Can Coke save lives in Africa?

By Dave Lee
BBC World Service

Image caption,
Local bottlers could be used to pack medicine into drink crates

Travelling through a remote part of north-eastern Zambia in 1988, Simon Berry was struck that no matter where he stopped, people would ask him: "Would you like a Coca-Cola?"

With just two people for every square kilometre, it was of the most sparsely populated places in the world.

In this area today, one in five children dies before their fifth birthday, most from dehydration caused by diarrhoea.

In a region where the challenging logistics of getting medical supplies to mothers was killing children, Coke was readily available.

Unused space

Mr Berry's idea was simple: Put medicine in crates of Coca-Cola. Wherever you could buy Coke, you could also get life-saving treatment.

"I thought if we can get Coca-Cola to all these places, why can't we do a similar thing for very simple medicines?" he told BBC World Service's Health Check programme.

"We've got this wedge-shaped container that clips down between the bottles in a crate so it makes use of unused space.

"That container, in principle, could carry anything to the same places that Coca-Cola gets to as long as, obviously, it didn't need to be cold."

He says carrying the medicine - in what they are calling "pods" - will not add burden to the work of the delivery staff.

"In Zambia, they've just changed the bottles. They're still 300ml, but they're slightly shorter and they're much lighter. They're about a third lighter than they were before.

"They go in the same crates - so actually if you put five of these pods in those lighter-bottle crates, it still weighs less than the crate did just with Coca-Cola before."

For now, ColaLife - the group behind the project - will be focusing on providing supplies for new mothers, such as oral rehydration salts used to treat diarrhoea.

But as the project grows, Mr Berry says they will look at each area and work out which supplies are most desperately needed.

Share know-how, not crates

Before that growth, however, ColaLife will need the backing of the US conglomerate.

Coke's international government relations manager Euan Wilmshurst says the company would prefer to share the know-how behind its distribution systems, rather than the crates of bottles.

Image caption,
The medicine fits into the unused space of a typical coke crate

"Rather than us taking on the physical distribution, which I think we all know has its challenges, at this stage we're just trying to impart our knowledge of how we manage our supply chains, our routes out to the most remote areas, share that developed capacity with those that are dealing with medical logistics in countries like Tanzania.

"We believe that if this is successful it's a model we can roll out more widely and we believe it's a sustainable way that we can help and contribute to health and development."

However, while Mr Wilmshurst says the company is keen to focus on knowledge-sharing rather than aiding distribution, he does welcome Mr Berry working with local companies - bottlers - to get medicine packed into drink crates.

"Over the last two years we've looked a lot at our distribution system and how we could use it to benefit the communities," Mr Wilmshurst continued.

"Having looked at it, we believe it's something probably for our local bottlers, our local companies, to look at. We know that Simon's had some discussions around that."

ColaLife will be carrying out a trial run in Zambia to gauge the idea's effectiveness.

Mr Berry's view is that local companies involved could eventually be given a financial reward - therefore increasing its take-up.

"We will assess the ability for new mothers to pay for this," he suggested.

"They wouldn't be able to pay very much, but they'll be able to pay something, especially if we do social marketing to turn a need into a demand.

"Then, we will subsidise at the distributor level to a level that the distributor can make some money, the wholesaler can make some money and so can the retailer make some money. And the mother can buy these things at a price she can afford.

"That subsidy mechanism is well-rehearsed already within the developing world health structure, it is a recognised way of actually getting stuff there without completely undermining the commercial channels that already exist."

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