What does sustainability mean to Africa? The continent has embraced the buzzword in the same way Western nations have, but are we adapting it to the African context?

Many African cities find themselves ranked as the “fastest-growing” or as having the “biggest economic potential” – yet without proper discussion of what growth means, or whether social and environmental factors are being considered alongside economic ones.

Generally, sustainable development is understood as the use of today’s resources in a way that meets our needs but does not undermine the environment or threaten future generations.

In the context of Africa, there are two assumptions to avoid: that sustainable practices are not already in place, and that the systems and priorities of each nation are the same. Learning from practices that are successful in other countries is beneficial; replicating them without adapting to your surroundings is not.

And what if we are not forward-thinking enough? Instead of looking at lessons learned and following one pattern of development, we have to think about what we would like our future to look like, and consider whether we have the resources to make it a reality.

The DaVinci Institute’s Thomas Frey claims that “60% of the best jobs in the next 10 years haven’t been invented yet”. With this in mind, businesses throughout Africa are in a position to drive future trends and influence the types of jobs that will be “invented”, while keeping the ones that are of value today.

One form of enterprise experiencing an upward trajectory is the “social business”. These address social problems while reinvesting profits into sustainability efforts. This type of business model can create jobs, help communities, promote sustainability and contribute to economic growth.

For example, in Tunisia’s capital city, Tunis, Ferme Thérapeutique de Sidi Thabet serves as both a full-time educational facility to local people with physical and mental disabilities, and a working farm. Nearly 100 young people from the ages of eight to 33, plus 40 staff members, come to the farm every day for traditional schooling, vocational training and emotional and physical therapy – services that would not be available to them otherwise.

The farm is part non-profit educational organization and part profit-driven business. It sells farm produce in Tunis, and in less than a year has been able to replace 5% of its donor support with homegrown revenue. The farm is also certified as 100% organic.

In Ghana, meanwhile, a clothing company called Afia sells locally sourced and manufactured products. The craftspeople receive a fair wage for their work, and reach a wider range of customers than they are accustomed to. This is a business that supports local people while contributing to long-term development.

These are the kinds of business practices – combining profit, environmental sustainability and social impact – that we should be inspired by, aspire to and be recreating throughout Africa.

Author: Lamia Hatira is a sustainability consultant in Tunisia and a World Economic Forum Global Shaper.

Image: A woman walks with her two children at sunset near the seashore in Benghazi April 29, 2014. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori