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Piggybacking On Coke's Supply Chain To Deliver Aid

You can get a Coke just about everywhere in the world, even places where you can’t get medicine. So ColaLife thought: "Let’s just send the medicine with the Coke."

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Diarrhea kills 800,000 kids under the age of five every year—deaths that we can easily avert by administering oral hydration salts and zinc tablets. The challenge is getting the treatment to where it’s needed.

Simon Berry first had the idea for ColaLife in Zambia, in 1988, when he noticed that Coke had the best distribution system in the country. While hospitals ran short of basic medicines, stores in remote locations were always full of fizzy drinks. He thought: Why not piggyback on the network to deliver things families need?

The trouble was, he couldn’t get enough people interested in the idea, and the project faded. It would be 20 years before he started it again. But, happily, this time he’s been more successful. Using the Internet, he’s got people’s attention, and gradually built up his idea to scale.

The AidPod fits neatly into the unused space in Coke crates. The clear plastic container is filled with hydration salts, which mothers mix into a drink to give to children. Most ingeniously, the re-closable pod doubles as a way of purifying the liquid. Mothers pour in water, shake up the contents, then leave it in the sunshine for six hours. The Solar Water Disinfection method, or Sodis, takes care of the rest of the problem.

"The key to it, apart from using the distribution system, is that it’s a completely different commercial structure," says Chris Griffin, at Pi Global, the company that designed the pod. "If you throw in aid, it’s very expensive to get it to the regions, and it’s open to all sorts of corruption. With this, it goes into the distribution system, and it gets purchased at a very reasonable cost."

Mothers purchase the AidPod using a cell phone, punching in a code from the container; a small amount is then debited from their account. Berry is currently trialling ColaLife in Zambia, training "secondary" distributors—the guys on handcarts, mopeds, and mules that go the last mile—in how to sell the product on the ground.

ColaLife is not the only project using Coke’s 20-million-point global distribution network. A separate pilot, sponsored by the Gates Foundation and others, is delivering anti-AIDS drugs in Tanzania. It recently reported that it managed to cut delivery times from 30 days to five, and that it planned to expand to Mozambique and Ghana soon.