Particularly during the last few decades, the soft drinks manufacturing company Coca-Cola has found itself embroiled in countless cases of egregious offences; stealing water, poisoning land and selling drinks laced with dangerous pesticides (Stecklow, 2005) to name a few.
Despite these atrocities, Coca-Cola can save the world.
Well, to a certain extent at least; it has the potential to greatly lower infant mortality rates, consequently lifting millions out of poverty. And it will involve virtually none of the company’s own doing; one small scale non-governmental organisation (NGO) has the potential to make use of Coca-Cola’s vast supply network where the soft drink giant had neither the vision nor will to do the same. ‘ColaLife’ is based on the infuriating paradox that Coca-Cola is often found more commonly across the developed world than clean water or medicine.
The ColaLife movement is based on three observations:
- You can buy a Coca-Cola drink almost anywhere you go in the world, even in the most remote parts of developing countries.
- In these same places 1 in 9 children die before their fifth birthday from preventable causes. Diarrhoea is the second biggest killer, globally.
- Child mortality is still unacceptably high, despite the Millennium Development Goals set for 2015. In most developing countries less than 1% of children have ready access to simple, affordable, life-saving treatments like ORS and Zinc for diarrhoea – a global recommendation for a decade. (ColaLife 2009)
The idea revolves around a wedge shaped pod (AidPod) that fits in between the bottles of a crate of Coca-Cola. The MNC distributes to most parts of the world, including rural areas, so the idea is utilising a pre-existing distribution network. Within this pod there could be a number of vital medicines and antibiotics, as well as informative leaflets and contraception, to help those who need them most, and potentially would find it very difficult to otherwise gain access to them. ColaLife is in discussion with local partners in Zambia – including both Coca-Cola and the bottlers SAB Miller – to develop a pilot. The AidPods currently carry diarrhoea treatment kits – but could in future be developed to contain, for example, the ‘polypill’ to tackle Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs). (Hancock, Kingo, and Reynaud, 2011)
It’s unquestionably a smart idea; the utilisation of pre-existing trade networks mean that goals can be accomplished, vital medicine distributed without great financial cost. However, it must be recognised that this is still very much a small-scale NGO, and held back by a number of factors outside of its control, such as a reliance on where the Coca-Cola deliveries are destined. So the most remote areas are likely to be overlooked, no matter how broad the service area. Although, secondary supply chains may be able to solve this problem. In developing countries, transport costs can be 40% of medicine costs, so any scheme that brings this down will increase the number of people that can access it.
It’s important to note that ColaLife is just one of the medical operations that Coca-Cola has enhanced. Drawing from its well of experience with distribution in developing countries, Coca-Cola is training people in non-profit enterprise and even government agencies to use its business tactics to improve their supply chains. (Goodier, 2015)
ColaLife is an example of technological development, and an operational NGO based in the global south. It’s an example that the best innovations need not be prohibitively expensive nor hugely sophisticated – the most effective are often simple and affordable. Whether it can save the world is admittedly another question. Currently, the NGO is still far too small-scale to have much of a global impact, but if the concept was scaled up, making use of Coca-Cola (and others) networks across the developed world, then it’s far more likely that change would be seen. Clearly, the success of such ventures is hugely reliant on the goodwill of the private sector and their distribution chain. But the benefits to Coca-Cola’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) would undoubtedly be huge. ColaLife still lends legitimacy to a company that markets some unhealthy products from which it makes huge profits while stoking obesity and diabetes epidemics. (Berry et al., 2015) These companies are criticised almost daily in the media, and usually rightly so, but their grip on global markets could be harnessed by the likes of ColaLife and other development actors to facilitate real change from the most unlikely of sources.