Simon Berry and Rohit Ramchandani speak to a shop owner about their life-saving product in Katete, Zambia [SIMON BERRY]

Piggybacking to success

How a small organisation seized on Coca-Cola’s global reach to save the lives of children in Zambia

Every now and then a story comes along that captures the hearts and minds of people all over the world. The ColaLife campaign is one of those stories. It combines something as familiar as Coca-Cola with the earnest efforts to distribute essential medicines in Africa.

Hospitals didn’t know how to get simple but life-saving treatments to rural mothers in need – but Coca-Cola, it seemed, did.

The initial concept for the ColaLife project came in 1985. As an aid worker in north-eastern Zambia, Simon Berry grew curious as to why, no matter where he went, far beyond the reach of driveable roads and supermarkets, he could always find a Coca-Cola. However, what he couldn’t find were over-the-counter medications that residents in those remote regions needed most.

At that time, one-in-five children globally were dying before the age of five, with one of the leading causes being diarrhoea-induced dehydration. Hospitals didn’t know how to get simple but life-saving treatments to rural mothers in need – but Coca-Cola, it seemed, did.

Call to action

Berry developed the idea of distributing these vital medications using Coca-Cola crates. But with no way of implementing it, the idea remained in the back of his mind for more than 20 years. That was until 2008, when he heard then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown call on the private sector to devise business solutions that would help reduce poverty worldwide.

Along with his wife Jane, Berry created a Facebook group suggesting that essential medicines be carried in Coca-Cola crates, to ensure they reached the communities that most needed them. The idea caught the attention of health innovators around the world.

The ‘kit of life’

At the heart of the idea was an innovative plastic aid pouch, or “pod”, called ‘Kit Yamoyo’, or ‘Kit of Life’ in English, that could fit between the bottles of Coca-Cola in a crate. The pods contained Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS) and zinc, the recommended treatment for diarrhoea, as well as soap to promote sanitation. The empty plastic pod could be used as a measuring device or a cup from which to drink the solution.

The unusual shape of the kit allowed it to fit in the spaces between Coca Cola bottles transported in crates. [SIMON BERRY]

As public interest grew, the ColaLife project drew the attention of its namesake brand. The team met with Salvatore Gabola, Coca-Cola’s director of public affairs for the Coca-Cola Europe Group, at a 2008 workshop in Tanzania. 

They worked with contributors from all over the world and in 2010, Rohit Ramchandani, a public policy adviser at Canadian International Development Agency, joined the team and soon the Berrys gave up their jobs to dedicate their full attention to the project.

Redesigning distribution

The team picked up a problem with the ORS sachets. Clinics were giving it away in sachets that needed to be mixed into one litre of water. These sachets proved impractical for mothers who didn’t have the tools necessary to measure water, and becuase children only need about 400mls of the solution the result was wasted water and medication.

“You’re giving [mothers] twice as much ORS as they need, you make them feel inadequate because they think their child isn’t drinking enough, they’re wasting most of it …. [It’s] just [a] totally ludicrous situation,” said Berry.

The pods provided two ORS sachets that could each be mixed into 400ml treatments, using the pod itself as a measuring device and a cup. 

Design of the year

The kits were a huge hit and the pod won multiple awards, including being selected as the ‘Product Design of the Year 2013’ by the Design Museum.The first trial proved to be a success. While ORS and zinc is the recommended treatment for diarrhoea, the number two killer of children under the age of five, less than one per cent of children in the trial site were receiving it. But by the end of the one-year trial, that had risen to 45 per cent.

Piggy-backing on local Coca-Cola distribution channels enabled ColaLife to reduce the average distance a mother had to travel to get treatment for her child by more than half.

A space in the market

It became clear to the team that putting the pods in Coca-Cola crates was unnecessary. Only four per cent of vendors, it emerged, actually took the kits out of the boxes they were delivered in, in order to place them into the crates. But what the team had learned was more powerful than any award received for the initial concept.

Small retail shops like this one in Katete, Zambia, are essential to the distribution of Kit Yamoyo.  [SIMON BERRY] 

“It’s not the space in the crates that was important. But the space in the market,” said Berry. “Coca-Cola doesn’t actually go into these remote villagers with their trucks. They make the products, they market the products, create a demand for it, and then the product is pulled into the communities because of the demand.”

The product the team had by the end of the trial was as useful as soap, cooking oil and flour that travel along the same distribution systems as Coca-Cola. That system is formed by a powerful ‘brand pull’, created by communities that know what they need and which brand they want. 

Open innovation

“We’ve operated in a way that allows us to withdraw,” explained Berry. “So many NGOs become part of the system; they buy and they sell and they entrench themselves into the supply chain. We didn’t want to do that.”

The ColaLife team have decided to stay on in Zambia in order to follow through with a nationwide scale-up. But their open approach to innovation and idea sharing means that others can take the concept and product elsewhere.

“The kits can now be bought by anybody. So it has gone beyond our control,” said Berry.

“Our strategy for global impact is not to keep hold of the learning, of the product, of the idea, but to give it away so that other people can pick it up and run with it.”

The easy part, as Berry says, is getting the product into existing channels. If women know about and demand the product, getting it to them is merely a matter of bringing the right retailers and distributors together.

ColaLife founder Simon Berry talks with Brian, a male nurse at the Siachitema Health Centre. [SIMON BERRY/SARIKA BANSAL]

But the harder part is creating demand in markets that are not currently viable. This means going into unreached areas to explain the benefits of ORS and zinc to mothers, and to make them aware of ‘Kit Yamoyo’. When they subsequently demand it at their local store, distributors will be motivated to supply it.

But even with their innovative thinking and flexibility, the ColaLife team are coming up against the same wall NGOs have been battling since the beginning of their existence: funding. The Berrys have just left Zambia in order to allow the project’s limited funds to stretch until October.

‘What people want’

While the initial spark may have come from piggy-backing on Coca Cola distribution, the ColaLife team ended up finding their success in another major element of the corporate powerhouse’s success: brand pull.

“We don’t assess people’s needs from an office in the town, we go out and we find out what people want. So it’s not need; it’s want. Find out what people want, and then design to fulfil that want,” said Berry.

Perhaps by understanding both the mothers that need it and the market they operate in, the Berrys have created a product that could be come as much a regular feature of everyday life as, well, Coca Cola.