One of the biggest challenges facing global access to essential medicines is the lack of efficient delivery from one location to another. Every year, pharmaceutical companies subsidize their products so that those in dire need of treatments can receive them. However noble these efforts may be, many of them ultimately fail due to an inability to access remote regions where those most in need of care live. According to a study by the United Nations, the lack of supply chain infrastructure is why,, over two billion people lack access to essential medicines globally . This distribution dilemma, dubbed “the last mile” challenge is one that nearly any company that deals with the developing world must face. Yet, while most corporations have given up hope, there is one unlikely company that has thrived: Coca-Cola. With over seventy million customers in developing countries, Coca-Cola has succeeded in providing their products to rural regions across the globe . As the saying goes, in some places, it’s easier to get access to Coca-Cola than drinking water. If Coca-Cola can be delivered all across the developing world, why can’t essential medicines? That is the question that governments, public health organizations and pharmaceutical companies are attempting to answer.
ColaLife and The Beginning of a Productive Partnership
Any discussion of Coca-Cola’s impact on healthcare delivery must begin with ColaLife. Almost twenty-five years ago, Simon Berry, the founder of an organization known as ColaLife (an independent organization with no legal association with Coca-Cola), hoped to tackle diarrhea in South Africa . To do this, he created the “Kit Yamayo”, or “Kit of Life”, a packet which contained oral rehydration solutions, zinc soap, and educational material. After experimenting with some clever design strategies, Berry was able to create a product that could fit on top of crates of Coca-Cola that were to be distributed globally. In 2012, ColaLife began supplying their kits in Zambia, South Africa, a region where one in four children die of diarrhea annually. In one year, almost 45 percent of the children who needed the kits got access to them . In 2013, the kit was featured in the United Nations General Assembly as one of the top ten breakthrough innovations in mother and child health . However, when Berry began fleshing out his business model, he soon realized that transporting kits using Coca-Cola crates was too limiting to be applied in the long run. Instead, ColaLife seeked to emulate Coca-Cola’s secret ingredient in distribution: their investment in people.
Coca-Cola directly employs 68,000 people in Africa, but works with up to 10 times more, including independent bottlers, wholesalers, distributors, and shop owners . Most of their independent partners are the people who deliver the product the last extra mile. ColaLife has begun creating these same partnerships by signing contracts with local distributors and hiring more locals to inform them about the best methods of getting to specific regions.
Project Last Mile
Organizations worldwide took notice of ColaLife’s success and sought to emulate it on a larger scale. This desire manifested itself into Project Last Mile. Project Last Mile, which launched in 2010, is a groundbreaking public-private partnership among the Coca-Cola Company, USAID, the Global Fund, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation . Through this collaborative project, the governments of developing countries can draw from over eighty-five years worth of distribution expertise, marketing experience, and business knowledge that Coca-Cola has accrued to get critical supplies to those who need it. Thus, instead of simply taking Coca-Cola’s supply chain and using it as their own, governments are instead able to leverage Coca-Cola’s expertise to build a supply chain of their own. While the project is currently focused in Tanzania and Ghana, the partnership plans to invest over twenty millions dollars to expand their efforts to over ten countries in the next five years .
The results thus far have been astounding. In Tanzania, before the project was launched, the government’s Medical Stores Department (MSD) was delivering supplies to 130 medical supply centers at district level and did not facilitate distribution beyond that point . As a result, some 30% to 40% of orders from health centers ended up being unfilled . By leveraging the expertise of Coca-Cola, however, the Tanzanian government has improved how drugs are supplied. Interventions included training for MSD staff members through courses from the Accenture Supply Chain Academy. Furthermore, Coca-Cola has facilitated the outsourcing of delivery to third parties that were already shipping goods to remote areas by connecting medical suppliers with local distributors across the nation. Additionally, drugs now reach rural areas through more unconventional means of transportation such as by boat in the rainy season. According to a case study from the Yale Global Health Leadership Institute, while the Tanzanian government’s distribution system doesn’t reach Coca-Cola-like efficiency, it has vastly improved . Delivery times have been cut from thirty days to just five . In addition, 80% of patients now have access to vaccination, up from 50% just two years ago . The availability of medicines have increased by 23% and Tanzania’s distribution system has expanded from 9 zonal and about 400 district drop-off points to direct delivery to more than 5,500 Last Mile health facilities .
While Project Last Mile’s success in Tanzania is a great start, there is still much potential for similar partnerships to form elsewhere across the globe. As information regarding Coca-Cola’s supply chain disseminates further and to a greater variety of actors, soon it will be easy for governments and other organizations to gain access to this novel method of supply chain management without necessarily having to work with Coca-Cola themselves. For example, South Africa has launched a project focused on developing pick up points in stores where people could easily and reliably pick up medication orders . In Mozambique, outsourced delivery of drugs to third party organizations has helped to supply remote areas with goods. Furthermore, while current initiatives are focused on large-scale collaborations between governments and NGOs, independent pharmaceutical companies may soon jump on board as well in order to extend their global reach. The surprising and unorthodox partnership between health-based organizations and one of the largest private corporations in the world has shed light onto the potential for collaborations between disparate entities. It has taught us lessons that public health has to learn from business practices. This revolutionary model has set the groundwork for future partnerships between the public and private sector in order to make real social change in the world. The progress that has been made up to date is remarkable and an idea of this magnitude has the potential to shift global healthcare delivery on a much larger scale.
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