Coca-Cola Saves Lives

Simon and Jane Berry, founders of ColaLife

Just imagine if the line you found yourself humming after every Coca-Cola advert was no longer “Always the real thing” but “Always saving lives”.  Coca-Cola’s shameless marketers might not get away with it, but thanks to the work of Simon and Jane Berry, this strap line is not as farfetched as it might seem. Born out of an idea dreamt up over 25 years ago, ColaLife is delivering medical aid to rural communities in Zambia by utilising the excess space in Coca-Cola’s crates.

Coca-Cola manages to reach every inch of the Earth and in Africa you can be sure to find a trusty bottle of the brown stuff, no matter how far you are from the nearest town. Whilst living in a remote region of Zambia in the 1980s, Simon and Jane Berry used to marvel at the might of the powerhouse brand.  “There was a population density of two people per square kilometre. We had no post and no phone. And yet we could still get Coca-Cola”, they said to us over a morning coffee.

Love Coca-Cola or loathe them, their domination is undeniable and many people, Simon and Jane included, see this as a huge opportunity for even greater things.  But how could Coca-Cola actually help to save children’s lives?  Child mortality remains shockingly high across Africa. The highest rates of child mortality in the world are in Sub-Saharan Africa—where 1 in 8 children will die before age 5.[i]  Parents of three themselves, Simon and Jane were disturbed to learn whilst living in Zambia that “1in 5 died before (the age of) five”.[ii] When their two year old son fell ill with diarrhoea, they found out first-hand how life-threatening a simple illness can be. Spurred on by this personal experience, they decided Coca-Cola should help.

Between them, Simon and Jane are always brewing up off-the-wall ideas. As Jane told us with a smile, “We both have silly ideas but Simon has sillier ideas than I do and tends to hold on to them.” When in Zambia, Simon decided that Coca-Cola should use their distribution network to deliver treatments for childhood diseases to rural communities where medical care was scarce, but Coca-Cola was not. The initial plan was to persuade Coca-Cola to modify their crates, adding a pocket on the side to carry these medical supplies.

Whilst still living in Zambia, they made their first attempt to contact Coca-Cola. With limited communication tools to hand, they opted for a telex and unsurprisingly, failed to raise a response. Simon and Jane then moved back to the UK, spent the next decade running a social business called ruralnet|uk, and left the idea behind. Or at least that’s what Jane thought! In reality Simon had spent the next ten years with the Coca-Cola dream rattling around in his mind.

ColaLifeIn 2008, Simon was watching a live text blog of a conference hosted by an innovation organisation, Business Call to Action[iii]. A brainchild of Gordon Brown, the conference was organised to challenge multinationals to see how they could assist development in Africa. When Simon noticed that the CEO of Coca-Cola was in attendance, his ears pricked up. The live blog was open for comments so he took another punt with his latest spin on the Coca-Cola concept… “Why don’t you take one bottle out of every ten in a crate and stick a container of medical aid into it?” he wrote. He waited patiently for a response from the CEO. Nothing.

By now aware that the “silly idea” wasn’t going to rest, Jane insisted that Coca-Cola would never take one bottle out of every crate.  Instead she suggested that they create small containers which would fit neatly in the excess space between the necks of the Coca-Cola bottles.  This debate went on for several weeks but eventually Simon conceded that his wife was probably right (again).  The idea of these containers, now coined ‘AidPods’, firmly re-ignited Simon’s vision and he decided  to set up a Facebook group called ‘Let’s talk to Coca-Cola about Saving the World’s Children’. Attracting instantaneous interest, Web 2.0 proved its power and they quickly gathered a following of likeminded people.

Within a month of setting up the group, Simon made an all-important move on the BBC Radio 4 website.  He wrote his plea to Coca-Cola on the listeners’ forum and rallied everyone he knew to comment. As he had hoped, his story was picked up by a live radio show, the much loved PM Programme hosted by Eddie Mair[iv]. In what went on to become a ‘Highlight of the Year’ for Radio 4, Eddie pulled out all the stops for this alternative feature. Eve Graham, the lead singer from the New Seekers who sang the original Coca-Cola jingle, was convinced to broadcast a re-make of the tune with a new set of lyrics:

I’d like to fix those Burmese homes
Give poverty the shove
Grow sustainable trees, give aid with ease
And show Africa some love

I’d like to reach the world and bring
It perfect harmony
I’d like to reach its outstretched arms
But I need a company


We need them today
They’re the real thing

And at long last this provoked a response from Salvatore Gabola, Global Director Stakeholder Relations at Coca-Cola:

“This is an extraordinarily interesting discussion. And it is one which goes to the heart of the key question of how we can make better use of the successes of business to serve the development needs of the world in general and of Africa in particular… Together I hope we can come up with the right solutions. And I am happy to have a chat on this subject with Simon in the near future.”

“Finally”, Simon thought, “we’re in!” So he went back to his Facebook group and pledged that once they had 1000 members, he would pick up the phone to Coca-Cola. “That happened quite quickly”, Simon said modestly. After years of being shunned, Simon was exceedingly chuffed to find that Salvatore Gabola was more than happy to hear from him.

