Over the last 20 years, 2 billion people have gained access to better drinking water, leaving just 11% of the world’s population without clean drinking water. Those last 11%, which is over 780 million people, are some of the hardest to reach – in remote rural areas, places of extreme water stress, or poorer countries where large scale water infrastructure is just too expensive.
Reaching these sorts of places needs a fresh approach, and one of the more interesting ones is being piloted at the moment in South Africa. It looks like this:
If it looks a lot like one of the Coca-Cola kiosks that are found on every other street across Africa, that’s because it is. It’s made out of a shipping container and has a small shop at the front, but there’s more to this tin box than meets the eye.
Inside it is a Slingshot water purification system, a breakthrough condensing filter system that was invented by Dean Kamen, the guy who came up with the Segway. He’s been working on it for a decade, and he claims his machine will create pure drinking water out of anything you put into it – seawater, grey water, whatever is available. It can meet the daily needs of 300 people, and uses about as much electricity as a coffee machine. The solar panels on the roof provide that, with a back-up biomass boiler if necessary, so that the kiosk can run entirely off grid.
Called the EKOCENTER, one of these containers can be placed in a village and provide free drinking water. People can charge their phones, access the internet, store vaccines that need refrigeration, and yes, buy a coke. The shopfront can include a screen and a place to catch up with the news or watch the football, for those without their own their own televisions. They also provide employment, as each one will be run by a local entrepreneur, mostly women. They will receive business training and start-up loans, with the aim that EKOCENTERS run as financially sustainable social enterprises rather than hubs for charity services.
Coca-Cola and their partners aim to install 1,500 to 2,00o of these by 2015, across Africa, Asia and Latin America. That will bring clean water to half a million people, and internet access to an estimated 45,000. It’s a smart move. One of the big criticisms of Coca-Cola is that their bottling plants deplete water sources and deprive local communities. Focusing on drinking water is a deliberate and appropriate response, and delivering it through a social enterprise model that empowers women in developing countries turns a potential weakness into something genuinely useful.
As the world’s most recognised brand, Coca-Cola will no doubt continue to be a lightning rod for anti-globalisation sentiment. There are numerous problems with big corporations, but things are rarely black and white. Companies like Coca-Cola have unparalleled global reach, enormous financial resources, and the proven ability to innovate. I still find it surreal that a purveyor of fizzy sugar-water can command such enviable influence in the world, but there it is. There’s no point bemoaning the situation, since Coca-Cola isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The more interesting question is – how are they going to use that power?
When corporations turn their strengths towards the world’s biggest problems, real solutions can emerge. Through initiatives like EKOCENTERS and ColaLife, Coca-Cola have made commendable use of their supply chains, delivering vital social goods alongside the mundane business of selling drinks. It’s not a bit of charity on the side – these are still coke kiosks. It’s just that they’ve thought creatively about how to use them as drivers of development as well as retail outlets. I admire that. It doesn’t get them off the hook on other things, but it does show that big corporations can be part of the solution when they choose to be.