With EKOCENTERs now active in several countries, Coca-Cola is bringing electricity, safe water, Internet access and other amenities — all contained within one solar-powered kiosk that also functions as a small shop— to communities in need. Local female entrepreneurs typically run EKOCENTERs, which aims to spur economic and social development in underserved communities around the world.
The goal is to have about 150 EKOCENTERs up and running by the end of next year in select markets across Africa and Southeast Asia. In order to do this, Coca-Cola has brought together a diverse set of partners, including Ericsson, Pentair, GWC, IBM, SolarKiosk, the Inter-American Development Bank and McCann Health. Derk Hendriksen, general manager of the EKOCENTER initiative, describes the details.
Q. What is EKOCENTER?
Derk Hendriksen: EKOCENTER is a local market in the shape of a container that also offers some of life’s essentials, like water and access to electricity. It brings utilities, services and products to communities in need. Our approach is to do this through a social enterprise model where we empower women entrepreneurs with the tools they need to run a successful business through EKOCENTER, while also providing their communities with a destination to access basic necessities.
What are the different components of the system?
DH: Utilities are the first level, and they are actually the most fundamental. There’s an off-the-grid provision of safe water, power and Internet connectivity. Our intent is to provide those three utilities to communities that are currently either without them or have very spotty or expensive access to, for instance, power. Once those utilities are available at the EKOCENTER, we can start thinking about the second level of services we may want to provide to communities. Services can range from simple things like charging phones, photocopying and cooling beverages and move to more advanced offerings of education, health care, banking and entertainment. All of that can be a reality through access to the initial three utilities.
The third level is products. There’s an opportunity to offer communities things they need or want access to. That includes basics like flour, sugar, personal hygiene items, solar lamps, as well as food and beverages, such as Coca-Cola and our portfolio of products. But it could also include critical healthcare-related products like vaccinations or over-the-counter medicine. So, truly, it’s a marketplace of opportunity behind one storefront.
How is EKOCENTER set up?
DH: It’s a modular kiosk that is about 15-feet long to which a canopy can be attached for a sitting area or another kiosk could be connected to double the size. There are solar panels on the roof to provide power and electricity.The water piece is a bit more complicated, and our goal is to either house a water purification system within the EKOCENTER or provide a unit close by the kiosk for locals to access safe drinking water. Finally, the aim is for EKOCENTERs to be connected to the Internet through a variety of technologies, depending on the situation at hand.
When you say EKOCENTER is a social enterprise, what does that mean?
DH: By social enterprise we mean that this is neither a philanthropic (social) project nor a purely business (enterprise) oriented project – instead it tries to combine the best of both worlds. Both the “social” and the “enterprise” are important parts of the equation. I always say, don’t forget the enterprise in social enterprise, because the risk is that you end up with philanthropy or charity, which is not sustainable in the long run. EKOCENTER needs to be able to generate enough revenue to cover its own operating costs such as goods, maintenance, operations, salary of the entrepreneur, and a small lease payment. It’s a true enterprise in that sense, which means we really need to find the right person to run it in the community and work with the community. That person will receive the necessary training and supervision to run a successful business over time.
What we’re really trying to tap into here is the entrepreneurial spirit of the people in the communities that we serve. We’ve seen it all over. If you give people the tools to be successful, they will be successful.
Is this a Coke-only initiative?
DH: No. From the beginning we’ve said that this is not something we can do alone so we’re cooperating with some great private sector and NGO partners. In fact, one of things I’ve been very impressed with is the passion, knowledge and expertise of our partners and the extent to which they share our vision. For example, we recently started working with a small German company, SolarKIOSK, who have since 2012 piloted an innovatively designed solar kiosk in remote areas of Ethiopia, Kenya and Botswana. Their ability to basically prove out a new business model and foster local entrepreneurship at the bottom of the pyramid fits our model perfectly so we’re really grateful to work with partners such as these.
You mention female entrepreneurs specifically. Can you talk about that aspect of the program?
DH: It goes all the way back to our sustainability commitments. We at Coca-Cola are committed to playing a leadership role in the areas of water, women and well-being. And with EKOCENTER, we cover all three. As a Company, we are committed to economically empower 5 million women by 2020. We’re well on our way with more than 550,000 women already empowered through our 5by20 program. Our EKOCENTER program will contribute to achieving that objective by employing women entrepreneurs.
The reason why we are focused on women is because we know that they excel at setting up and running successful businesses and returning the proceeds to their families and their communities. We’ve seen that over and over again in what we’ve already done through 5by20. With EKOCENTER we aim to tap into those learnings.
Our belief is that in the long run, a business can only be as sustainable or as healthy as the communities that it is part of. We feel that by working on the physical, social, economic and environmental aspects of community well-being, we’re truly helping those communities help themselves become more sustainable.
A skeptic would say, well, Coke is just doing this to sell more drinks. How do you respond?
DH: In the long run, there’s obviously a business interest as well, but that’s grounded in the reality that a healthy community makes a healthy business possible. Traditionally, we’ve been great at our beverage business and we’ve also been great in the areas of philanthropy and charity, where we have a long history of doing a lot of good work.
But there’s an area between the two that is social business, or social enterprise, or shared value or whatever you want to call it. It’s a 21st century business that is focused on really balancing social good and economic viability. That’s what we’re trying to do here. Any money that will be made through EKOCENTER will be invested back into building more EKOCENTERs. It does not have a profit orientation. But in terms of making it economically viable, it generates revenues that cover its ongoing costs. That will ultimately make it very different from our core business as well as our philanthropic efforts.
What does the project mean to you personally?
DH: The personal angle is probably the most important. I’m a big believer that work and personal life should be part of the same thing. I’m a father of two young kids and I think that moving from one life stage to another, such as being married without children to being a family and having kids provokes some existential questions. We live a very privileged life, and we know that there are about 2 to 3 billion people who certainly have less privileged lives than we do in the West and developed markets.
When the occasion came to head up this project I felt it was a unique opportunity and a rare chance to do something really meaningful, and professionally fulfilling as well. I have the job of a lifetime. I’m loving it.
Aside from our external partners, we work with a very talented and motivated team. It’s just been an amazing experience working with people who are motivated by what we’re trying to do here. Some of them have joined as team members, and others are just making time available within their day jobs to help us be successful. Both rationally and emotionally, it is a great place to be.
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