Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown

Ekocenter. Stare at the word for a while and you still might not see the cleverly hidden moniker of one of the world's most ubiquitous brands - Coke. There it is, the first four letters staring in a mirror. Coca-Cola's CEO Muhtar Kent first described the Ekocenter initiative in January, saying it grew out of a partnership with renowned inventor Dean Kamen (of Segway fame), who created the "Slingshot" - an efficient water-purification box capable of purifying enough water for 300 people a year. An Ekocenter is a fully-contained, solar-powered, re-purposed shipping container, equipped with a Slingshot water purifier, an electrical charging station, an Internet access point, refrigerated vaccines, and a few basic necessities - all run by entrepreneurial women in remote locations around the developing world. That's the theory, anyway. The prototype can be seen in Heidelberg, South Africa, and the goal is to deploy 300 more Ekocenters to villages in 20 African and Latin American countries by 2015.

Coca-Cola is working with both public- and private-sector partners, including IBM, Qualcomm, IBM, McCann Health, the Inter-American Development Bank and others to develop and deliver the kiosks. The challenge, well-known by the project partners, is to find the right business model - one that offers a flexible set of tailored products and services, and enough profit to warrant rapid scale. As they fine tune their business model, Coca-Cola can draw from decades of telecenter and cybercafe projects that saw varying degrees of success. These initiatives typically had a narrower range of services - usually telephones and/or internet connectivity - and often followed a franchise model. Many succumbed to the challenges of providing training, support, and security, paying the high cost of telecommunications, or finding long-term economic buyers after the start-up support dried up.

Ekocenters will undoubtedly benefit from the mother company's world-beating distribution system, deep pockets, and the seemingly genuine support of top management. But it's one thing to drop off a case of Coke 500 miles north of Timbuktu, quite another to supply, train, support and protect a scarcely educated woman running the franchise with your logo on it. Coca-Cola and its partners bring enough assets to the Ekocenter initiative to have a fighting chance of success, but finding the right business model is only the first step. The second, third, and fourth step (and every step thereafter) will be committing to that model through ongoing investment, evaluation, improvement, and scale. 

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