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Things Go Better as Coke Supply Chain Delivers Medicine to Remote African Villages

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Retailer in Katete, Zambia with anti-diarrhea kits slotted among bottles

Women in rural areas of the developing world often have to walk all day to get to a health clinic to retrieve the oral rehydration packets needed to treat their children’s diarrhea, a leading killer for those under the age of five.

When they arrive, however, the medicine is often gone. The solution lies in getting the packets closer to outlying villages, a logistical challenge in distributing a world renowned soft drink.  “You will find Coca-Cola in any village at any time in the course of the year, but you’ll not find medicines. What’s the difference? There’s  something to be learned there,” says Zambian Minister of Health Joseph Kasonde.

Claire Ward’s indie documentary —The Cola Road—follows that learning curve as an innovative nonprofit piggybacks on the Coca-Cola distribution network in Zambia to distribute oral rehyrdration packets.  A former editor at Maclean’s, Ward made the film for her master’s project in journalism at New York University, funding it largely through crowdsourced financing.

The film highlights the work of Simon and Jane Berry, who head ColaLife, as they probe whether a plastic kit containing zinc and the salts used to combat dehydration in stricken babies and toddlers would win acceptance by the country’s Coca-Cola bottler, South African Breweries, as well as wholesalers, small rural shopkeepers and critically the parents of sick children living in far-flung provinces.

The kit, sold for a dollar (5000 kwacha),  fits snugly into the neck of the Coke bottles slotted into the familiar vermillion, hard-plastic crates and delivered by donkey, oxcart, bicycle as well as the familiar trucks and buses. (“Think Outside the Box and Inside the Crate,” as the film’s promo poster entreats.)

Tiny village shops, always stocked with Coke, have now started to receive oral rehydration Kit Yamoyos (kits of life)—and, no, Coke itself is not a particularly good rehydration fluid, despite the lore. Thousands of the kits have been sold already in Zambian rural districts and the Ministry of Health, the film points out, now has plans to use the same supplier network to distribute other types of medicine. The income for the shopkeepers provides an incentive to keep the kits on the shelves.

Simon Berry has contemplated using the Coke supplier network to distribute medicines for more than 20 years and now the  idea is catching on.  Segway developer and serial inventor Dean Kamen remarks in the April 29 issue of Fortune that he convinced Coca-Cola to become his partner in distributing Slingshot, a still that uses minimal energy to clean water. It could become an ideal complement to a Kit Yamoyo that requires a clean water supply to bring a sick baby back to health.

Here’s a trailer for the film and a video that contains some footage from the documentary:

Image Sources: Simon Berry/ColaLife; pi Global (video)

Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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