At Thokozane Fast Food in the Bushbuckridge area of South Africa’s Mpumalanga province, a group of young students gather around a WiFi-enabled Coca-Cola kiosk to research school projects and send email.

Nearly 700 miles south, in Quno in the Eastern Cape province, a crowd of all ages surrounds a similar kiosk near the Sasol Integrated Energy Centre (SIEC).

Coca-Cola South Africa, local bottling partner Coca-Cola Fortune and BT Global Services came together about six months ago to provide free Internet to rural communities in South Africa where online access is limited. Coke installs the coolers, and BT provides design and support, connectivity, as well as business training. 

“Through this project, we’re not just refreshing consumers through our beverages, we’re refreshing them through technology,” said David Visser, senior manager, IT business services, Coca-Cola South Africa. "Providing access to free WiFi will enable students and school children in the area to increase their knowledge through research while also giving entrepreneurs and small business owners in the community the opportunity to manage some of their business aspects online.”

Community members can visit the kiosks to check out tablet devices to access the Internet. Beverage purchases are not required.

“Kids can come and do their projects for free… they don’t have to pay anything,” said Zama Ndlovu of Sisco Distributors, a Coke partner. “We need more of these types of developments because they empower communities and give us access to information.”

The sites were strategically chosen for their accessibility. Both are located near shopping centers and schools, allowing community members to combine day-to-day activities with opportunities to access the Internet for business and educational purposes. SIEC is located next to a popular taxi rank, for example. The predominantly women run co-operative will benefit from the increased flow of people.

Duncan van Jaarsveld of BT (left) and David Visser of Coca-Cola South Africa in Mpumalanga province.

A year-long pilot will focus on the two locations. Based on results, Coca-Cola and BT will consider expanding the program to other rural areas in South Africa and beyond.

“We’ll look at how many people access the Internet, how many feet enter the stores, how volume changes both from a beverage perspective as well as total sales – and how all of this impacts the community,” Visser explains.

This idea for the project originated in Silicon Valley, Calif. with Coke’s chief enterprise architect, Alan Boehme, who was exploring ways to build a community education program using existing Coke assets – namely, its vending machines and coolers – in partnership with a telecom provider.

After conversations with several tech insiders around the world, he contacted Coke’s IT director for Eurasia and Africa, Teoman Buyan, to identify potential markets. After initially exploring Turkey, the team shifted its focus to South Africa and engaged BT and Chantal van Niekerk, chief information officer for Coca-Cola Fortune. The pilot launched a few months later.

“We went from concept to delivery pretty quickly,” Boehme says. “We were fortunate to be able to launch in South Africa, but it’s a model than can be replicated in other parts of the world.”