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Coca Cola EKOCENTER: Empowering communities

For those of us fortunate enough to enjoy comfortable lives of plenty in the front seat, it can be easy to forget, when we’re taking a few minutes out between morning meetings, that billions of people are not so fortunate.

Global poverty is an ongoing crisis which blights us all. That isn’t to say that great progress hasn’t been made over the past 20 years, during which 2 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. However, finding a way to reach out to the near 800 million – around 12% of the world’s population – who remain destitute has seemed almost too big a task to be possible.

That is, until now.

Endeavour Magazine was delighted to get the opportunity to speak to global beverages giant   Coca-Cola® about the innovative EKOCENTER social enterprise project they are spearheading; an ingenious scheme which has the potential to change the world and better the lives of millions of people.

Our accomplishments as a species are, for want of a better word, nothing short of spectacular. Through incredible feats of engineering and scientific advances, man can now fly further and faster than ever before; we’ve set foot on the moon and travelled to the deepest depths of the oceans by means that our parents and grandparents once deemed impossible. We’ve built thriving, prosperous cities in a world which seems to become ever smaller by the day, but arguably our greatest achievement of all is how, in recent decades, mankind has, through its tireless humanitarian efforts, managed to markedly improve the quality of life of billions of our planet’s fellow inhabitants.

Since the world came together 16 years ago to pledge its commitment to reducing global poverty at the historic UN Millennium Summit, close to 2 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. However, let us be under no illusions; in spite of the significant progress that’s been made in improving the lot of those at the bottom of the world’s financial pyramid, the number of people who remain stubbornly left behind; who continue to live on less than $3 a day, and who live in communities that lack access to safe water, electricity, education, basic healthcare, and other critical services, remains unacceptably high.

Moreover, reaching out to these communities, which are typically located ‘off-grid’ in remote areas, or in regions suffering from acute water-stress, and any number of other fragile contexts, has long proved to be beyond the capabilities of national governments and charitable NGO’s alone. The missing link in finding a way of reaching out to isolated, impoverished communities, it would seem, was the business community; an institution which, since its inclusion, has increasingly used its renowned powers of innovation to offer solutions to the crisis, in the form of social enterprise partnerships like the Coca-Cola® led EKOCENTER initiative.

EKOCENTER: A flagship social enterprise for delivering sustainable growth, community empowerment

Make no mistake about it; in a modern age where the public purse alone is no longer a sufficient source of funds for community investment, social enterprise offers a third-way option that will in years to come not merely reduce poverty, but act as the catalyst needed to foster thriving communities and create new markets.

In the case of EKOCENTER, the premise behind it is simple: rather than simply give isolated, off-grid communities services like water, energy, and mobile connectivity through acts of pure philanthropy – a means of provision which is rarely sustainable in the medium to long-term – instead, The Coca-Cola® Company has worked in collaboration with its ‘golden triangle’ partners in the private sector, civil society, and government to create a self-funding decentralized community hub that can deliver key services, which pay for its own operating and maintenance costs independently. Through doing this, EKOCENTER not only saves lives and improves livelihoods, but acts as a trigger for sustainable growth and empowerment.

On this, Derk Hendriksen, Vice President of Business Integration at The  Coca-Cola® Company, told Endeavour: “we’re focusing on developing countries, and the delivery of our sustainability strategy centred around the ‘3W’s’ – well-being, women empowerment, and water. We don’t do this on our own, of course. The key to our initial success has been partnerships, not just with other private sector partners but working jointly with civil society and Governments as well.”

“Helping struggling communities fits in with the higher purpose of all parties, and to achieve this all parties have to come together and collaborate. With our experience doing business in 200 countries, and network of relationships and operations around the world, we have been in a good place to take a convening role. When we work together, everybody wins, particularly the residents of communities.”

A ‘downtown in a box’

In layman’s terms, one might consider EKOCENTER a wireless internet-connected, self-sustaining marketplace-cum-community-hub-cum-utilities provider: a ‘downtown in a box.’ Built as a modular kiosk, an EKOCENTER unit looks somewhat similar to the many small Coca-Cola® branded shops that can be found dotted on every other street corner in Africa and Latin America. However, in terms of its offerings, that’s where the similarity ends.

An EKOCENTER unit, whilst a general store of sorts, is also a facility that, depending on the needs of the community, can provide clean drinking water, electricity, medicine, first aid equipment, food, wireless internet and mobile phone charging ports; the foundations upon which a thriving, modern community is built. Also, in-line with the  Coca-Cola®’s 5by20 women’s empowerment initiative, the EKOCENTER project generates business opportunities and streams of income for local female entrepreneurs who are responsible for the day-to-day operation of each EKOCENTER site.

