business corporate responsibility development

EKOCENTER – a Coke kiosk for the 21st century

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:

ekocenter

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.

11 comments

  1. Paul Gilding (http://paulgilding.com/) also sees corporations as ‘part of the solution’ and you are absolutely right to point out that they will not go away. Clearly, the drive for shareholder profit as well as purveying ‘sugar water’ by means of the mischievous misrepresentations of advertising is ethically questionable, but blanket condemnation of the powerful drivers of capitalism can be counter-productive. Thanks for this unexpected item of news.

  2. I saw this on BBC or something. All of these people get safe water to drink, power, a source of information and a few jobs are created. Coke gets some advertising and I think everyone wins. Dean Kamen is a truly remarkable human being. I’m sure he has had many failures but when he succeeds it is amazing.
    Have you seen his work w/ robotic prosthetics(sp) for the military?
    And he is paying it forward by founding and sponsoring the FIRST Robotics movement. This movement has inspired thousands of kids to go into engineering programs, including my daughter.

    1. Yes, Kamen is a rare individual, for sure. It’s almost a shame that he’s best known for the Segway, when his work on robotics or on sterling engines is far more useful. There’s a sterling engine incorporated into the EKOCENTRE.

  3. Great idea and great functions. As you say Jeremy coke is not off the hook with this one as you need to look at anyone giving anything in balance with how much harm they are also contributing. Great to see coke being involved in this but personally I think they have A LOT more good to do before it is better than evil… Still something is better than nothing but it is only one small step on a long staircase of the decent corporate social responsibility they owe to the world…

    1. This is all true, but I think it’s helpful to look at it from Coke’s point of view. If the board or the CEO or whoever decides to start using their global reach for positive impact, what can they do? They can’t decide that on balance they’re a bad thing, and wind the company up. They can look creatively at how to mobilise what they already have for a broader set of social objectives, but they need to do it within their existing framework, otherwise they wouldn’t have that global network to mobilise.

      Personally, I don’t like corporations because I think they’re a bad business model. But they are a reality of our world, and we need to encourage them to do good, while also nurturing the better business models that will in time replace them. We need to be able to engage positively with corporations when they do useful things. If we don’t, they won’t bother.

      Another way of thinking about it is to imagine you were offered a job by Coke. Imagine they came to you and said – ‘look, we know we’ve got the world’s biggest global brand, and we realise that this could be used more positively than it is right now – what should we do?’ If I had such an invitation, this is just the kind of project I’d want to start and build. And I’d be gutted if the only response from social justice campaigners was ‘yes, but you’re still evil’!

      1. Absolutely agree with your words and I too am for encouraging corporations with positivity. My comment was more based on our perspectives (the public). I hope we don’t fall at the feet of corporations when they do some good like this and the public realises they are still out of balance in the world of social justice good and evil.

        I sometimes give corporate presentations with the Global Poverty Project and I often bring this up in those presentations and say – ‘please give yourselves a pat on the back for the good you are doing but there is always more you can and need to be doing if you want to contribute positively to your community, the environment and as a global citizen.’

        The best response I have had to this statement was – ‘well what is the perfect corporation in your eyes?’ and my answer was ‘an ecologically sustainable not for profit business’ – a very vague and general statement but at least a head scratcher for most and a moment to cause a pause in their corporate world and lives.

        I will be doing some work in the corporate world next year with a concept incorporating global citizen awareness, attitudes and actions so always keen to hear from you and others on how best to encourage positively but still show the distance they need to cover to be in unison with a socially just world…

        1. It’s tricky to get the balance, for sure. And as you say, if you had to design a perfect corporation it wouldn’t be a corporation at all.

          As for falling at the feet of Coca Cola, it’s interesting that the same week that I wrote this, three separate people expressed their excitement to me that the company’s Christmas packaging is out! Their long term marketing plan to insinuate their fizzy sugarwater into people’s sentimental feelings about Christmas is clearly a complete success. I’d be interested to see what their annual marketing budget is, and compare the spend with how much they’ve put into the EKOCENTREs…

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