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ColaLife Program Offers Important Lessons About Essential Medicines Distribution In Developing World

“‘We can distribute Coca-Cola all around the world, but we can’t seem to get medication to save a child from something as simple as diarrhea,’ said the singer Annie Lennox in a 2008 interview,” journalist Sarika Bansal notes in the New York Times’ “Opinionator” blog. “Indeed, Coca-Cola’s footprint in Africa is considerable,” she states, adding, “At the same time, 30 percent to 50 percent of the sub-Saharan African population lacks access to essential medicines.” She notes, “A Johns Hopkins study [.pdf] found oral rehydration salts, or ORS, a diarrhea treatment, to be unavailable during one of every five clinic visits in Tanzania,” and continues, “ORS packets are easy to transport; unlike many medicines, they do not require refrigeration or special handling, and they have a long shelf life. In theory, they could be transported and sold alongside Coca-Cola and other consumer products.” She asks, “Could this theory be tested in the real world? Is there a way to leverage Coca-Cola’s huge distribution network to get medicines to sick children?”

“Simon and Jane Berry, a British couple with extensive experience in international development, have spent the past five years trying to answer these questions,” Bansal notes, adding, “They set up a non-governmental organization called ColaLife in Zambia,” and “[w]ith the help of local partners, they created Kit Yamoyo, or ‘kit of life,’” which “contains several small packets of ORS, zinc pills (they limit duration of diarrhea), a bar of soap (handwashing can reduce risk of diarrhea by up to 50 percent), and an illustrated information packet,” and “fits snugly in the empty space in Coca-Cola crates.” Bansal writes, “ColaLife has focused on emulating what Adrian Ristow, a project manager for Coca-Cola, says is the company’s ‘secret ingredient in distribution’: the investment they put into people.” She discusses the ColaLife distribution model and the product’s design, examines existing challenges, and concludes, “[T]he public health world has tremendous hope for the lessons ColaLife can offer” (7/3).