ColaLife Founders Show the Power of Listening and Adapting

Note: This post by Kyle Poplin first appeared on the NextBillion blog.

In a presentation at the William Davidson Institute (the parent organization of NextBillion) in May, Berry described how the organization he founded, ColaLife, gets anti-diarrhea medical kits in the hands of Zambian children who need them.


They focus on awareness, affordability and listening to customers. There’s nothing revelatory there; that information is in all the business textbooks. What stands out about ColaLife is the intensity with which they listen to customers … and their willingness to act upon what they hear.


Berry dreamed for 20 years of including medicine in crates of Coke delivered to the most remote and medically underserved regions in the world. He and his wife Jane stubbornly refused to believe those who said it couldn’t be done because of red tape, and overlooked those who said it shouldn’t be done for “in principle” reasons. They maintained their passion, eventually found strength and a media following due to a growing Facebook presence, and – two decades after the idea was hatched – launched their idea with the support of Coca-Cola and a burgeoning supply chain in Zambia.


The health care world cheered ColaLife for solving of the riddle, “Why is Coke delivered everywhere in the developing world but essential medicines aren’t?” Their innovative piggyback packaging won awards. The Berrys were rock stars in the #bopbiz space.

Then the unpredictable happened: ColaLife’s Kit Yamoyo anti-diarrhea packets started outselling Coke. The acclaimed piggyback model, the very backbone and identity of ColaLife, wasn’t working. They knew this because they were there, personally in the field listening, as the product rolled out. The Berrys and their partner Rohit Ramchandani had to decide whether to fight the data and tweak their profile-raising model, or tweak the dream. They did the latter, endangering their “cool” points but ultimately helping more people. (Berry estimates they’ve sold 42,000 kits, and one child's life is saved for every 330 sold.)

“It was the space in the market that was important, not the space in the crates,” Berry said during his WDI presentation.

ColaLife changed their celebrated package to a simple, unsexy, multi-use jar. When the data showed even that might be too expensive, the organization began experimenting with plastic bags, or “flexi-packs.” They continue to listen and adapt.

Their time with Coke wasn’t wasted. They listened and learned from the world’s third most valuable brand. Namely, Berry said, “You need to create value with customers. This is the opposite of what happens normally in the public health sector. This was obvious to Coke, but not to us, and to most people in public health.”

Berry, whose idea found life on Facebook, seeks "likes" with an intensity that would make Mark Zuckerberg smile. In fact, Berry could give classes on grassroots marketing. When stories about ColaLife were posted on NextBillion in 2011 and 2012, he joined the comments section almost immediately, linking to more information about his group. When we asked him to answer a few questions via email this week, he did so within hours … using his phone … on an airplane. He understands the importance of getting his message out. And it's a message worth hearing.

The health care spotlight usually shines on the coolest ideas, and Berry and his team have deservedly had their moment at center stage. The greatest lesson they can share, however, might be that saving lives sometimes isn't about dreams and cool ideas but about old-fashioned concepts like hard work and paying attention to customers.

Watch a trailer for the documentary "The Cola Road" highlighting the work of ColaLife in Zambia.