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Corporate Citizenship
Going With The Flow
Melanie Lasoff Levs | Pink Magazine 11.28.06, 12:00 PM ET






Cyprosa Akello is an elderly woman in the Rawinji village of the Nyanza province in Kenya. Drinking from pools of muddy water has caused illnesses for much of her adult life. Standing before one such puddle, she says her granddaughter has brought information home from school about how to clean water and practice good hygiene--which most villagers did not realize were linked. "I almost died of cholera and diarrhea complications as a result of taking contaminated water," she says through a translator. "But since I learned of this process, I never even take medicine."

Each year, an estimated 3 billion to 5 billion episodes of diarrheal diseases in developing countries, including Kenya, kill more than 2 million people, more than 90% of whom are children. According to the World Health Organization, some 88% of the sickness is due to bad water, sanitation and hygiene.

But the Coca-Cola Co. (nyse: KO - news - people ) is working to change that--along with partners such as Procter & Gamble (nyse: PG - news - people ), CARE, UNICEF and several other nonprofits, nongovernmental organizations and corporations. These entities created the Global Water Challenge (GWC) last year, which is intended to "deliver clean water and sanitation and hygiene education," according to information on GlobalWaterChallenge.org.

Why does a corporate behemoth like Coke care about water in small communities? The company recognizes that taking on the ills of the world also can benefit the bottom line, says Dan Vermeer, Coke's director of global water partnerships. "We want to be seen as a friend and supporter of communities where we operate, and this is a great way to have positive relationships with the local communities," he explains. "As we do that on a broader basis, there's a story that can have a positive impact on the way people think of and value the company."

Coca-Cola could use a positive story. In July, the company announced a profit of $1.84 billion in the second quarter of 2006, up 7% from just a year earlier. But the next day, TIAA-CREF, the nation's largest retirement fund, sold $52.4 million in Coke stock after the beverage giant was removed from a list of socially responsible companies compiled by KLD Research & Analytics, an independent investment research firm. Critics say Coke has been linked to damaged water in India, anti-union violence in Colombia and childhood obesity in the United States. The new Global Water Challenge project is a way Coke can use its vast global distribution systems to make the world better and also improve its reputation for social responsibility.

The Water for Schools project that has so affected Akello and thousands of other Kenyans mobilizes the community around the importance of clean water in three ways:

--It provides WaterGuard, blue bottles of locally produced sodium hypochlorite solution, to clean contaminated water.

--It trains and employs local women to create clay storage containers with narrow mouths and spigots--a way to eliminate large bowls that villagers dip dirty hands into for a drink.

--It educates schoolchildren--who then teach their families--about better hygiene practices.

Last year, Coke, with its more than 800 plants in some 200 countries, started the Community Water Partnership program to encourage Coke bottlers to launch such projects in their own communities. The Water for Schools program in Kenya was the flagship project of the GWC. Currently, the Community Water Partnership is funding 30 similar projects throughout the world, including in South Africa, Egypt, Thailand, Bolivia, Mexico and Florida. "Each one is a story unto itself," Vermeer says. In January 2007, GWC expects to use $500,000 of its funds to expand the Kenya schools program in the hopes of reaching 1,500 schools over the next five years, he adds.

Today, the schools run the programs themselves with little outside intervention. Forty-five primary schools participate, and other schools are beginning to ask for training and materials as well. The result? More than 22,000 children have had fewer illnesses, participate more fully in school and have taught safe hygiene and sanitation procedures to their families through the program, says Clarice Odhiambo, who serves as Coke's Africa water partnership manager. "You see smiles and appreciation in the people, and [school principals] tell you this is the best thing that's ever happened to the school," she says.

She is especially impressed with the women of the villages. In the past, women--and girls, often taken out of school--had to walk hours to their only water source, usually a thick and muddy pool. Now, with fresh water closer to home, they have more time to better themselves; women have met to brainstorm ways to generate their own incomes. Odhiambo says some endeavors include selling produce and modified water pots, raising poultry and even renting tents and chairs for community events. "They don't have to rely on their husbands--they can help themselves," she adds. "They said, 'Water has freed us.'"




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