrate sustainable practices and ESG principles into Imperial strategies, and how you think that can be adapted towards a more inclusive and sustainable world? 

Esha Mansingh (EM) – First of all, any business operating in today’s world is no longer just about making money and the profit component. Successful businesses today have to focus equally on their people who make the business and then on being a responsible corporate citizen but also equally giving back to our planet where we source our scarce resources and emit pollution.

Based on that premise, environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices are no longer just a nice to have in any business strategy. Imperial has followed this route where we elevated ESG, which was previously just an element of sustainability that was done in bits and pieces across the group, to become a focused pillar of the group strategy. 

The moment you encompass ESG practices into the business strategy, it automatically puts focus on those elements up front and top of mind for our entire management team and our people. 

What’s important is also when you think about ESG, it’s about many considerations, but most importantly, in our African geographical context, it’s about localisation and our clients’ expectations. When you’re deciding what strategies to focus on from an ESG perspective, it has to be co-created because it can’t be a top down dictation approach. It has to be in alignment with business who are the people that are executing at operations level with local stakeholders, in addition to aligning with what the corporate wants to achieve from a broader group strategy perspective. 

The moment you co-create your ESG strategic focus areas together, it automatically contributes to being integrated into daily business practices. That was what we were trying to achieve as Imperial, for everyone in the business to understand, as we say ‘ESG starts with me’. No matter what assets we have in the business, every bit that I can contribute towards sustainability improvement will be for the betterment of our business, our planet, as well as all our stakeholders and the profit will then come. 

The way in which we started to integrate ESG into our business practices is that ESG is a key pillar of our Group strategy at Imperial and we are measured by it, so as far as even our executive committee is remunerated on ESG targets on a short-term incentive perspective, but we have also gone to the point of incorporating ESG into the client value proposition for Imperial. It’s a key selling point because we’ve learnt that blue-chip clients and principals will not do business with Imperial and other businesses today if we don’t have the right ESG practices and support our key stakeholders to achieve their ESG ambitions too. 

EBM – It is clear in today’s world, ESG practices are absolutely key, that it’s a win-win situation for the planet, the stakeholders’ profit and to be fully transparent? Did you push that ESG proposition to the boardroom to make sure it was at the forefront of their decision-making? 

EM – Our previous board at Imperial (the listed company) dissolved, when Imperial was bought out through the transaction with DP World, which became unconditional in March 2022. This means we have now constituted a new board and we will work with DP World to align on its ESG practices.

Talking about this from a purely Imperial perspective, we always had a focus on adhering to the Companies Act and highest level of governance, and then being a listed company, to have a social, ethics and sustainability (SES) committee. Many years ago, the primary focus of the SES committee, represented by our board members, was safety. Being a mainly logistics business and operating particularly in South Africa at that stage with a large footprint and a large number of trucks on the roads, safety was a key focus area. 

We as a management team with the approval of the board felt strongly that ESG should no longer be in bits and pieces but should be given the focus at the right level as a strategic imperative for the business, which the board strongly supported. 

That narrative for the SES meetings since ESG became top of mind for everyone changed significantly from being purely around safety discussions in the board committee meetings to a broader climate change and social impact agenda – how does Imperial react to climate change, let’s look at our social initiatives, and  how do we want to be a more transformative business in addition to prioritising the safety of our people and operations. We’ve always adhered to the highest level of governance across our jurisdictions of operation but how can governance become a key competitive advantage? It really elevated and changed the discussions and the decision-making that took place at boardroom level when it came to ESG particularly. 

Through taking the step further to alleviate ESG not only at group executive level but also at the board committee demonstrated it is important enough for us to now remunerate our senior leadership in terms of ESG targets as part of the STIs. That’s the fundamental mindset shift we have had to make. It also now makes us very conscious about the role we play, not just as Imperial in our markets and in our society, but also the role of our business in our countries and continents, especially as part of the broader  ‘just transition’ and the climate change  agenda, and the objective set out by COP26 for example. 

We all have a part to play in that and we have a part to play in our clients’ and principals’ supply chains and how quickly we start to look at transitioning, through our energy sources and our underlying ESG practices. So it’s not just about Imperial anymore. For us, it’s much broader than that in terms of the role we have to play and the Board recognised that. Our management teams recognise that. 

