Coca-Cola’s river cleanup work in Tanzania shows mixed motives

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — For years the Mlalakua River overflowed with garbage during each heavy rain. Homes would flood with water contaminated by sewage and trash. Even in the dry season, the narrow river had a nasty grayish hue, the product of runoff from the factories situated alongside it, residents and local water experts say.

Some here call the Mlalakua River by a different name: the Coca-Cola River. The nickname comes from the red-brown hue of the water. But it may also reflect the fact that among those factories that line the river’s banks is a Coca-Cola bottling plant, one of three in Tanzania. As the world’s largest beverage retailer and one of its most recognizable brands, Coca-Cola goes to great lengths to protect its image. And a few years ago, someone at the company seems to have realized that being associated with a garbage-filled river was putting the company’s local reputation very much at risk.

So in 2012, Coca-Cola entered into a public-private partnership, or PPP, aimed at cleaning the river. The company — partnering with nearly a dozen government entities, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other private companies — would dredge the sludge and garbage from the river, then engage the locals in a plan to keep it clean.

The effort was part of a rising trend toward public-private partnerships, a phenomenon strongly supported with $600 million in new funding by the Obama administration in recent years. Such partnerships, which have evolved over three decades, have dramatically transformed the landscape of environmental and global health projects around the world. PPPs now account for the majority of worldwide funding for a vast array of development projects.

By the accounts of Tanzanian officials, Coca-Cola’s efforts at corporate social responsibility have been genuine, and the Mlalakua River cleanup has succeeded in many practical ways. But there are also currents of criticism about the project — both from local residents and from a number of NGOs that focus on sustainable development.

Critics wonder whether the cleanup was intended to achieve genuine and lasting change or to advance the short-term public relations goals of a multinational corporation.

Indeed, most water experts and residents interviewed by GlobalPost say the Mlalakua River cleanup was inherently flawed. They say that while the river is undeniably cleaner, the project did not address the root causes of the pollution: the absence of a sewer system and trash collection for the communities along the river’s banks.

A more sustainable approach, they say, would have been to engage local government and municipalities to create sewers and waste treatment plants. But that would have been far more expensive and taken more time, and there would have been no guarantee that that approach would have reaped the same public relations benefits for Coca-Cola.

So is the story of the Mlalakua River cleanup more than simply a story about a large corporation being socially responsible? A two-month investigation examines what happens when motives of good will and profit mix.

A team effort

Over the past several years, the Coca-Cola Africa Foundation has contributed $125,000, and its local Tanzanian bottler another $30,000, to clean up the Mlalakua River. Along with contributions from other companies and NGOs, the $740,000 partnership hired a Tanzanian contractor to dredge the garbage and muck using heavy machinery. Teams of community members used shovels to clear the residue that remained, leaving the river free of debris and unlikely to flood.

There is no doubt that the Mlalakua River is cleaner today than it has been in years. But there are few who believe the effort will last: Some of the factories continue to pump their dirty runoff water into the stream, ignoring laws requiring runoff permits and pollution controls.

“Not only the factories,” says Francis Mugisha, a municipal drainage engineer who supervises the project. “Even the people who live in this area are discharging their waste into the water.”

Tania Hamilton, founder of the community NGO Nipe Fagio (Give Me the Broom), which initiated the cleanup, says the government does not have the capacity to regulate.

“I’ve seen medical waste on the beach — vials of blood and syringes,” she says. “There’s no enforcement.”

If previous river cleanups in the area are any indication, the river is likely to be filled with garbage and waste within several years. What’s needed is a sewage system. There isn’t one. What’s also needed is regular trash collection. But many residents opt to throw their trash onto the river’s banks rather than pay for garbage collection.

“It’s one of many interventions that won’t be sustainable,” says Herbert Kashililah, a veteran consultant in Tanzania’s water sector. “You have to find the underlying facts of why the river is polluted.”

But Mugisha says the project is meant to be sustainable. And USAID spokesman Matthew Herrick says Coca-Cola is helping train 200 community members and 100 government officials to manage water, sanitation and hygiene in Tanzania’s Wami-Ruvu river basin.

