Coca-Cola Undertaking Africa Water Project, CEO Says
NEW YORK Coca-Cola Co. said Wednesday it would help to bring clean drinking water to parts of Africa in a plan to work with local communities on environmental issues like water management.
"We're focusing on water because we're a hydration company," Neville Isdell, chief executive of the world's largest beverage company, said at a Business for Social Responsibility conference here.
"We're focusing on water because it's the main ingredient in every product we make ... the success of our business depends on the availability of local water resources."
Isdell said Coke was working with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to install pumps and extend municipal water taps into outlying communities in Mali.
He said Coke had partnered with women's groups there to set up a water fee program to extend and maintain the system.
Working with CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere) and UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund), Coke has launched water access, safety and storage programs in schools in Nyanza province and Nairobi in Kenya, said Isdell, whose family moved to Zambia in southern Africa from Northern Ireland when he was 10 years old.
Coke is also supporting a project with USAID to rehabilitate gravity-fed water systems and build new systems to improve access to drinkable water in Malawi, said Isdell, who was educated in Capetown, South Africa and started working for for Coca-Cola in 1966 with a local bottler in Kitwe, Zambia.
ADVERSITY LEADS TO OUTREACH
Isdell said Coke wanted to work with local communities in part because of its experience in India, where environmental activists have accused Coca-Cola of depleting groundwater and selling contaminated beverages.
The southern state of Kerala placed a ban on products made by Coke and rival PepsiCo Inc. in August after the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment said they contained unsafe levels of pesticides. Six other states in India prohibited sales at or near schools, colleges and hospitals.
The Kerala ban was lifted in September by an Indian court that found inconsistencies in the group's analysis.
International markets are becoming more important to Coca-Cola, based in Atlanta, Georgia, as consumers in developed markets choose drinks like bottled water and tea over soft drinks.
A Coke spokeswoman said the company was now 98.5 percent operational in India and expected to be able to operate without restrictions in the near future.
Isdell said Coke products in India are safe.
"What Kerala (India) has taught us is that our engagement at an early stage with local communities ... to listen and to learn is something we have not done very well," Isdell said.
"The name Coca-Cola gets a lot of attention in the press," Isdell said. "If you want to get someone's attention to what is a broader issue, using the name Coca-Cola is very useful."
Another pesticide incident occurred in India three years ago, Isdell said.
"And there was a very significant effect on our sales at that time. This time around, it's been much more short-lived because I think people recognize the campaign for what it is -- a broader issue about pesticides in the food chain," he said.
In August, Coca-Cola was added as a defendant to aclass-action lawsuit in the United States alleging that its Vault Zero energy drink contained ingredients that can form benzene, a chemical that has been linked to leukemia.
In 2004, Coke recalled Dasani bottled water in the United Kingdom and postponed its launch in Europe after concerns that the water contained illegal levels of bromate, a cancer-causing chemical.