February 2013 \ Business Life \ 19
villages not connected to the electricity grid. However, without an effective method of distribution, Kamen knew he would be unable to reach these remote locations or bring the production of the Slingshot down the cost curve to make it viable. “Each unit cost hundreds of thousands of dollars because we were effectively custom building each one.” “So I approached this little start-up company from down in Atlanta called Coca-Cola,” he jokes. “Because I could only think of one company that has the global reach of this company and its distribution networks.” To his delight, Coca-Cola leapt at the chance. “What made it really exciting to me is the fact that when they came to ’negotiate‘ they said look, we don’t want to negotiate for any commercial rights to this machine. We really believe in your vision, and if Coca-Cola is even perceived to be trying to make money by extorting money from the poorest people in the world to give them clean water, there isn’t enough profit to be made to make it worthwhile.” “But instead, the Coca-Cola company could leverage its incredible distribution system, so at relatively low cost to them, it could get these machines around the world and help make healthy kids and healthy moms and healthy villages.” Coca-Cola’s involvement may be philanthropic, but it could have major implications for local economies. According to the United Nations Development Programme Human Development Report, for every $1 invested in water and sanitation, on average $8 is returned in increased productivity.
“So we came up with this way of sterilising the water in a machine the size of a fridge, which can be beside the bed while you’re dialysing overnight...And I thought, why couldn’t this be used to provide water for people all over the world?” - Dean Kamen, Segway PT
Kamen wryly acknowledges there could be some fringe benefits for Coca-Cola in lifting people out of water poverty: “they’ll become healthy so they can buy Coke’s other products.” The use of Coke’s distribution networks is also an investment, providing African entrepreneurs with an opportunity, as Kamen explains: “In some cases, nobody will make money – where they put them in schools, clinics or where NGOs or governments will essentially give out the water to people at that school, or after disasters.” “But there will be some places where, in a village for example, in order to make it a sustainable situation, a machine can be put there and local entrepreneurs will be able to run old dishwater or any water through the machine, turn it into very high-value potable cool water, so they can sell it at a very low-price and still make a profit… So I think the long term possibility is that in a lot of places around the world, small, individual entrepreneurs will be using these machines to make money
and supply the basic human need for water.” In most developing countries, it is usually women whose time and energy is taken up by walking an average of 6km a day to haul back around 20kg of water for the family, and according to Kamen, it is women who stand to benefit as entrepreneurs. “Coke believe, based on their experience, that women in the developing world tend to be more responsible, more focused and essentially better at taking on the job of becoming an entrepreneur. They have a program within Coke called 5 BY 20, which aims to empower five million women by the year 2020 to be local entrepreneurs and they think one of the best opportunities to become an entrepreneur is in fact through our Slingshot program.” Kamen has high hopes for the future of the Slingshot. “The trials ran very well so Coke said, let’s do the next level of scale up. The plan is to trial in five more countries this year, including South Africa, Mexico, Paraguay and couple of others we haven’t yet figured out. The rest of this year will be just trials, and if things go really well the goal is to scale it up so it can be put all over the world and be a major source of good health for millions of people.” Does he think this could spell the end for water poverty? “I hope so.”
Published on Feb 15, 2013
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