What’s also great is being in a business that has 25,000 people in Imperial alone across 26 countries and through our ‘ESG starts with me’ change management campaign that we’ve been embarking on to change the mindset of our people to do their part, we have gained ESG champions across the business. People that have not necessarily come from a sustainability background or an ESG background or an HR background but people that have put their hands up and said, ‘We believe in this and we will help Imperial play our part.’ 

When you create ambassadors as employees, the ESG story doesn’t stop with Imperial. They take it to their families and the people they interact with. Through that, you start changing the narrative as an industry and as the world collectivelyOutside of Imperial’s boardroom, we have also been very deliberate in being part of the broader transition conversations as Imperial. We’ve been participating in many business forums and associations to give our input and what it would take for the transitions to happen in order for us to all be part of the climate change transition.  

EBM- What are some of the major initiatives Imperial have undertaken to improve ESG in terms of stakeholders, communities and supply chains? What would you say the top three are? 

EM-. The first priority for us as a logistics company is to investigate alternative fuel and trucking technologies. We’ve done a lot of work and we’ve already got in place some pilot projects with some of our clients and customers– piloting hydrogen, LNG and CNG vehicles in South Africa; we’ve already got Euro 6 vehicles in our European operations, and we recently launched Euro 5 vehicles in our Namibia operations. 

Some of these are in the pilot phase in collaboration with partners and if these pilots are successful and we are all playing our part in ensuring that it is, going forward we will consider introducing alternative fuel vehicles into our fleet on an increasing basis. The one consideration on that part is to ensure that the infrastructure allows for it because some of the challenges of doing cross-border work from South Africa to other cross-border markets is that you have ability to fill up the vehicle with  alternative fuels going one way and coming back there’s no infrastructure in place in neighbouring countries to refuel. We’re hoping the pilot projects are successful for alternative fuel but we also have to play our part in engaging key stakeholders and partners to ensure the necessary infrastructure is built to operate those fleets in Africa particularly. 

Priority two is to look at our renewable electricity. We have warehouses, again both used and owned and we are converting those that are not already on solar to solar energy, to continue to monitor usage in those warehouses, and to ensure that any new warehouses that we may acquire or move into are green facilities and already have solar in place. 

Our third priority is investing in our communities and our people. There are businesses that go into the market purely to make profit but as a purpose-driven organisation, as Imperial, we also need to give back to the development of our communities and our countries of operation. We play a very strong role in that, both from a skills and employment perspective through the workforces that we employ in countries, then secondly to investment we make in social impact and CSI projects. 

Our key elements of focus are around education, healthcare, road safety, skills and sports development, and women empowerment. As Imperial, in addition to these key focus areas, logistics has traditionally been a very male-dominated industry and we want to encourage a diverse workforce because a diverse workforce brings new and innovative thinking, and sets you up to be a business of the future. To be diverse, let’s start with the gender discussion because diversity is so broad and one of our biggest target audiences was to attract highly skilled and very talented women that want to put their hands up and say, ‘I want to come and work for Imperial.’ We’ve made significant strides with that women empowerment agenda over the last three years. 

Have you got any idea of the percentage of increased employment by Imperial for women over the last three years? 

There has been a significant improvement over the recent years. Imperial’s commitment to improving gender diversity across the group is evidenced by the growth in the representation of women across all levels in the business. Women make up 23% of Imperial employees, with 16% in top management (up from 12% in 2020), 23% in senior management (up from 14% in 2020) and 29% in middle management (down from 32% in 2020 due to business restructuring). In South Africa, 20% of all new hires in the 2021 financial year were women, and management representation includes 14% women in top management, 32% in senior management and 35% in middle management. Imperial’s Group CEO, Mohammed Akoojee, has gone out publicly to make a pledge, giving his personal commitment in increasing the representation of women, both in middle and senior management. The numbers particularly in senior and middle management have been very encouraging.

I was lucky enough to have had the platform being the most senior woman leader at Imperial, in addition to our chairman at the time. I had the platform with my team to implement many initiatives for Imperial. The support comes from the top and we shouldn’t underestimate the vision of our Group CEO, with the support of our chairman, and the role the board have played in accepting and wanting to push forward the woman agenda at Imperial. 

