business corporate responsibility development health

ColaLife: a simple idea can go a long way

photo: Sune Wendelboe

A few years ago in what seems like another life, I was in Zanzibar on holiday. We rented a van and drove out to see some caves or something, and stumbled upon a remote little cove miles from anywhere. We were rather pleased with ourselves for finding such a secluded and idyllic spot, but we had only been there for a few minutes before an enterprising local emerged from the trees. He had a coolbox in a rusty wheelbarrow, and cokes to sell.

If you’ve ever done any travelling at all, no doubt you have a similar tale to tell. Coca Cola gets everywhere. You have to be somewhere very remote indeed not to find a small shack with a round red sign on it and a stack of crates inside.

For all its shortcomings as a company, you can’t fault Coca Cola’s business model. It is one of a very select handful of brands that has secured a truly global reach, that is known and appreciated by every sector of society, worldwide. Eveready batteries, Bic pens and Imperial Leather soap also qualify. (The other two staples of the village shack, candles and matches, tend to be generic) The genius of Coca Cola is not the product, nor the brand. It is its sheer ubiquity.

Coca Cola is made under licence, with regional or national bottlers shipping to smaller distribution centres operating as franchises. They then supply the orders to shops, either delivering, or serving as a pickup point for the guy who cycles ten miles out to his village with a crate either side of his back wheel. In many countries, this rambling network also collects the bottles and ships them back up the line to be refilled. It is a formidable global network. If it hadn’t grown organically over decades, it would be impossibly expensive to create from scratch.

This network is both remarkable, and a little sad -if you were planning to make just one product available universally, you might not choose fizzy sugared water. You might choose aspirin, antibiotics, or condoms, or perhaps a mail service.

But what if you could piggy-back onto Coca Cola’s distribution network? What if you could transport something through the network without making any changes to it, without imposing or complicating matters or requiring any technology other than bottles and crates?

That’s the idea behind ColaLife, who are campaigning to use the network to distribute medicines and rehydration salts in developing countries. Their bespoke ‘aid-pod’ is a wedge-shaped sleeve designed to fit between the bottle necks in a crate of cokes. It can be filled with vital medicines, slipped in amongst the drinks and removed when it reaches its destination.

The brainchild of Simon and Jane Berry, ColaLife began as just an idea. It grew by amassing support online until it reached the kind of critical mass that couldn’t be ignored. Aid agencies and funders began to take notice, and finally Coca Cola itself. Three years after launching, the first trial is taking place in Zambia.

I met Jane Berry last year at the Small Is… Festival, and had a fascinating conversation about the idea. I then forgot all about it, and only remembered this week as I thought, regretfully, about missing this year’s festival. (No camping with a three month old, alas) Anyway, ColaLife is an innovative and simple idea that deserves to be adopted wholesale by Coca Cola. Check out their website, like them on Facebook, and consider making a donation.


  1. Excellent idea, thanks for pointing this one out, I’ll send some support in their direction. My coke fact: Coca-Cola is the most popular soft drink in each territory that its present, apart from Scotland. Where the bizarrely flavoured Iron-Bru takes all rivals!

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