Coca-Cola has announced plans to equip with WiFi its drinks dispensers in a number of localities in South Africa, working in partnership with UK-based multinational telecommunications company BT to provide Internet access to communities that are under-served with connectivity.
A key focus nowadays, not just for the information and communication technology giants but for all kinds of companies and organisations around the world, is to get hold of the masses of online data circulating around the world, given the strategic and business potential that such information represents. The Internet giants have been pursuing a determined strategy of acquiring promising fledgling companies able to bring on board the technology needed to control Internet access or use, a prime example being Google’s recent purchase of solar-powered drone manufacturer Titan Aerospace. Meanwhile others have been building Internet infrastructure – for example Alcatel-Lucent’s Seabras-1 subsea cable project linking Brazil to the United States. Bound up with these overtly commercial aims there is often also a civic goal: providing under-served populations with access to digital technology so that they can access online information. Interesting things then frequently emerge from the enthusiasm of these new users. The latest move here is by Coca-Cola, which is teaming up with BT in a pilot project in South Africa to equip drinks cooler-dispensers with free WiFi connectivity in two targeted locations: Umtata in the Eastern Cape and Nelspruit in Mpumalanga province.
Maximising Internet accessibility and use
Both of these towns are easy to get to and feature major population crossroads. In Umtata, the WiFi-enabled dispenser is situated at the Sasol Integrated Energy Centre (SIEC) in Qunu, a popular spot for locals as it is close to a taxi rank, attracting large numbers of people. SIEC is moreover a co-operative predominantly run by women, which is likely to benefit from the increased flow of people. The second machine is located at Thokozane Fast Food in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga. In both cases the drinks dispensers have been installed in the vicinity of shopping centres and schools. The WiFi access is free, and the idea is that people will combine their daily errands – shopping, school run, etc – with logging on to the Internet to assist their business or studies. In fact, given that Coca-Cola is one of the best-known brands in Africa, this connected vending machine model could be extended to many remote areas. There seems to be a clear win-win here as the beverages firm is capitalising on its brand recognition for the civic good. While several of the Web giants are working to develop solar-powered drones or other airborne solutions to deliver Internet access across the planet, Coca Cola is taking a more local approach – bringing people together to a place with WiFi access – a determinedly ‘social’ approach that may lead to new usages and new ways of doing things.
Studying – and perhaps inspiring – new habits
The basic goal of equipping Coca-Cola dispensing machines with WiFi is to provide unlimited Internet access not just to less-well-off communities but also to the South African middle class. Explains Coca-Cola South Africa Chief Information Officer David Visser: “We believe that by providing access to free WiFi we will enable students and school children in the area to increase their knowledge through research, while also giving entrepreneurs and small business owners in the community the opportunity to manage some of their business aspects online.” While South Africa has one of the highest levels of Internet access on the African continent, the number of current Internet users in this country of 53 million inhabitants remains fairly low – put at 10 million in the 2011 statistics –– and Internet usage is very uneven across the country. The drinks vending machines could therefore help to provide access to information and learning opportunities. In addition, Internet access could help local residents to get a small business started or simply help working people to manage their affairs more efficiently. In a recent interview with L’Atelier, Stefan Sakoschek stressed that there is “a genuine black middle class keen to open up the country, to do business, and to set up their own businesses”. South Africa has already started to foster this entrepreneurial class through incubators and other infrastructure, but these Coca Cola WiFi installations are likely to encourage people in economic backwaters where this trend is less pronounced. Moreover, as – Stefan Sakoschek points out – South Africa is a real driver of progress in the southern Africa region, it is highly likely that this idea will spread beyond the country’s borders.