Coke adds life? Yes.

Editor's note: This post was written by Alison Craiglow Hockenberry, contributing editor at Ashoka Changemakers®.

As advertising slogans go, “Coke adds life” is among the most potent and memorable. Simon Berry wants to make it also true.

The visionary behind ColaLife, Berry uses Coca-Cola’s unparalleled distribution channels to deliver preventive medicines to the most remote places on the planet and save lives.

“Innovation is needed in the area of child survival, because at the current rate of progress it will be 185 years before mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa are at the levels they are today in Europe and the United States,” said Berry, in a recent Google Hangout about health innovation led by Ashoka Changemakers.

ColaLife started as a simple idea almost 25 years ago, when Berry pondered the tragic absurdity that while Coca-Cola was available everywhere he went in the developing world, basic, inexpensive medicines were not. One in five children were dying of dehydration in places where you could always have a Coke and a smile.

In January, the first major test run of ColaLife’s Aid Pods (they will soon be renamed to be more culturally relevant) will get underway in Zambia. These anti-diarrhea kits are ingeniously packaged to nestle in the unused spaces in Coke bottle crates.

How did ColaLife grow from one person’s brilliant idea to a powerful public-private collaboration that includes major corporations, government agencies, and local entrepreneurs? In part, it was by opening the process to a lot of collaboration.

“Our approach has been to be very open and transparent about what we do, and to be open in a way that enables people to change us—and also to contribute their own ideas,” Berry said. Having been frustrated for years by his inability to connect with decision makers at Coca-Cola, Berry shifted tactics: He floated the idea for ColaLife on his blog and on Facebook, and embraced what is known as “open innovation.” 

“We put the bare bones of the ColaLife concept online about three years ago, and thousands of people have commented and challenged us,” Berry said. “We’ve attracted some of the best brains on the planet in areas of public health and public health logistics.” He and his partner Jane Berry explained that they have always been willing to refine–and sometimes even reject–their own ideas to improve their plan and advance their goals.

The idea has now taken off, gaining major media attention and ultimately the support of Coca-Cola, the government of Zambia, and a major global beverage bottler, among others. A six month trial run starts in January, during which time the ColaLife team will continue to listen to feedback from everyone along the supply chain–from the consumers and retailers up to executives and policy makers–to make improvements.

Already the team has changed the materials used in the packaging at the request of mothers, who prefer a reusable container over the throwaway biodegradable version originally prototyped. That is just one of many tweaks and changes, both major and minor, that Cola Life has implemented along the way. Among the feedback they know they will incorporate are consumer suggestions for a name for the packages.

This is how social innovation happens. ColaLife was just announced a winner in the Making More Health: Achieving Individual, Family and Community Well-Being competition. The other two winners—founders of Unite for Sight and Saúde Criança—also participated in the Google Hangout. Check it out to hear about how these trailblazing innovators are making more health available to more people every day.

There are those who will argue it is problematic to piggyback products, designed to improve health, on the back of a product that is arguable unhealthy. But these kinds of partnerships present an undeniable opportunity to make a difference, and they are happening more and more.

Simon Berry is focused on his goal of saving lives. If getting there means partnering with the maker of the world’s second most popular drink (after water), it’s not problematic, it’s imperative. Beside, he says, “the purchase of these will not be linked to Coca-Cola in any way, they are just using the space in Coca-Cola crates as a distribution channel.”

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