Simon Berry is the founder of ColaLife, a campaign that is trying to get Coca-Cola to use its distribution channels to help save lives in developing countries. For over 10 months, Berry has been using the convening power of the Internet to rally people all over the world to lend their support and skills to a campaign that could change the way multinational businesses engage with developing countries.

Before ColaLife, Berry had spent 12 years living and working in developing countries on the British aid program. He later worked as Chief Executive of rural regeneration charity ruralnet|uk, which he founded in 2002 to help rural communities improve and strengthen their local economies. More recently, Berry worked at Defra (the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) on the implementation of Defra's Third Sector Strategy and Greener Living Fund.

Following his recent activity blogging at the G20 Summit in London (he was one of 50 international bloggers invited to the event), Berry spoke to Kate Andrews about ColaLife and his progress harnessing the distribution channel of the world’s best known brand.

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Manual distribution of the Coca-Cola system in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania).
Photo by Tielman Nieuwoudt

What is ColaLife?

Simon Berry ColaLife is a simple campaign – asking Coca-Cola to use its incredible distribution capacity to get medicines, such as oral rehydration salts and high-dose Vitamin A tablets, to dying children in developing countries. We are currently in a prototyping phase where we are developing the ColaLife ‘aidpod’, a medical carrier case that can slot securely in between the Coca-Cola bottles transported in crates around the world. The aidpod container fits in between the necks of the bottles in a Coca-Cola crate, and is designed to carry ‘social products’ such as oral rehydration salts, vitamin A tablets and water purification tablets.

How did the project start?

In 1988, while working as a development worker in remote north east Zambia, conscious that while I could buy a bottle of Coke anywhere, 1 in every 5 children under the age of five die in these areas, from simple causes such as dehydration through diarrhea. To tap into Coca-Cola’s distribution channels was an idea I had over 20 years ago, but it never went anywhere until I began using new social media technologies, such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr for example.

What has been happening over the past six months?

Since the launch of the campaign and due to the immediate power of our Facebook group, I was invited by Salvatore Gabola, Coca-Cola’s Global Head of Stakeholder Relations, to a meeting to discuss the idea further at Coca-Cola’s European HQ in Brussels. Other than building an early relationship with Coca-Cola, during this meeting Gabola made a commitment to include the ColaLife idea into the research already planned, as part of the corporation’s commitment to the Business Call to Action, in East Africa. Furthermore, an agreement was also made to report back on the research as it progressed, all of which could be reported on the ColaLife blog.

Last year, ColaLife was nominated for the NewStatesman’s New Media Award, and showcased at London’s digital media festival, 2gether08. It was also featured on BBC Radio 4’s iPM program, and on the BBC World Service.

The Facebook group, which has now reached over 8,600 members, has been a key to the success of the campaign. From it not only have I gained many new international connections and ‘front-line’ insights, but voluntary support has led to viral animations, PR, the build of the campaign website and supporting photography.

In October last year the ColaLife idea was entered in Google's Project 10 to the 100th, and in November, I returned to Africa to introduce ColaLife to the local workers and families this is been set up for. The ColaLife blog continues to inform the global audience of the story and its progress, and even includes a conversation with people in Tanzania.

In April 2009, I was nominated by members of the ColaLife Facebook group and selected to join 50 bloggers from around the World to blog at the G20 Summit where I was able to talk to Bob Geldof about the campaign. Our conversation was captured on video by Lloyd Davis, a fellow G20 blogger.

How is the campaigning progressing?

Over the last three months ColaLife has been building a relationship between Coca-Cola and an international NGO in the hope it would lead to trials of the ColaLife idea in Tanzania. On April 21, at a Business Fights Poverty event in London, Coca-Cola announced their confirmation to run these trials later this year.

What have you learned so far from doing the ColaLife campaign?

Hold on to a clear, simple vision, but don't try to control everything – facilitate. Value every conversation, remember names, make links. The trick is to be dogged without being dogmatic – you won't have all the answers. Listen! The knowledge is in the network, so find some and get plugged in. Always carry publicity – I've used Moo cards – they look special and I've even ebauctioned a ‘first edition’ set on to raise funds. Go with the stones that roll to get some early wins. Then, don't keep success to yourself: thank-yous are free and will come back to you tenfold.

Be flexible and open to offers. Others may help, but have other priorities. So be patient, persuasive and pragmatic – once you engage with bigger players it’s like riding a wave – there's no point haranguing, use the momentum and be prepared for the next one. Use a ‘multi-channel’ approach – with potential supporters everywhere, you need to be everywhere too. My big break came once I had 5000 Facebook users with me. Getting online isn't everything – I use face-to-face meetings and traditional media too – but it can build support amazingly quickly, and you don't have to be an Internet wiz to do it.

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Simon Berry
Photo by Duncan Arrow

For the latest on the campaign, visit ColaLife. ColaLife is an independent and purely voluntary movement, backed by nearly 9000 supporters on its Facebook group.

Photo of Coca-Cola child by Grzegorz Komar

Posted May 07, 2009