Residents are doubtful. Esteria Kajuna, a college student who lives along the riverbank, says her roommate has been sick for two weeks with malaria, which they believe was probably caused by mosquitoes that breed in the river’s stagnant water.

“I think it will be dirty again soon, because around here there is no other place for people to throw their garbage,” she says. “They’ll be wasting a lot of money if people continue to get sick because they are not mobilizing people to find a better way to throw out their garbage.”

Just downstream, a mother of three points to a pile of fresh garbage strewn along the riverbank behind her home.

“You see here, already there is sewage being dumped right there,” says Khadija Ali, 33. “It won’t stay clean. The money for that project should be used to come collect the sewage and dump it somewhere else.”

Khadija Ali, 33, sits with her daughter Asnat Ramadhan, 10, in front of the Mlalakua River in Dar es Salaam, which borders their home. (Jacob Kushner/GlobalPost)

While some critics question the effectiveness of the Mlalakua River cleanup, still others wonder why that particular river was selected for the project. After all, they say, the Mlalakua is only one of dozens of polluted rivers and streams in and around Dar es Salaam.

“The river has limited strategic value,” says one water consultant who participated in an audit of the Mlalakua River project but requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about its findings. “There are many polluted rivers with a much higher priority for attention. Limited public resources are being focused on this little saltwater creek.”

A ‘reputational risk’

Why did Coca-Cola choose the Mlalakua River rather than a larger river in the area, and why did it opt for a quick high-profile cleanup rather than engage in a broader systematic solution, such as working with the local government to build a sewage system or launch a trash-collection program?

An e-mail from GIZ, the German contractor overseeing the cleanup, contains one possible answer: Because one of Coca-Cola’s three Tanzania bottling facilities is located on the Mlalakua, pollution of the river “creates a reputational risk for local businesses, including Coca-Cola Kwanza, who are wrongly perceived to be polluting the ‘Coca-Cola River,’ as it is locally known.”

Sophie Mueller, who oversees the project for GIZ, says that, in fact, Coca-Cola Kwanza is one of only two companies along the river that have actually implemented water treatment systems and have discharge permits. And a top Coca-Cola Kwanza official says the Tanzanian government has publicly lauded the bottling company.

“The minister of environment actually visited our plant, and he even … mentioned on national television that there’s one plant that meets all the requirements, and that was the Coca-Cola plant,” says Basil Gadzios, Coca-Cola Kwanza’s managing director.

The bottling plant doesn’t even draw its water from the river, so it has no direct stake in how clean it is. What is at stake is Coca-Cola’s reputation.

“There is a lot of pollution with the river and a lot of contamination, and Coca-Cola is very often still being held responsible for that,” says Mueller — even though it isn’t. “They don’t want people to say, ‘Well, probably it’s Coca-Cola that’s polluting the river.’”

Asked if public relations is one of the principal motivations behind Coca-Cola philanthropy, Gadzios says: “It’s one of many. It’s not the driving thing. It’s not about advertising our brand; we’ve got budgets for that.”

In a statement, Coca-Cola said its community water projects, including the Mlalakua River cleanup, “are selected based on the needs of the community and are a collective decision that involves all stakeholders involved in the project.”

Adds Mueller: “The benefit for the community is at least as big as the one for Coca-Cola to promote that they did something. If they just wanted PR and quick wins without long-term results, they could have done that easier … putting up a big sign announcing that Coke collected garbage from around the plant. By engaging in this partnership … they are trying to ensure that it does have a sustainable outcome.”

Mueller says the Mlalakua River cleanup was a test project for Coca-Cola and the other partners that may lead to more robust cleanups in the future.

Whatever its intentions, whatever it represents, the Mlalakuka River cleanup is one small component of the big new trend in foreign aid that is public-private partnerships.

“There are trends on the continent that are changing, meaning that governments no longer want an aid recipient relationship — they want more partnerships, they want more investments,” said Raja Jandhyala, USAID deputy administrator for Africa, during a July 2012 panel.

Over nearly a decade Coca-Cola has invested at least $266 million in partnerships with aid agencies and companies to improve access to water in communities worldwide. One of the first is the Water and Development Alliance (WADA), which began in 2005 as an alliance with USAID to provide clean drinking water to nearly 200,000 people by 2015.

