LONG VALLEY, New Jersey — About five years ago, a critical question was asked by many: “If you can find a bottle of Coca-Cola anywhere in the world, why not life-saving medicines?” It’s a valid question. The company’s vast global supply and distribution network allow the system to deliver bottles of Coca-Cola to more than 200 countries worldwide. Through bumpy dirt roads and steep rocky hills, the fizzy drink reaches the most hard-to-reach places.
But this is not the case for essential medicines that pose large gaps in availability in both public and private sectors, and a wide variation of prices which render them unaffordable to poor people. According to the World Health Organization, in the public sector, generic medicines are only available in 38.1 percent of facilities and cost 250 percent more than the international reference price. In the private sector, these same medicines are available in 63.3 percent of facilities, but cost 610 percent more. Studies show that common treatment regimens cost low-paid government workers several days’ wages due to high-priced medicines, while treatment for chronic diseases that require a lifelong supply of medications are nearly unattainable.
This inspired the launch of a partnership in 2009 between three major names: Coca-Cola, the world’s largest beverage company and distribution system; The Global Fund, an international financial institution that prevents and treats HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis; and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, an organization that works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. Known as Project Last Mile, the public-private partnership uses Coca-Cola’s logistic, supply chain, distribution and marketing expertise to help African governments get critical medicines and supplies the “last mile” to remote areas.
In 2010, Project Last Mile announced a pilot project in Tanzania, working in the public health sector with Tanzania’s Medical Stores Department. At the time, MSD struggled to procure, store and deliver medicines throughout Tanzania and often faced shortages in vital medicines and medical supplies. Through the partnership, MSD implemented the same planning and procurement processes that are practiced by Coca-Cola bottling and distribution systems. In pilot areas, MSD reported improvements of 20 to 30 percent in medicine availability.
In addition, Project Last Mile has allowed MSD to expand its distribution system from 500 warehouse drop-off points to direct delivery to more than 5,500 health facilities.
Yale University’s Global Health Leadership Institute released a case study in 2012 documenting that “the collaboration in Tanzania demonstrated that private sector business practices were directly applicable to solving the challenges faced by a public organization.”
Building on its recognized success in Tanzania, Project Last Mile expanded to Ghana in 2013, partnering with Ghana Health Services. Using an operational approach called RED, GHS aimed to “Reach Every District” including those in the North and in remote island areas in Volta Region that are plagued by weak economies, geographical challenges and poor infrastructure.
While GHS already had “good coverage rates” in terms of access to medicine, they had experienced a cold chain failure which caused vaccines and medicines to perish from the time they were manufactured to the time they were administered to patients. This is where Project Last Mile stepped in to help. Coca-Cola installed 15,600 refrigerators in Ghana that are 99.3 percent functional for preventive maintenance of the cold chain equipment. In addition, a team of 26 trained technicians and contractors repair, stock and evaluate the refrigerators to ensure vaccine efficacy and maintain drugs at controlled temperatures.
Last month, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced that it will be joining the partnership to expand Project Last Mile to eight additional African countries over the next five years, starting with Mozambique. The powerful coalition will invest more than $21 million in the growing initiative.
“With Project Last Mile’s strong emphasis on country ownership, and its ability to bring together the golden triangle of civil society, government and the private sector, the initiative will bring more essential and life-changing products to more and more people across Africa,” said Wendy Taylor, USAID’s Director of the Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact, and Michael Goltzman, Coca-Cola Company’s Vice President of International Government Relations & Public Affairs, in a statement.
Project Last Mile and the formidable partnership behind it are definitely making significant strides toward the finish line for global health.
– Abby Bauer