Coke set to give SA free drinking water

Dewald van Rensburg
2013-09-01 22:14
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The Slingshot water system at the heart of the Ekocenter plan has been in the works since the late 1990s. (Shutterstock) ~ Shutterstock
Johannesburg - The Coca-Cola Company last 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.

A prototype container was unveiled in Heidelberg 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.

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.

Female entrepreneurs

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,” said 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 co-financed through these partnerships.

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

 - City Press

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