The solar panels which sit atop an EKOCENTER are the giveaway that there is much more to these unassuming steel boxes than meets the eye. Designed and built by one of  Coca-Cola®’S key project partners, Germany-based Solarkiosk, the equipped solar panels and battery storage system utilise abundant sunshine to provide sufficient electrical output to power the unit’s technological marvels, and meet the basic energy requirements needed to provide lighting to the surrounding area.

The cherry on the EKOCENTER cake, however, is the potential to also equip the EKOCENTER with water-purification technology. The system currently in use in Vietnam and in places in Africa, was designed by another EKOCENTER partner, Pentair. Most importantly, the technologies that it utilises, which includes a submicron pre-filter, iron/manganese filtration, chlorine feed, carbon filtration, and reverse osmosis technology, means that it can purify up to 10,000 litres a day.

The power of partnerships

The modular approach to setting up an EKOCENTER unit means that the wider range of utilities and services offered by each one will vary, depending on an assessment of each prospective EKOCENTER location, and the needs of the host community.

If an EKOCENTER is to be set-up in an area that lacks mobile phone and 3G WiFi coverage, this is where another of the project’s partners, Ericsson, can step in; the telecoms giant has the capacity to work alongside mobile phone service providers, such as TIGO, in countries around the world to construct the mobile phone towers needed to deliver connectivity to isolated communities.

Conversely, an EKOCENTER that is set to be installed in a community which already has adequate mobile phone and WiFi connectivity won’t offer this service. Similarly, this approach also applies to other additional EKOCENTER bolt-ons, such as a community centre, which are built in partnership with Government in places like Vietnam, or lighting for the surrounding area, which can be supplied and installed by electronics giant, Philips, most recently in Rwanda.

These examples of the specialist role that each of EKOCENTER’s partners play is indicative of what can be achieved when private sector partners come together and combine their strength, in order to multiply their social and business impact.

EKOCENTER relies on such partnerships across the private and public sector to ensure the continued success of the initiative. Granted, its brand is arguably the world’s most powerful, and its far-reaching presence, global distribution networks, and financial resources, virtually unrivalled, but alone, this ambitious scheme simply wouldn’t have been possible; it is only through its golden triangle partnerships that Coca-Cola® has been able to oversee the installation of an EKOCENTER network, stretching from Africa to South East Asia.

EKOCENTER’s flagship site in Ruhunda, Rwanda – a model for what the initiative can achieve

The recent June 2016 launch of the initiative’s flagship EKOCENTER site, in Rwanda’s eastern province of Ruhunda, perhaps best represents the culmination of what this project can achieve. Unlike other EKOCENTERs, the Ruhunda facility is unique, in that it offers every available utility, service, and amenity, ranging from advanced water purification systems to energy, mobile internet connectivity, a state-run cutting-edge health clinic, and Rwanda’s only floodlit football pitch outside of the capital, Kigali.

All-in-all, this EKOCENTER unit empowers 25,000 community residents in the area, with the key word being ‘empower.’ The EKOCENTER scheme, whilst it might be an act of corporate-social responsibility on the part of Coca-Cola® and its partners, is no act of charity or hand-out. Rather, EKOCENTER, which operates in a shade of grey somewhere in between its for-profit business operations and its philanthropic endeavours, is a hand-up for its beneficiaries.

Far from being a finished product upon which communities can rest on their laurels, the range of utilities and services offered by EKOCENTER is intended help jump-start community growth and development. In Ruhunda, a region where youth unemployment is as high as 70%, it is anticipated that the provision of clean water, electricity and mobile internet coverage will provide the basic infrastructure needed to spur on the development of local businesses and help to inspire a generation of aspiring entrepreneurs to take a hands-on role in creating wealth for themselves, their communities, and their country.

EKOCENTER: Proof that business is part of the solution

With the opening of the Ruhunda EKOCENTER site,  Coca-Cola® and its partners have now successfully launched more than 100 units in seven countries, but this is only the beginning of their social enterprise campaign. By the end of 2016 alone, plans are in place to have at least 177 EKOCENTERs in operation in 10 countries, serving a population of approximately 1 million people.

“EKOCENTER represents an investment in the future prosperity and progress of some of the most fragile and at-risk communities we serve,” said Muhtar Kent, Chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola® Company. “Through EKOCENTER we have the ability to change lives by offering access to safe drinking water and other needed resources, all while empowering local entrepreneurs. What started as an aspiration is now becoming a reality as we welcome our partners across the golden triangle of business, government and civil society to scale and improve this innovation.”

With multi-nationals of the stature of Coca-Cola® and its private sector peers now committed to the global push for a better world, as they help to develop the societies in which they do business and create future markets for their goods and services, it is clear that far from being part of the problem, big business can actually be part of the solution.

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