If you don’t get that support from the top, a lot of initiatives that I implemented would have failed. Similarly, my executive colleagues who are all male, supported the women in their businesses to make these initiatives successful. As an executive team we made these appointments of these phenomenal women in our business who are now playing successful roles in leading their businesses. So, it all starts with the common vision at the highest level before you try to be successful in changing the narrative. 

There seems to be quite a remarkable movement, change.

Culture and mind-shifting are critical and that’s why the business we have today is very different to the business of many years. Our leaders have fundamentally accepted, supported and are now driving the mindset and culture change of being more inclusive. We only spoke about women but our diversity and inclusion framework which is run by our People & Culture team focuses on all areas of diversity. 

Women are on top of the agenda but it’s about the people and diversity broader than just gender. It’s about bringing people in who are diverse in skills, age, ableness, etc., who come in with different skill sets and innovative ideas. That’s the Imperial we want to create – a business that is not going to be a commodity in the future, but a business that’s going to thrive because of its diverse, innovative and skilled workforce.  

It sounds like you’re a big innovative player on that front but in the industry alone, do you think there’s been a shift in culture in South Africa? 

I don’t want to say we’ve done it all and we know it all because it has been a journey. We’ve shown tangible progress not only in South Africa but across our 20 countries of operation across Africa. These discussions we’re having are not only relevant to our South African market. I use South Africa as an example because this is our largest workforce but across markets, you don’t ever do it for the awards but when a business starts to be noticed by external stakeholders, that’s when you realise you’re doing something right. For you to be recognised not only by the PR exercises you do around the progress you’ve made but also by your people that go out and talk about the fundamental change that they’ve seen in the workplace, makes me proud to be part of Imperial and this journey. In addition, our clients even approached us to share and say, ‘We’ve learnt that Imperial are doing great things in woman empowerment. Let’s collaborate and tell us how you’ve done it and let’s do it together so we can make a bigger impact.’ That’s also another measure of success for us in addition to external recognition. 

As Imperial we have received external recognition for our women empowerment initiatives through   numerous awards, in South Africa, with our first woman empowerment and gender award issued to us only in 2020 in Imperial’s more than 70 year history. 

That was a great accolade for the entire team of Imperial. Following on from that, we’ve subscribed to the UN women’s empowerment principles, we’ve received the top empowerment in the workplace in Southern Africa for listed companies and South Africa, and we were recognised in our Ghanaian market for the work we’ve done to empower women. 

So external recognition is coming through the work we’ve been doing internally through the Global Women’s forum initiatives, including our women’s round table programme which focuses on mentoring, development, networking opportunities etc.In addition, our women on-the-ground in all our key markets have taken initiative to progress good causes outside of Imperial. 

We have undertaken major campaigns from a group perspective, as well as regional perspective to support initiatives against gender-based violence for example. We have also supported women in sport on the African continent. Where women who are great at sport have not been invested in, we saw the gap and we decided, ‘Well, let’s give women the same opportunity that our men’s sporting teams in Africa have and the only reason they don’t have it is because nobody backs them –  not because they’re not talented enough.’ 

 

So Imperial took that baton and we decided to run with it. The equity you receive unknowingly with your own people is invaluable. They stop to see, ‘Oh look, Imperial is all over the kit for the cricket team for women. That’s fantastic, that’s my employer. I never thought I’d see Imperial’s name on a woman’s kit.” It’s all about taking small steps, and I have to make the point that we have not spent a significant amount of money on PR and sponsorships. We have done this with the little budget we’ve had but mostly through investment of time of our people. That’s how we’ve managed to build our empowerment story in Africa. 

You won the award for most influential in business. That’s obviously a lot to do with what you’re doing. What would you say this award means to you? What do you hope to see in the future regarding women in business? What challenges do women face in South Africa? What do you think needs to be made to have more progress?

First of all, I’m extremely honoured, so thank you to you and your readers for the recognition. It was an absolute surprise and I am humbled. 

