How Coca-Cola inspired a revolution in healthcare access

Working for more than a decade in international development in several countries across Africa, South America, and the Caribbean, Ashoka Fellow Simon Berry found himself asking one question: “Coca-Cola gets everywhere, to even the most remote places in developing countries, yet essential medicines don’t. Why?”

Based on this observation, Simon began to explore how private supply chains could be adapted to improve access to lifesaving, over-the-counter health products in developing countries. He started ColaLife with his wife Jane in 2008 to address the deeply entrenched problem of childhood diarrhoea in sub-Saharan Africa by establishing a new, user-led, private sector supply chain.

The WHO estimates that diarrhoeal disease kills 760,000 children every year, making it the second leading cause of death in children under five years old. Deaths from diarrhoea, often caused by dehydration, are easily preventable with Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS) and Zinc supplements.

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ColaLife consulted with mothers in rural Zambia to develop Kit Yamoyo, an innovative and award-winning anti-diarrhoea kit that is affordable and easy to use. ColaLife then collaborated with local NGOs, health centres, manufacturers and rural shopkeepers to raise awareness and promote the product to mothers and care-givers, thus creating sustainable and local value chains.

A trial of the health kit in two Zambian districts in 2013 highlighted the effectiveness of ColaLife’s approach: treatment rates for children went up from under one per cent receiving ORS and Zinc when needed to 45 per cent, average distance to reach treatments decreased from 7.3 kilometres to 2.4 kilometres, the correct mixing of medicine went up from 60 per cent to 93 per cent and perception of ORS and Zinc as an effective treatment for diarrhoea went up by 14 percentage points (from 78 per cent to 92 per cent).

The continuing success of ColaLife demonstrates how new approaches to local supply chains can influence behaviour, and therefore has the potential to transform how we approach health problems such as diarrhoea in developing countries. In order to increase and accelerate the impact of their work, ColaLife openly shares their trial results, designs and associated learning to encourage other organisations to adapt and apply ColaLife’s methods in their local settings.

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“ColaLife doesn’t bring anything unique in terms of an organisation — in every country there’s already a Ministry of Health, pharmaceutical manufacturers, health workers, NGOs and so on that have the potential to do what we do. We don’t need to be everywhere,” explains Simon. “What is unique about us is the way we have brought ideas and expertise together and our experience of what we’ve done in Zambia. We want to act as a catalyst for others.”

Organisations are invited to subscribe for free to an online space in order to receive access to ColaLife’s learning and designs. Whereas users have previously been required to sign a non-disclosure agreement to subscribe, from this month, that requirement will be dropped. ColaLife also shares weekly datasets of key performance indicators reflecting the day-to-day management of distributing Kit Yamoyo: recording sales, stock levels and sampling reported wholesale and retail prices, which are published online.

Thanks to this open access approach, ColaLife’s influence is beginning to spread beyond Zambia: discussions are underway with various NGOs operating in Southern Africa and beyond.

The overall mission of ColaLife is not to create a particular product, but rather to prove how, with user-led focus, new products and new supply chains can improve outcomes, lead to changes in behaviour, and potentially revolutionise approaches to improve health in developing countries. By openly sharing their work, ColaLife is empowering other organisations worldwide to get health products effectively distributed and taken up by patients. Just as studying Coca-Cola’s supply chain model helped ColaLife tackle child mortality in Zambia, so could other organisations learn from ColaLife, and replicate their extraordinary impact.

By Ellen Goodman, Ashoka UK. For more news on social innovation, social impact and system changing ideas, follow Ashoka UK on Twitter and Facebook and subscribe to our newsletter.

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Originally published at on March 28, 2016.

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