Coca-Cola saves the world

Global soft drink giant this week launched its Ekocenter project, a plan to provide safe drinking water to thousands of remote rural communities

The Coca-Cola Company this week launched its Ekocenter project, a plan to provide safe drinking water to thousands of “very remote” rural communities and simultaneously allow Coke to capture the emerging retail market in water-stressed villages all over the developing world.

Ekocenters are branded shipping containers containing the so-called Slingshot water purifier, a creation of celebrity US inventor Dean Kamen, who is best known for his Segway scooters. (see sidebar)

A prototype container was unveiled in Heidelberg this week by Coca-Cola’s chairperson and CEO, Muhtar Kent, with former George W Bush-era secretary of state Condoleezza Rice as the guest of honour, alongside Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

There is apparently another prototype in the province at an undisclosed location, while the six Slingshot purifiers are being piloted by NGO Africar, at clinics in the Eastern Cape.

The prototype Ekocenter also sports solar panels and batteries, a Wi-Fi router and a spaza shop-style retail front.

The company calls it “downtown in a box” and is hoping to deploy “thousands” of them in African, Asian and South American countries in
the next couple of years, although Kent would not be drawn on a ball park estimate of how many.

This year’s pilots in South Africa, Mexico and Paraguay involve five fully fledged Ekocenters.

Next year there will be 10 countries targeted.

The company is still ironing out the business model, but the basic premise is to leverage funding and support from development finance institutions, NGOs and other corporations to deploy these units all over the world.

Each Ekocenter will then be operated by a selected female entrepreneur, who will be able to offer the water and electricity to their communities, very probably at a price.

They’ll also sell goods, including Coca-Cola’s products and those of selected corporate partners.

“In principle, what the operator sells will be determined by the needs of the community, what makes business sense and what she has a licence for,” the company replied to follow-up questions.

“In South Africa we are unlikely to charge for the water, but our final decision will be guided by local dynamics and customs,” says Coca-Cola.

“These will become the centre of small communities that lack power, clean water and connectivity.”

If the Ekocenters do become the heart of thousands of rural economies, they could give corporate backers unique access to new consumers.

According to Kent, other consumer goods companies will very likely come on board, depending on their ability to distribute products to the
far-flung rural places where Ekocenters are to be deployed.

“In some countries, we are the only ones that can.”

In future “money-wire companies like Western Union” could come on board, as well as banks.

Asked if Ekocenters would hypothetically allow the sale of Pepsi, Kent asked: “What’s the benefit of that?”

He said: “These will be retail outlets. This is not a charity.”

The units cost thousands of dollars, but will be cofinanced through these partnerships.

“Financing will not be an issue. Women will not be charged the full cost of the centres,” says Kent.

The women will receive microfinance and those selected in the southern African region will receive intense training.

Their training will be at Heidelberg, where the prototype sits near Coca-Cola’s Valpre water-bottling plant.

The Slingshot water system at the heart of the Ekocenter plan has been in the works since the late 1990s.

It is a scaled-up version of a water purifier Kamen created for home dialysis machines.

The original client pulled out and Kamen went on to develop it into a larger-scale water purifier, which he’d been piloting since 2008 while seeking a patron to take it global.

It can clean “any water” – from river water to sewage to industrial waste, claims the company.

The key innovation is its ground-breaking energy efficiency. The machine runs off 1kw of electricity and can purify 850 litres of water per day, said representatives from Kamen’s company, Deka.

In the solar-powered Ekocenter, battery packs can keep it running for 30 hours without sunlight.

This allows it to run “off the grid” with solar power, although the intention has been to use another Kamen invention, a generator that can run off anything that can sustain a flame, including cow dung.

Kamen brought the idea to Coca-Cola after doing an unrelated project for them: designing the mother of all soda fountains, the so-called Coke Freestyle, which dispenses a hundred different kinds of cool drinks. It was a marketing project to mark the company’s 125th anniversary.

By 2010, Kamen had introduced Coca-Cola CEO Kent to the idea, hoping to get the world’s largest and most ubiquitous distributer of any product as a backer.

By the end of 2011, 15 Slinghots had been installed at schools around Accra. A total of 50 have been manufactured and six are currently in Eastern Cape being tested at clinics.

The South African trial run was announced last year and at a World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in January this year.

The prototype of Coca-Cola’s Ekocenter was unveiled in Heidelberg this week by the soft drink behemoth’s CEO and chairperson, Muhtar Kent, and the company’s “good friend”, former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.

According to Kent, the Ekocenter is aimed at decreasing death and disease caused by contaminated water.

At the launch, he told the crowd of employees from Coca-Cola and local partner companies that he had been sitting at the dinner table with President Jacob Zuma at Davos early this year discussing the project.

“He was extremely excited and passionate about it,” Kent said.

“He asked me to pilot it in South Africa.”

Rice gave a speech praising the project.

“If you want to do something about economic development, take a woman, give her a microloan, give her an Ekocenter and she will make her community prosperous.”

Finance minister Pravin Gordhan, also a guest at the launch, called it a “remarkable piece of work” and a “fascinating enterprise”.

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