I always believe, and this is not just my philosophy but the philosophy we’ve certainly been following through a lot of the work we’re doing at Imperial, that it’s less about the accolades and more about the impact. When we set out on the very focused strategy whether this was around ESG or whether it was around the women empowerment agenda, which naturally was a passion of mine, it’s something we felt strongly about and felt we could make a difference, and it was always about the impact. 

For us, and I’m going to say for us, because the work that I’ve been recognised for in my individual capacity has not all been me – it has been a fulfilling journey thus far and I may have led it and guided those processes but there is a phenomenal team that backs me at Imperial every step of the way. This supports starts from the highest level of the organisation to the team that I’m lucky to lead in corporate affairs, as well as the rest of the business who have come on board and supported this vision that we had. 

So while I’m extremely appreciative for the accolade, for me and it’s been my approach for all the other accolades that I’ve had or been fortunate to be given, let’s now use this platform to further the partnership with European Business Magazine and your readers, so that we can come together with the shared vision of broadening the impact of some of the initiatives we’ve already undertaken at Imperial. 

It’s not just about a great article or great PR, it’s about, ‘You all know what we do now, you know what the vision is for Africa but we can’t do it alone. We can’t just do it as one corporate or one team or one individual.’ And that’s a very similar approach that I would like to see play out of YGL is to leverage partnerships and existing networks and existing initiatives that have the shared purpose and vision of Imperial and some of the initiatives I’ve outlined to you so we can broaden that scope and impact. I always say you start from the bottom and you gradually expand. Whether somebody is putting their hand up to say, ‘I will be part of an activation for road safety in the community’ or whether there’s a corporation coming forward and saying, ‘Let’s pledge $100million towards a social impact initiative.’ Any difference we can all make comes a long way and the more we come together, the broader we can expand. For us and for me personally, it’s about expanding impact and using the accolades to create and develop networks that can broaden that impact with a shared vision. 

Coming to your point about the challenges and what would we like to see for business in Africa, the amount of progress that the African continent has made over the last few years to recognise women and their abilities has been good. I still don’t think we are where we need to be but this is where it comes down to leadership. Leadership in corporate, leadership in government, leadership in communities, everyone that’s in a role or a position of power to deliberately make the decision to recognise and give women tangible opportunities to develop. It doesn’t always have to be putting women in positions of leadership. It’s just about giving women opportunities. 

Equally, women also need to be able to put their hands up because I’ve learnt that opportunities do come by. In a lot of instances, you may feel that you’re not well-equipped or you don’t tick all the criteria and that’s okay, put your hand up and take the opportunity because you may never know what will come of that. 

We should also be cognisant in an African context that there have been prejudices against women for a very long time but that narrative is changing through some fantastic success stories. But at the same time, when women are put in positions of leadership and power, they should also play their part in empowering others. So as much as people criticise men and put pressure on men, ‘it’s equally women’s responsibility to do so too. When you’re in a position of power, empower others. 

If this starts to become the mindset of the women across Africa and just women in general, as well as our male counterparts, to be deliberate about creating opportunities, we’ll go a long way. 

You’ve shown how to use corporate power and influence it to improve the lives of women in business as well as in the broader community. What advice would you offer to women coming up in the ranks? 

It sounds very cliché but my tagline is ‘Always dress the part.’ As women that are coming up in the ranks, you’ve already put your hand up for an opportunity but I always say that whatever curveballs life throws at you, dress the part, show up and put your best foot forward. Unfortunately, it’s just the way of the world that, as a woman, especially when we’re making our way onto the ladder of success, you have to shout louder, you have to put two hands up to be seen and heard but do it anyway. Create a mark for yourself because I’ve learnt that it is not only about the support and the leaders you have and the opportunities you get, but it’s okay to leave a mark for yourself. 

When I say ‘always dress the part’, it’s literal and figurative. Yes, it is about how you present yourself but it’s also about confidence. It’s about personality. It’s about the way you conduct yourself. So, dressing the part for me encompasses all those aspects because ultimately that makes up the person you are and it’s not easy because it is very intimidating. I was 33 when I was appointed to be an executive of Imperial and at that point in time, everyone else around me was older. To get your point across was not easy but I think you also develop that credibility through ‘always dressing the part’. 

The other bit of advice I would give is don’t take anything for granted because you are a woman. I feel sometimes because we’re women and we feel people are now focusing on moving women forward, etc., that sometimes we do feel a bit entitled when we’re in those positions. 

The advice I would give is don’t become complacent and don’t take anything for granted. Work ethic is critical for continued success. Surround yourself with people that are similar minded as well as people who back you and support you. That is extremely important because there’s always those people that are looking for you to fail and that’s human nature. But If you surround yourself in both your personal and your professional life with people that are like-minded, share the same vision and back you, you know you’re not doing it alone. 

Being a mum of two very young kids and also having a successful and supportive spouse who is equally if not more successful in corporate South Africa, it’s very difficult to strike that balance. But because he’s such a supportive spouse and I’m blessed to also have supportive parents, a supportive leader, and a supportive team around me, that has ultimately been the largest contributor to my success. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of support. 

Have you got any more exciting projects coming up this year? 

Over the next 12 months, women empowerment is definitely high up on our agenda and will remain so because we’ve gained a lot of traction in that space. We are going to be partnering with some very prominent women forums outside Imperial that focus a lot on the development of women in Africa, as well as potentially women in other markets to look at how women in Africa can be supported on the empowerment journey. That’s quite exciting in terms of some of the initiatives. Women in sports will remain high on our agenda and something we will continue to focus our efforts on, as well as playing our part in the broader climate change journey.  

In a personal capacity, I’m very much looking forward to the YGL community. There’s a lot of initiatives that we’ve already kicked off at Imperial in some shape or form around supporting refugees in Africa, around supporting education initiatives in Africa, around supporting health care initiatives in Africa and I’m looking forward to being part of the network to leverage other projects to grow impact. 

I am also excited about building the WEF New Champions Community together with our partners Risk Insights in South Africa to create sustainable jobs.  

Lastly, DP World, Imperial’s new shareholder, has a fantastic vision for our ESG journey and one I’m extremely excited about is that integration process regarding how we leverage Imperial’s existing partnerships and initiatives around social impact with DP World’s social impact initiatives on a global scale and see how we can bring the world to Africa. 

 

You’ve been chosen as one of the world’s young global leaders class 22. What does this accolade mean to you? What can our readers expect to see as a result of your participation? What will we be looking to see in the future on this side of things? 

To be part of the YGL list is a great acknowledgment. It’s really about what I put into it and what I’m going to get out of it. What I would really like to get out of this from a personal purpose perspective is exactly what I said to you earlier – it’s about making an impact on our committees and our countries in need. 

Through YGL, I want to grow my network with other like-minded leaders while driving social impact and women empowerment initiatives particularly on the African continent because Africa is one of the fastest growing continents with a growing population but with under investment. So I would like to prioritise Africa through these networks, collaboration and partnerships. 

Another thing I would be looking forward to is to share views from an African business perspective in some of the education modules, focusing on climate change and not just the transition journey. That is also something that’s high on my agenda and particularly coming in from leading logistics business on the African continent, how we lead and drive the transition journey is going to be critical. 

I want to make sure that in addition to the existing bodies that Imperial serves on, that we have a voice at that table on a global platform to be able to put our experiences forward on running businesses in Africa and tangibly how we can contribute to the just transition journey. We need African leaders and voices to represent Africa on these international platforms to share that narrative and to hopefully also attract investment onto the continent for their transition journey. I’m hoping to play a part in that as well through YGL. 

 

Do you feel there’s enough African representation from the World Economic Forum young global leaders? 

It is a very intensive process and I know it has very stringent criteria. I would have liked to have seen more representation from Africa, given the size and the magnitude and the great talent that’s coming out of Africa and given the history of the continent. What is good is that there were 11 YGLS from Africa selected this year from about six last year, so you can certainly see progress. I also appreciate the mix of the African leaders that have been chosen this year because some are corporate but others are equally successful entrepreneurs. In Africa, particularly the SME space, we need to facilitate more entrepreneurs to facilitate growth on the continent. SMEs and the entrepreneurs have just as big a part to play as the corporates to be able to stimulate that growth and then hopefully attract the investment the continent needs.

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