In the three years since then Simon and Jane have quit their day jobs and spent their time building on this foot in the door. They have developed every aspect of their business plan – the design and contents of their AidPods, their key partners and distribution model and their fundraising strategy. They have justifiably rebranded their “silly idea” as a superb solution to the provision of accessible medical aid across Africa, and in 2009 they set up ColaLife, a social business-come-charity. To summarise their latest approach:

AidPod design & contents

In the latest mock-up we have seen, ten AidPods will now fit snuggly between the bottles in the average-sized Coca-Cola crate. To get here the design of these pods has gone through numerous iterations but Simon and Jane haven’t worked on this alone. Their online community of followers has grown to over 15,000 and they’ve all been given the chance to shape, analyse and challenge every aspect of the ColaLife business model, including the design of the AidPod. Whilst Jane admits that this level of transparency can be scary, this process of ‘Open Innovation’ is integral to the couple’s approach.

Their virtual friends have also been a rich source of expertise. It was through the ColaLife online network that Simon and Jane were introduced to Prashant Yadav – Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Healthcare Research Initiative at the University of Michigan, and previously a Professor of Supply Chain Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He worked closely with them to decide that treatments for diarrhoea should be their priority. A set of rehydration supplies, including oral salts and zinc tablets, has since been developed, all of which neatly fit inside the pod.

Key partners & distribution model

In what Simon and Jane fondly call an “unlikely alliance”, they have orchestrated a partnership between Coca-Cola, SABMiller (second biggest brewer in the world and bottler for Coca-Cola in many parts of Africa), UNICEF and the Ministry of Health in Zambia. [v] Together, these partners are party to ColaLife’s first trial which launched in Zambia in December 2011. Finally a trial is underway to test how AidPods, filled with essential treatments for diarrhoea, can be distributed to rural areas, using Coca-Cola’s secondary distribution chain. A dream come true.

The end-to-end distribution model for their Zambia trial is leaps and bounds ahead of their very first idea. Coca-Cola outsources the bottling of their products to SABMiller (among others), who then sell on the bottles to local wholesalers.. These wholesalers then sell their crates to retailers running small to medium sized local shops in rural villages. A vital element of the trial is that the AidPods will be sold at a price. Firstly, the wholesalers will pay a per unit price for them.  They will sell them on to the local retailers for a small mark up, who will sell them to mothers and caregivers for another small mark up. The cost to the mother at the end will be equivalent to the cost of 1–2 eggs however during the trial vouchers will be given out so that the AidPods are subsidised. By putting a value on the pods, it increases the likelihood that they will get pulled through the whole distribution chain.

Fundraising Strategy

At the beginning of ColaLife, Simon and Jane raised the funds they needed through whatever means possible, including a sponsored bike ride across France. They then landed a small start-up grant from UnLtd (a UK organisation which funds social entrepreneurs) which tided them over for some time. But with a major trial now in its launch phase the investment required is almost $1million. Although the pods are sold at a price, Simon and Jane still require a subsidy of about $1 per pod to cover all the associated costs.

Just before going to print, we found out that Simon and Jane have secured the cash they need from five key donors including Johnson & Johnson[vi] and the UK’s Department for International Development in Zambia. Though traditional funding streams are being used for the trial, plans are also being made to ensure greater sustainability in the long term. One idea is to use the AidPod design and create an ethical consumer product for high street sale. Using the BOSS principle (Buy One Subsidise Several), the revenue raised would cover the costs of AidPod distribution. You wouldn’t think that the clinical looking container could be sexed up, but when Jane pulled out an animal print covered pod we instantly saw its place in the travel section at Boots.

If the Zambia trial works out, Simon and Jane’s vision is to set up trials across the continent. Once the concept is proven, they want to hand it over to existing agencies to run with. But before all that can happen, a long list of unknowns lies ahead. Will local distributors in the business of moving bottles be willing to broaden their offering? Will mothers be willing to pay for healthcare products when they’re accustomed to receiving medical aid for free? Will competitor products like mobile phone talk time take priority over medicines? The list goes on but Simon and Jane are trying to foresee these challenges and are looking to their community of supporters to help them come up with solutions to match.

When we visited SABMiller HQ in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, the Director of Corporate Affairs was candid about the challenges which might de-rail the trial.  “People at SABMiller don’t want to be meeting Simon every day”, Chibamba Kanyama told us, freely admitting that Corporate Social Responsibility had to deliver something to them in return. Doubts aside, however, Chibamba was very excited about the potential and has placed ColaLife on their list of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) priorities for the next financial year.  When we visited SABMiller’s central distribution centre we too got to size up the potential scale of ColaLife’s future.

Simon and Jane are not your typical mum and dad duo. They are innovators, risk-takers, online wizards and masters of the art of mass mobilisation. What makes them rare is that after all the blood, sweat and tears, they’re not precious about owning the outcome. “We don’t want to protect the idea. We want people to be able to pick it up and run with it. Others may do it better or use it for a different purpose but that’s fine.”

People tend to say that as we humans grow older we get more set in our ways, but Simon and Jane’s open-mindedness proves that this isn’t always the case. They will admit that turning their silly idea into a superb solution has relied on perseverance and plenty of luck, but they also credit the wisdom that a few more years of experience can bring. Twenty five years might seem like a long time to incubate an idea, but how many people do you know who’ve managed to convince a multinational corporation to partner them in delivering this kind of social good?

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[i] UN Inter-agency Group on Child Mortality Estimation, Levels and Trends in Child Mortality (2011)

Copyright © Nikki and Rob Wilson 2011