A worker shovels garbage and dirt from a bridge along the Mlalakua River in Dar es Salaam. (Jacob Kushner/GlobalPost)

In 2009, Coca-Cola launched its Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN), with the goal of providing access to clean water to 2 million people by 2015 through projects in each African nation. Help is especially needed in Tanzania, where less than half the population has adequate access to clean water. The Mlalakua River cleanup is one such project.

“Our core expertise is not in cleaning up rivers or making it sustainable,” says Gadzios, Coca-Cola Kwanza’s managing director. “That’s where the [Coca-Cola Africa] Foundation comes in. They actually do the analysis, they see about the sustainability, they engage with local authorities and local municipalities. You as a corporate, you can’t do it yourself.”

In its many public-private partnerships, Coca-Cola collaborates with USAID and works through the framework of what the agency calls Global Development Alliances. The idea is to identify where goals of USAID overlap with goals of the private sector, then develop a program of mutual benefit. In general, Coca-Cola will help fund a given initiative coordinated by USAID and contracted out to privateimplementing partners.

According to USAID administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah, “USAID’s partnership with Coca-Cola showcases the potential of the US government to partner with the private sector to make a long-term impact on pressing global challenges.”

Coca-Cola’s mystery work

The Mlalakua River cleanup is one of at least 468 community partnerships in which Coca-Cola has participated in more than 100 countries around the globe. It is one of six current Coca-Cola partnerships in Tanzania involving USAID, which include providing drinking water in rural schools and protecting water sources from pollutants.

But Coca-Cola and its partners refused to reveal the exact locations of any of these projects during a reporting trip to Tanzania in June. And during 13 days of reporting through the country, no evidence was found of their existence. Rather, one of Coca-Cola’s principal implementing partners, the Global Environment and Technology Foundation (GETF), later invited the reporter to attend what appeared to be a staged event scheduled for the week after he was to leave the country.

Some residents of villages in north-central Tanzania, where Coca-Cola’s water-in-schools initiative is supposedly under way, said they would enthusiastically invite the corporation to come try its hand at improving water access there. But none were aware of any initiatives thus far.

“Yes, they should come,” said Nasol Nasoli Omari, chairman of the village of Masagali. “We are waiting.”

No one doubts that Coca-Cola and its partners are implementing these programs, somewhere. But the corporation’s unwillingness to reveal the locations without first organizing a carefully structured visit raises questions about the complications that can arise when many stakeholders become involved — each wanting recognition for, and ownership over, a project.

Are these partnerships truly a collaborative effort between public and private sector entities? Or is the work merely contracted off to a company, much in the way it has always been done? And how is the public able to judge these partnerships if they are kept out of the public eye, their whereabouts hidden from journalists?

Those in Tanzania’s Ministry of Water say Coca-Cola does have a lot to show for its investment in water here.

“Coca-Cola is one of the companies that has shown a very good interest in conservation of the environment [and] working with water user associations,” says Joseph Kakunda, the director of the ministry’s water program coordination unit.

But water experts familiar with Coca-Cola’s work in Tanzania say it takes a lot more than money to fix the country’s complicated, and extensive, water problems.

“They do spend a lot of money,” says Nick Hepworth of Water Witness International, an organization that works to improve the way that rivers, lakes, and aquifers are managed in developing countries. “We’re interested in whether it actually advances water here or not.”

Managing countries’ water

Coca-Cola is not new to Tanzania. The company opened its first bottling plant here in 1952, and it remains the country’s foremost beverage retailer. Globally, Coca-Cola uses 300 independent bottling companies at 850 plants in 200 countries. In 2006 it became the largest corporate consumer of water in the world, according to statistics compiled by JP Morgan. The company has a direct stake in ensuring that the principal ingredient in its products — water — remains available and accessible for decades to come, not only in Tanzania, but around the world.

To that end, since 2012 Coke has invested at least $2 millionin the 2030 Water Resources Group, a collaboration by the International Finance Corporation (the private arm of the World Bank) and corporations with a stake in water. The group offers to advise countries on how to better manage their water. As early as 2007, Coca-Cola contributed $500,000 toward a similar partnership with USAID to improve management of water resources in Tanzania.

But watchdogs fear Coca-Cola’s involvement in the 2030 Water Resources Group is merely another way of looking out for its own interests.

