From Coke and Partners: Repurposed Shipping Containers To Boost Women, and Communities

In 2013, Coca-Cola teamed up with major partners like IBM, the International Development Bank, NRG, Qualcomm, and UPS to work on a simple yet effective solution to bringing clean drinking water, wireless communication technology, job creation, and women’s empowerment to rural communities in developing countries around the world. So why haven’t we heard more about it?

Each EKOCENTER begins with repurposing an old shipping container that is not only painted the iconic Coca-Cola red, but is fitted with solar power and water purification capabilities. These 20-foot containers are self-sustaining and provide locally relevant products and services to rural communities. In addition, each EKOCENTER is equipped with a Slingshot water unit. Developed by Dean Kamen, a single Slingshot unit can purify more than 250,000 liters of water per year.

Another partner in the project, Technoserve, identifies and trains local women to operate their EKOCENTERs. Each woman also receives business skills training through Coca-Cola’s 5by20 program, which is working to enable the economic empowerment of 5 million women across the globe by 2020.

Related: What Does Coca-Cola Have to Do With Women’s Empowerment? Actually, a Lot

Coke and Technoserve aren’t the only ones doing the heavy lifting, here. NRG is providing the solar panels and battery storage for each kiosk, UPS is offering supply chain logistics support, and Qualcomm is providing guidance on wireless communications technologies.

The overall goal is to make each EKOCENTER financially sustainable, replicable, and operated primarily by women. And yes, each kiosk is stocked with Coke products, which may raise a hackle or two in the global health community, given that soda is unhealthy and contributes to obesity.

But the positives far outweigh the negatives here. Each EKOCENTER is refrigerated, so they have vaccine storage capabilities when necessary. They also offer clean drinking water and sanitation services as well as hygiene education; provide basic goods and necessities; and have mobile charging stations.

Coca-Cola and its partners piloted the first EKOCENTER project in Heidelberg, South Africa. It has since begun exploring expansion projects and recently entered into talks with local communities in Vietnam. The overall goals of the project this year are to:

  • Provide 500 million liters of safe drinking water
  • Have over 150 total EKOCENTERs operating in Africa, Asia, and Latin America
  • Create 600 direct jobs, most for women entrepreneurs
  • Create 1,500 indirect jobs

The EKOCENTER initiative may be offering a bunch of health and development benefits, but it has a serious female-empowerment bent. Women’s empowerment is actually a pretty big deal for Coke and its philanthropic arm, the Coca-Cola Foundation. In a 2014 media release, the foundation stated, “We know that empowering women to be entrepreneurs and leaders yields dividends of community growth, prosperity and sustainability.” That year, the foundation awarded around $2 million in grants to support the economic empowerment of women and girls, which was up slightly from the previous year's $1.67 million in total grants toward the same cause.

Gender equality is a global development issue that is receiving a great deal of attention from the international community in recent years. Coke is one of those funders that has quickly jumped in to build the bridge between gender equality and widespread economic growth.