Simon Berry founded ColaLife off of one great idea: to make life-saving medicine as accessible as getting a bottle of Coke. ColaLife has saved thousands of young lives through their medication distribution, and now advocates for their ORS and Zinc medicine to be widely available across the globe. Half a million children die each year due to dehydration from diarrhea, which is approximately one per minute. Simon’s goal is to reduce that number and save as many children as he can. To read Simon’s playbook on ColaLife, click here.
How did you get the idea for ColaLife?
The idea for ColaLife came to me while I was working in remote Zambia, where I became aware of the high child mortality rates that occur as a result of dehydration from diarrhea. It was staggering to me that even in the most remote corners of the world, I was still able to purchase a bottle of Coke in every store. The idea struck me— why can’t kids get medication as easily as I can buy a Coke? If we could find a way to ship medication in the Coke shipping crates, we could send it anywhere in the world, which would save thousands of lives every year. In 2008, I created a Facebook group to start a discussion on this topic, and it got significant traction. Once BBC covered the story, they were able to connect me with the right people at Coke to help get this idea off the ground. Coke was incredibly helpful in teaching us about the distribution process and was very generous in their expertise of the industry, though we didn’t receive any funding from them. Bigger organizations weren’t willing to test out the idea, so I decided to do it myself. My wife and I quit our jobs, moved to Zambia, and launched ColaLife.
How has ColaLife evolved since the original idea?
The original plan was to ship the medication in thin packaging so that it could slide in between Coke bottles in Coke shipping crates. We relied on our Facebook group for tips on product design, shipping, finances, and anything else you can think of. It took us 18 months to raise enough money to run a trial of ColaLife. In the trial, we were able to ship 46,000 diarrhea treatment kits and learned a lot about how to improve the process. What we learned was that very few of the treatment kits we shipped were actually traveling in the Coke crates, so we realized that we could run the distribution process without them. Through our trial and approval process, we were able to package ORS and Zinc together— which were the two medications that the WHO recommended for treating diarrhea. When we left Zambia in 2018, we left behind a self sufficient process— the manufacturers are there, the distributors are set, and the medication is now available in supermarkets and community stores across the country.
Can you tell us about your advocacy work?
Once our work was able to carry on by itself, we decided to switch our focus to the WHO. The WHO’s official treatment recommendation was both ORS and Zinc, but we found that less than 1% of cases were being treated with both medications, because most manufacturers don’t package the two together like ColaLife does. It became our goal to change the WHO’s treatment recommendation to the two medications being packaged together. Our efforts succeeded in July 2019 when the WHO changed its recommendation. Now, we are working to get the WHO’s new recommendation to cascade down to national levels so that countries will start packing the medication together and saving more lives. For our advocacy work, we created a playbook to set an example for other countries to follow so that they can avoid the mistakes we made along the way and learn how to create systemic change. We have a commitment to support the people who utilize our playbook— we answer all questions that are posted on it and want it to be a collaborative effort to make this medication as accessible as possible, as fast as possible.
What was the best part of launching this nonprofit?
There is no nobler cause than saving children’s lives, and it feels great to be a part of that. It was a wonderful feeling when I got to be the person who had the idea that people looked at and thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Working with my wife on this project has been an amazing experience, particularly because neither of us were experts on this topic when we began. People saw an opportunity to help us along the way, and we were able to ask the silly questions because we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. Empowering local people to become involved in this process was very powerful; we did everything alongside locals who could see the results firsthand in their communities. It’s refreshing to be your own boss because you never have to worry about straying away from the mission. We stayed true to ourselves and our purpose since day one, and I’m really proud of that.