Visionary Program – 7 questions

It was a pleasure to contribute to the Ashoka Visionary Program which is open to all and run by Ashoka out of Austria (Europe) and Athens (Eastern Africa and the Mediterranean Region). I kicked off the hour-long session with a short, top-level overview of the work ColaLife has done so far but then focussed on answering seven key questions that I’d been given as a briefing for the session. I thought the answers to these would be of interest to readers of this blog. So here they are:

1. How do you measure and communicate your work?

Measuring our work is fairly straight forward in our case. We already know that ORS combined with Zinc is an effective treatment for diarrhoea. This has been proved, by others, over and over again. It reduces deaths and stunting. In addition, it is a low-cost product with no alternative use. This means that ex-factory sales are a good indicator of our impact. Every kit will improve a child’s life and a conservative estimate is that one life is saved for every 1,000 kits used. This means we will have saved at least 1,200 lives since we started our on-the-ground work in 2012.

The main channel for the communication of our work is this blog which now has a 600-strong opt-in mailing list attached to it. People on the mailing list get blog posts delivered directly to their email address. You can join this list here. We’ve been blogging since May-08. You can see our blog archive is here.

On the blog we talk about failures as well as successes and publish calls for help. It gives ColaLife a ‘personality’ and now shows a 12-year track record of commitment and transparency – something that funders want to see.

In the early days we spent a lot of time entering award programmes and have won a considerable number over the years (see We also sought to get articles published and air-time on radio around the world. Peter Day, the host of BBC’s ‘In Business’ programme, met us when we won Product Design of the Year in 2013 and subsequently visited us in Zambia and produced a whole ‘In Business’ episode about our work. You can listen again to this ‘In Business’ episode here. This was heard by an impact investor who has become our primary core funder.

2. What makes your approach systemic? How is it different?

The foundation of our approach is that everything we do must be ultimately self-sustaining and this defines the way we operate. We are interested in catalysing change that outlives our involvement and continues after we have left.

ColaLife's approach

This means that we cannot become a permanent part of the solution. If we did, when we left, a part of the solution would be lost and make the change achieved susceptible to failure.

This in turn means that we have to do everything through local organisations and processes.

So we have to work through partnerships. But partnerships come with a health warning. They cannot be any old partnership they must be “smart” partnerships. To understand what we mean by a “smart” partnership, read on.

3. How do you build systemic partnerships? How are they different?

In our case, we know that all the organisations that are needed to transform access to affordable diarrhoea treatment in any country are already there:

  • The policy makers
  • The regulators
  • The manufacturers
  • The distributors
  • The wholesalers
  • The retailers
  • The doctors, nurses and community health workers
  • The marketeers
  • And so on

The task then, is NOT to set up parallel systems to do what these organisations are there to do, but to empower and strengthen them and transform the way they operate together.

The way we see this is as a “smart partnership” – a partnership built around a vision not around an organisation.

ColaLife Smart partnership

Our role is to bring these players together around a shared vision NOT around ColaLife.

The consequence of this is that when ColaLife withdrew we left a sustainable, transformed local system behind.

4. Why is this approach more impactful?

We believe that this is one of the only ways to have a sustainable, on-going impact. So many well-meaning development initiatives have no impact beyond the funding that supported them. Some may even have a negative impact because while they operate, they undermine local institutions and systems that have the long-term responsibility for the things the short-term project was set up to support.

5. What kind of mindset is important for this approach?

The key thing, it that this is not about you. It’s about the vision you have to change the local situation forever.

As an example, to do what we did, we had to completely suppress our brand. The ColaLife logo is nowhere to be seen in Zambia. It’s not on the product …

Brand supression - the product

…or on any of the advertising, including billboard advertising.

Brand supression - advertising

The beneficiaries of our work have no idea we exist. In the long-term we are not important, we are irrelevant.

6. How do you fund your work and why this way?

All our work is grant funded which falls into two categories:

  1. Classic project funding – we used this for the trial and the scale-up in Zambia
  2. Unrestricted Foundation funding

It is our view that unrestricted Foundation funding must be part of the funding mix if you are trying to change the system.

7. How do you think about your work and organisation long-term?

This is how we now see the globalisation of ColaLife’s impact. This started in 2017 with the work that resulted in the change to the WHO Essential Medicines List. Co-packaged ORS and Zinc is now listed as the treatment for diarrhoea on the WHO Essential Medicines List.

ColaLife Strategic Pathway
Click in the image to see full size in Flickr

Note that we continue to work with others to have an impact. The Diarrhoea Innovations Group were key in achieving the change to the WHO Essential Medicines List and will be key to us having a global impact.

The current plan is to close down ColaLife at the end of 2021 after spending two years trying to cascade the WHO co-packaging recommendation to the national level in target countries.