‘Doing good is good for business’

Billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson believes business can solve global problems, such as the spread of HIV, and tells Liz Bestic that it’s time for a major rethink of corporate practice

No stranger to controversy, Virgin’s charismatic and outspoken boss believes it’s time to turn capitalism on its head. “As a system it has worked over the last two centuries, but it has fundamental flaws,” Sir Richard Branson insists. “While business has been a great vehicle for growth in the world, neither Virgin nor many other businesses have been doing enough to stop the downward spiral we all find ourselves in.

“Business should be a force for good and if every business could play its part in trying to transform the world, most global problems could be solved.

“There is no reason, for example, why public companies should not publish their quarterly profits alongside their philanthropic and environmental targets, which should be equally important to the shareholders. Virgin has been trying to get this right, but we are by no means perfect and we are learning all the time.

“People have called this new approach to business ‘philanthrocapitalism’, but at Virgin we call it Capitalism 24902 – that is the exact circumference of the Earth and reminds us that every single businessperson has the responsibility for taking care of the people and planet that make up our global village.”

Sir Richard has been putting this type of social entrepreneurship into action for many years and has focused on combating the HIV/Aids epidemic in Africa. His new book, Screw Business as Usual, reinforces the message that doing good is good for business, but is also the right thing to do.

He says: “Around 80 per cent of my time now is spent on not-for-profit ventures, which Virgin Unite has set up around the world, and I get tremendous satisfaction from using my entrepreneurial skills to address some of the big problems in the world, particularly in Africa where I travel a lot.”

The day Donald died, I pledged we would never again lose a member of any Virgin company to Aids

Some years ago, while in South Africa, Sir Richard was shocked by what he saw in the local hospitals. “I had been going to Africa for years, but I suddenly noticed that the only adverts on the streets were for funeral parlours,” he says. “Because of Aids, death had become big business. The waiting rooms were full of people in the final throes of the disease, just waiting for someone to die so they could have their bed. In the wards, the scenes were horrendous – skeletal bodies lying in bed with their relatives beside them, caring for them. It had a massive impact on me.”

The following night, he attended an important black-tie function where the great and the good were present. “Against all sound advice, I stood up and said that, although the ANC [African National Congress] and Nelson Mandela had done a wonderful job in uniting South Africa, the ANC itself was likely to be remembered for one of the worst self-inflicted genocides in history. “Thabo Mbeke [then President] was a brilliant man, but he mistakenly believed the 2 per cent of sceptics who said that HIV and Aids were unconnected. While everyone knew that antiretroviral drugs were the only hope for people dying from Aids, he was still putting out a weekly newsletter propagating the myth and preventing the very people who needed help from getting it.”

Mbeke relented and his successor Jacob Zuma has honoured a pledge to set up a Disease Control Centre to co-ordinate treatment of major diseases, including malaria, HIV and new strains of TB.

“South Africa now has a health policy which is much more openminded. They have negotiated better rates for antiretroviral drugs and are doing amazing work. However, one major concern is persuading people to get tested for HIV. Even today in Africa, there is still a stigma attached to getting tested,” says Sir Richard.

“At our Ulusaba Game Lodge in the Kruger National Park, we had already lost one member of staff to Aids. Donald was a much-loved waiter who wrote a moving poem shortly before he died. One line really got to me: ‘Aids is not a disease, it is a war on Africa’. The day he died, I pledged we would never again lose a member of any Virgin company to Aids. I knew we had to take drastic action to encourage the staff to get tested, so we called them all together, and my wife and I had the test in front of them all and wore T-shirts with ‘We know our status’ emblazoned on the front. It did the trick. “I realised there were around 100,000 people living around Ulusaba, of whom 25 to 30 per cent would die within five to six years, without antiretroviral drugs. We set up the Bhubezi Clinic where they can now get these drugs free, along with malaria tablets and free TB treatment.

“The witch doctors and bad messages from the government have gone away here, and people are beginning to realise that, if you take the antiretroviral drugs, 95 per cent of those affected can live a pretty decent life. Nevertheless, there is still an enormous crisis with people dying of Aids through lack of money to pay for these lifesaving drugs. The global financial crisis means that the amount of money to deal with the issue of Aids is decreasing, while the number of people with HIV is increasing.”

CONDOMS FOR SAFE SEX

When Aids reared its ugly head in the 1980s, Sir Richard Branson decided to launch a new brand of condoms and donate profits to raise awareness of HIV.

Mates challenged the near-monopoly enjoyed by Durex and persuaded the BBC to run advertorials to try and educate people about the importance of wearing condoms.

One ad featured a young lad going into his local chemist and seeing a pretty girl behind the counter. After asking for everything but condoms, he sidles over to the counter and whispers: “And a packet of Mates condoms too please.” The girl turns around to her colleagues and shouts in a loud fishwife’s voice: “Can I have a packet of Mates condoms for this young chap here!”

Sir Richard says: “We know that wearing a condom will prevent someone from contracting HIV/Aids. Banning the use of condoms is like handing people a death sentence. Abstinence is all very well, but is totally unrealistic.”