Malawi is one of the poorest countries in Africa. More than 70 per cent of the country’s population live in rural areas where bad infrastructure, insufficient means and lack of educated healthcare personnel have resulted in limited access to proper healthcare.
Against this backdrop, the Danish retail chain Bilka and the CSO DanChurcAid have set up a partnership to improve the rural population’s access to healthcare – and the awareness in Denmark.
Back in 2011, DanChurchAid (Folkekirkens Nødhjælp) and Bilka – one of Denmark’s largest retail chains – set up a strategic partnership with the goal of collecting funds to improve the healthcare situation in the impoverished African nation.
Previously, the general perception of Bilka was, that it was a retail business focusing primarily on efficiency and profit generation, but the retail chain was eager to brand itself differently both externally and towards its employees.
“It was something that was expected of us, certainly. But we also wanted to create a new identity. We had become very big and masculine and we wanted to align more with our customers. Less ‘Hvem ka? Bilka’ and more ‘Hvem ka? du ka!’” says store manager Morten Wagner from Bilka with a reference to the warehouse chain’s famous slogan.
Therefore, Bilka’s point of departure was to work to ensure more awareness of social responsibility in its business, and the partnership with DanChurchAid was a perfect steppingstone for this.
“In DanChurchAid we found a partner that matched us really well in terms of size, skills, competencies and products so to say,” says store manager Morten Wagner. “The partnership created a very solid platform for two equal partners that ventured out into a new territory.”
A Lifeline to Malawi
The partners set up a project called “Give a lifeline to Malawi” where funds were collected through various in-store activities; on a number of products (including food, teddy bears, jewellery, plastic bags etc.), Bilka donated a percentage of the product earnings to DanChurchAid.
Funds were also raised through bottle recycling deposits, where customers could donate cash deposits to the project. Furthermore, Bilka’s employees became engaged in the project through a corporate ‘goodwill ambassador’ programme. In the programme, one employee from each department store was appointed as a goodwill ambassador for ‘Give a lifeline to Malawi’, an approach that resulted in solid internal commitment in Bilka.
The goal of the project was to build five healthcare centres in rural Malawi and provide the local community with nutritional guidance on an additional three centres. The main target group would be mothers and children – a group that correlates well with Bilka’s main customer group: families with children.
The goodwill ambassadors have visited Malawi to partake in the partnership’s development work. On their return, they have had the role as awareness facilitators, communicating their experiences and impressions of the Malawian development work to other colleagues, customers and in the local communities, where Bilka has its stores.
The scope widens
It first, Bilka wanted to keep the project activities on a small scale in order to secure that the company did not bite off more than it could chew. However, within three months, the financial targets for the partnership had been met, and from then, the partnership evolved and broadened its scope.
A recurring focus was the idea of mobilising employee engagement on all levels of Bilka’s operations. This stemmed from a desire to create awareness and promote a more socially responsible organisational culture internally at the retail chain.
Through the partnership, DanChurchAid gained access to the core of Bilka’s ‘business engine’ – employees, suppliers and customers – and were able to create awareness and involve these groups in the project.
“Bilka is an amazing partner because they open the door to such a wide variety of people,” says Mulle Juul Korsholm, Head of Campaigns at DanChurchAid. “It has been vital to the project’s success that we were able to establish a dialogue with employees, suppliers and customers. We have been able to engage people in our work that we would otherwise have been dificult to reach,” she says.
Strong collaboration is the key
As the project extended over the initially planned three years, it has been important to ensure a strong and close collaboration in the project group in order to maintain focus, common goals, trust and a sense of togetherness across the two organisations.
“Bilka’s proactive approach to the project has been a great experience for us. They always kept a great focus on carrying plans and activities into actions,” says Mulle Juul Korsholm.
The feeling is mutual in Bilka that is now planning and carrying out a series of new CSR-initiatives that has been inspired with the success of the Malawi-project.
“DanChurchAid has nudged, pushed and inspired us to re-think our concept of CSR,” says Morten Wagner. “What we are doing now and in the near future has definitely been inspired by them and this partnership. I like to think that we have also nudged, pushed and inspired them to perhaps focus a little more on their bottom line. When companies and NGOs work together this way, there is a really huge potential for making a difference in the World.”