Have you ever wondered how some commodities, like soda and candy, can reach the most remote places and yet a third of the world’s population still lacks access to the most basic essential medicines? Recognizing this upsetting fact, ColaLife was launched in April 2008 with the goal of utilizing the distribution channels of a multinational corporation (in this case, Coca-Cola) in order to supply crucial ‘social products,’ such as anti-diarrhoeal kits, to save children’s lives.
ColaLife, currently just over halfway through its twelve month pilot in two rural districts in Zambia, works with wholesalers to enter in the Coca-Cola supply chain and reach rural areas with its Kit Yamoyo, an anti-diarrhoeal package. In this way, when they buy Coca-Cola and other products from the wholesalers, retailers can also purchase these kits, which they can then in turn sell to the mothers and families which need them. During the first six months of the trial period, ColaLife used a voucher system involving scratch off cards to drum up demand for the kits (retailers were able to use a mobile phone based system to get reimbursed). For the second 6 months of the trial, ColaLife is ending the voucher scheme to test other forms of increasing demand for the product.
Through my interview with one of ColaLife’s founders, Simon Berry and Jane Berry, I learned how the project has already distributed over 17,000 anti-diarrhoea kits in just six months and where they hope to go moving forward.
Yemisi Khalidson: How did ColaLife start? Where did the idea originate from?
Simon & Jane Berry: What sparked the idea was that, wherever you go, it seems you can get Coca-Cola. But when you go to remote areas and look inside the store of a health center, you regularly find stock-outs and empty shelves. This raised the question: how come you can have an empty store of essential medicines in the same places where several shops are fully stocked with the commodities people want, such as Coca-Cola? So our general idea was: why don’t we literally put medicines in Coca-Cola crates? This would mean that wherever you could buy Coca-Cola, you also have access to essential medicines.
We started with a focus on diarrhoea because it is one of the top causes for child mortality and the medicines needed to prevent these deaths are extremely simple and it is difficult to be harmed by overdose of the treatment.
YK: How did you go about designing the anti-diarrhoea kits?
SB & JB: When we started to design a kit, our aim was to find something that would fit into Coca-Cola crates. We took a human-centered design approach, designing the kit from the bottom-up with our customers in mind: this meant putting ourselves into the position of a poor mother, in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, faced with having to mix ORS in the correct concentration. We talked to the local women about how much they thought a kit like this would be worth, how much they could afford, and how they would want it to be branded.
The first problem that we discovered when we talked these mothers, was that the distribution of ORS (one the the components of our kit) was in the form of 20 gram sachets that made up a litre of solution. These are totally inappropriate for the household treatment of diarrhoea. On average, a child will drink 400 millilitres of solution a day and after 24 hours, 600 millilitres would be poured away. More medicine ends up being wasted than used - and people who live in poverty, do not throw things away. What often actually happens is that the caregiver sprinkles some of the ORS into whatever water they have, and then keep the rest for later. As a result, the chance of the medicine being made in the right concentration is virtually zero.
YK: What was the result of this process? What does the packaging actually look like?
SB & JB: We approached a local pharmaceutical company and asked whether they could manufacture smaller sachets, which they said was possible. The rest of the process was not easy at all: we had to design the suitable packaging, import it from India, get it approved by the local regulatory authorities, and modify the machinery used to make the sachets.
Our packaging acts as the measure for the water required to make up a 200 millilitre of solution from the newly-sized sachet of ORS. Apart from this, it also acts as the mixing device, storage device and cup. This is then combined with the Zinc which is imported from Tanzania. Contrary to popular belief, our innovation is not how we distribute our kits, but how they are used. The multi-purpose ColaLife packaging (named ‘AidPod’) is the true breakthrough.
Child drinking ORS solution from AidPod
YK: What have you learned during the first six months of the trial?
SB & JB: The first thing we learned is that, in order to make a product profitable, a series of vital steps need to be accomplished. Firstly, you need to create a desirable product. Secondly, you need to market it to generate awareness and demand. Finally, you need to price it at a level where everyone along the distribution chain can make a profit. This is precisely what Coca-Cola does; they don’t own the distribution system that gets their products out to remote rural communities; that belongs to, and is operated by, local entrepreneurs and micro retailers. I would say this has been our key learning point.
Once the demand has been created, the product will get to where you want it. You just need to control the value chain, which we now know how to do. When you have achieved this, you will have a system that often surpasses the public sector supply chain which, from what I’ve seen, cannot distribute consistently or to a high standard. Given this fact, I ask: why not use the ColaLife model to take the pressure off the public health system for things like ORS and Zinc? This would leave the public system to deal with much more complicated issues like, for example, pneumonia and malaria treatment.
YK: I’ve noticed that you are raising money on Global Giving, with a $10,000 goal. What are you hoping to do with funds once you’ve reached your target?
SB & JB: The money raised will be used to co-fund the AidPods and also train the shop keepers who distribute them. This would mean that our Anti-Diarrhoea kits become more affordable, more communities will be educated about diarrhoea prevention and treatment, and ColaLife can start helping new rural areas. When you go onto our Global Giving account, you can either donate once or commit to a regular monthly contribution. We are 80% of the way to achieving our goal!
YK: What do you wish to come out of ColaLife? How do you plan to move forward?
SB & JB: Having ended the voucher promotion, our marketing system has now changed. In the initial stages of the trial, the vouchers were our promoters’ secret weapon; now, it’s the stories that mothers tell others about their experiences of using the ColaLife kit - these are absolutely phenomenal. Without a lack of trying, we are yet to receive one piece of negative feedback about our kits.
We pride ourselves on focussing on our goal, rather than the money needed. For instance, our plan was written in consultation with local stakeholders and our clients. We looked at what needed to be done, and then we went to the funders. I am pretty determined to do the same thing again, when it comes to scale-up. This may or may not succeed, but I am not going to change our strategy and opportunistically target “funding pots” because it distorts one’s vision of what needs to be done.
Apart from hoping to implement our kits in other areas in Zambia, we also want to be a catalytic model for other countries. We want to be able to tell them what we have done, what has worked and what hasn’t, in the hope that they will succeed in their mission of distributing essential products to rural areas in developed countries.
For more information, click to view the ColaLife Youtube channel