“It’s hard to know what influence their interference and advising to the government is having,” says Shayda Naficy, director of the International Water Campaign at the Boston-based watchdog group Corporate Accountability International. “Our concern is that one of the world’s leading development institutions — the World Bank Group — is playing a role in opening doors and in fact driving water privatization,” she said. “Their stated goal is to transform the water sector.”

Already, many in Tanzania’s water sector are questioning whether such an initiative is even necessary. In 2004 Tanzania established a National Water Board that essentially serves this same purpose.

“They are duplicating what’s already been done on the ground,” says Kashililah, the water consultant. “In that case, there’s going to be more confusion than progress. I don’t think the forum is likely to achieve its mission, because it’s way outside the current context in Tanzania.”

Bashir Mrindoko, Tanzania’s permanent secretary for water, defends the involvement of Coca-Cola and the 2030 WRG — at least, insofar as it takes a limited, clearly defined role. “They have to participate — not to advise, not to put them in my board — but to contribute resources.”

Some fear the 2030 WRG intends to sway governments to make decisions about water emphasizing financial and economic metrics rather than operating under the principle that water access should be universal and even free. The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights states that“everyone has the right to clean and accessible water,” and that “no one shall be deprived of such access or quality of water due to individual economic circumstance.”

But private water companies argue that water is a commodity and a service that, just like any other, comes with an explicit price tag to furnish, clean, and pump to where it’s needed. These companies tend to advocate for privatization of water on the basis that competition by private companies is the best way to ensure revenue can be collected to keep the water flowing.

An inauspicious start

Tanzania is well versed in the concept of water privatization. In 1997 the World Bank gave Tanzania’s government an incentive to quickly divest from parastatal companies, offering to increase its financing to the water sector by 50 percent if the country would quickly privatize. In 2000 the bank convinced Tanzania to privatize the public water company in Dar es Salaam.

The move was a disaster for Tanzania’s most water-needy citizens: A report by Action Aid found that 95 percent of the funds were slated to be spent servicing the wealthiest 20 percent of the population. A private company needs to generate revenue, after all, so it follows that the first people to be serviced would be the ones most able to pay.

The result: “Households that refuse to pay simply face higher water bills and are threatened with disconnection,” the report says. “Even households who do pay are sometimes disconnected, because City Water disconnects whole areas in an attempt to get those with illegal connections to pay up.”

Two years after it began, the program abruptly ended.

“Tanzania was one of the big failures that caused the World Bank to pull back on privatization,” Naficy says. “Now, through direct funding of the private sector and advisory initiatives like the 2030 WRG, it’s the IFC, the private arm, that’s taking that up.”

Among the Group’s stated goals is “catalyzing specific public-private transformations in the water sector.”

Whatever their intentions, private companies like Coca-Cola are realizing they have an enormous stake in water here and in making sure water is sustained for their own use. Coca-Cola and the 2030 WRG are merely the newest voices in a debate over who, ultimately, should wield the most influence over decisions about water in Tanzania: the government or the collective of individuals and private businesses that use it.

“With the WRG 2030 establishing a mutistakeholder advisory body on water resources, you’re talking about a private sector-led entity taking over the role of a publicly mandated entity to do a similar job,” says Hepworth, of Water Witness International. Although when done correctly such partnerships can spur progress, he says, it remains to be seen whether the IFC’s 2030 WRG will advocate for its partner companies, including Coca-Cola, at the expense of the greatest common good for the Tanzanian population.

The 2030 WRG raises fundamental questions about the viability of public-private partnerships and the potential problems that could occur as they continue to replace traditional single-stakeholder initiatives. By their nature, public-private partnerships are forums for mutual gain. But not every cause worth supporting is a cause in which major private companies like Coca-Cola hold a stake.

“It comes back to the values of the organization,” says Gadzios, of Coca-Cola Kwanza. “You might have some organizations that only do things that benefit themselves.” But Coca-Cola, Gadzios says, isn’t one of those.

“If you have the values of a company where they say, ‘It’s not purely about focusing on the brand and what we get, it’s about contributing back to the countries and the communities that we operate in,’ I think that’s ultimately going to motivate our priorities.”