Last spring, I was faced with a decision. I could either spend my summer working with a development organization in Haiti or embed with the Public Affairs, Communications and Sustainability division of Coca-Cola’s regional office in Nairobi, Kenya.

This was not an easy choice to make. Having worked with NGOs for most of my career, I was apprehensive about working with one of the biggest and most recognized corporate entities in the world.

What would I learn? Would I adjust to a “corporate culture?” What work would I do and would it actually be impactful?

As I tried to make a decision, another pressing thought arose.

Does taking this internship make me a "sellout"?

Though it may sound silly and a bit immature, it was a real concern.

Whether real or perceived, there is a tension between the role of the public and private sector in international development. This tension is characterized by questions of efficiency and intent, influence and access, and most importantly, impact. Can a business primarily concerned with its bottom line really do good in the world while doing good business? Despite these reservations, I saw the Coke internship as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a peek behind the red curtain and see how a corporate juggernaut creates shared opportunity.

The Coca-Cola East and Central Africa Franchise (ECAF) is made up of exuberant, passionate and open professionals with charisma and energy to spare. As the regional headquarters for Coke operations in countries like Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique and Zambia, the Nairobi office has the monumental task of managing innovation, product launches, finance, strategy, marketing, public affairs, communications and sustainability initiatives across 12 rapidly developing economies.

This summer was a particularly exciting time to join as the company was in the midst of launching a new sustainability project. Upon arriving in Nairobi, I learned that each Coca-Cola franchise has been empowered to inject the 5by20 initiative, a global women’s empowerment platform to empower 5 million women by 2020, with local knowledge in order to meet local needs. As a result, ECAF developed Kuza Kazi, an initiative seeking to create 50,000 jobs for Kenyan youth annually, with a special focus on women. Recognizing the toll unemployment takes on young Kenyans between the ages of 18 and 35, Coca-Cola and its bottling partners saw an opportunity to expand their business while expanding economic opportunity.

Georgetown

Through Kuza Kazi, Coca-Cola will work with partners in the public and private sector to provide youth beneficiaries with training, access to finance and the assets needed to start their own small-scale retail businesses. My assignment this summer was to help develop the strategy, design and implementation of this multi-stakeholder initiative. My scope of work included a range of activities from collecting and integrating best practices from 5by20, developing fundraising proposals and presentations, drafting the project work plans and targets, identifying and negotiating with technology partners, and seeking buy-in from stakeholders within the business.

I’m happy to report that I've learned a great deal about how difficult and gratifying developing and managing a project can be. There is nothing quite like seeing a concept or vision come to life, while gaining support and momentum along the way.

One of the most important lessons I learned is that public affairs and communications are critical to structuring and piloting a successful sustainability initiative. Wedged between long days chasing down contracts, and meeting with commercial managers to figure out exactly how one gets ice to a street vendor in the middle of Turkana, were meetings with national and county government, international donors, foundations, UN agencies and other private sector actors. I quickly realized that an expert grasp of public policy and stakeholder management could make or break Kuza Kazi’s success. Coca-Cola’s convening power and influence, as unmatched and potentially unnerving as it is to some members of the public sector, has the power to draw attention to pressing social challenges, redirect industry trends and move the needle on issues that could take the average NGO years to achieve. That is not to say that the private sector is more important or effective than NGOs – Kuza Kazi would have been significantly harder to pilot without the support of implementing partners – but rather to say that when the efforts of an influential company are directed towards good, incredible things can happen.

I look back on my experience in Kenya with a new appreciation for the role of the private sector in international development. Through public-private partnerships, impact investment, impact sourcing, B-Corps, social enterprises and so much more, how we define development work, where it is done, how it is done and who does it is changing every day. I can’t think of anywhere better to learn such a lesson than in Kenya, where signs of transition are present in a growing middle class and exploding culture of startups and entrepreneurship.

All in all, I can say with complete honesty that I have no regrets whatsoever about my decision to leave behind what I know best, and join Coca-Cola for the summer. Though there is much to learn and much to repair in the relationship between multinational corporations and the world’s most vulnerable, I walk away from this summer feeling confident that the private sector does need to have a seat at the table. If my colleagues at the Nairobi office are any indication for the rest of the company, then Coca-Cola is more than willing to earn it.


The Coca-Cola Company is an internship partner of Georgetown University’s Global Human Development (GHD) program. Each summer, Master's candidates in the GHD program work in Coca-Cola offices around the world, getting firsthand experience in the areas of corporate social responsibility and sustainability. This special blog series highlights their time with Coca-Cola. Here, Araba Sapara-Grant (pictured above) reflects on her time in Kenya.

Araba Sapara-Grant joined GHD after several years working for multiple development organizations including Pan African Capital Group, Africare and GAIN, and will graduate in 2019.