If you are helping business, how can you achieve your charitable purpose?

By Jane Berry, Co-Founder of ColaLife

If you are helping business, how can you achieve your charitable purpose?

This month is our one year anniversary of arriving in Zambia, to launch COTZ, an academically rigorous trial, to test the ‘ColaLife’ concept: how can we emulate Coca-Cola, to get simple medicines out to the remote rural villages where the world’s top brand seems to reach?

We’ve had our share of set-backs and frustrations, but we are secretly astounded, one year in, to be on time, on budget and to find ourselves where we are:

  • We’ve run focus groups to help design an anti-diarrhoea kit for under-5s, and they chose the name ‘Kit Yamoyo’ (Kit of Life). They told us what they liked about the pack, its contents and branding; what they thought it was worth (a lot!) and what they could afford to pay (a little!).
  • With the help of a range of businesses, from global to micro, we’ve manufactured 40,000 high quality, colourful, functional Kits – that meet WHO/UNICEF guidelines and that customers find desirable. (A desirable anti-diarrhoea kit? There’s a thing!).
  • And we’ve established an ‘end-to-end value chain’ for Kit Yamoyo: Coca-Cola wholesalers in district towns are stocking it – and stocking out; micro retailers are coming in to buy, and carry Kits back to their village – rarely using the space in a Coca-Cola crate, as it happens, as only 10 Kits fit in a crate, and retailers are buying up to 3 cartons (105 Kits) in one trip. And rural mothers and carers are spending their vouchers, but are also paying the trial recommended retail price: 5,000 Kwacha (approx. $1). For every 10 Kit Yamoyos sold, the retailer earns $2.50. The magic of the market is bringing essential medicines to remote rural Katete and Kalomo. In fact, it looks like we may need to order another 20,000 Kits to meet demand during the trial.

So, at the end of Year 1, festive season, we’re ready to have a bit of a celebration (at the Design Museum in London*, since you ask).

Then comes, a flurry of Those Difficult Questions bring you out of your self-congratulatory bubble:

  • “If you are helping business, how can you achieve your charitable purpose?” This comes from a charity lawyer, at a presentation I gave this week.
  • “Why has it taken you so long – we are surprised you aren’t scaling up yet.” From a US Foundation, disappointed we are ‘not investment ready.’
  • “But why aren’t you donating products to the poor, who can’t afford them?” From one of our individual donors: we’re crowd-sourcing at the moment, to create a fund for roll out. This will co-fund Kit Yamoyo dollar for dollar, until we can get the production price down to what people can afford, and still build in that vital profit motive all the way down the distribution chain.

I used to feel challenged by these questions. The same ones come up, time and again – so often, that you think they must be right. But the further we get, the more I think: if people don’t understand, that’s great: it means we really are doing things differently, there must be innovation in there; perhaps we really are challenging the status quo. One forgets that you have to keep ‘out there’; the questions will keep coming; it is your duty to keep explaining yourself.

So, to the individual donor, we say, again: donated goods undermine sustainable markets, and ‘the poor’ are just like you and I – they want to choose how to spend what money they have, and they will buy goods designed to meet their needs, that they like and value. Or as CK Prahalad[1] puts it, rather more eloquently: “When the poor are converted into consumers, they acquire the dignity of attention and choices from the private sector.”

To the US Foundation we say: We are taking our time to get this right. We’ll get back to you.

And to the Charity Lawyer who asks: If you are helping business, how can you achieve your charitable purpose? Well, this one flummoxes me. You may as well ask: Why are you wishing for rain, if you want to enjoy a walk in the countryside? You can’t avoid one, if you want the other.

Click here for more information on the ColaLife supporters’ networking event at the Design Museum, London on 18 December. Both supporters and difficult questioners welcome.



[1] CK Prahalad: The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.

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