Coca Cola "hotel"

A Gap in the Market

I’ve written before about Design for Logistics: how products themselves can ease or complicate their shipping, or the environmental impact of their packaging. I object to shipping large quantities of fresh air along with the product, and I suppose we all do, but not everything in the world nests together nicely for efficient shipping.

Once in a while, though, there comes along some holistic packaging design that’s so elegant as to take your breath away. If you haven’t already seen it, meet Kit Yamoyo: oral rehydration salts, zinc, soap and a leaflet of instructions for the care of a person with diarrhoea. The outer packaging also serves as measuring device and cup, and – here’s the clever part – it’s shaped to fit in between the bottles in a crate of Coca-Cola.

Inventor Simon Berry had observed that he could get a bottle of Coke just about anywhere, and yet far more important products such as basic medicines weren’t available. Wouldn’t it be possible to piggyback medicines onto the Coca-Cola supply chain? It was an idea that took twenty years and a lot of persistence to realise… but eventually it took off, as a result of social media.

“What about Coca Cola using their distribution channels (which are amazing in developing countries) to distribute rehydration salts? Maybe by dedicating one compartment in every 10 crates as ‘the life saving’ compartment?”

That was Simon Berry’s original Internet posting on the subject, back in 2008. Somewhere along the way, the idea was transmuted: instead of requiring the good folks at Coca-Cola to give up a fraction of their capacity in order to ship the rehydration salts, the innovative design meant that there would be no bottom line impact for purveyors of fizzy drinks. Everybody wins: it generates good press for the Coca-Cola Company (which makes a nice change from their product being criticised for being cheaper than milk)… and children don’t have to die for the want of a simple, cheap treatment.

Kit Yamoyos in a crate

Kit Yamoyos in situ, in a crate. (Photo: Colalife)

Although it’s the idea of fitting medicines into the space in a crate that brought the product and the newly-formed Colalife charity to the attention of the media, there are at least two other key components that make this grassroots supply chain work: micro-enterprise, and the use of mobile phones (specifically, SMS messages) to confirm delivery and make payments. Anybody could join in this distribution network – and earn money in the process. 

My Supply Chain Management students are already acquainted with Kit Yamoyo: I even made it the subject of one of their exam questions, last year. From a supply chain perspective, I wrote, critically discuss the approach taken, whereby the charity works with microbusinesses rather than simply giving the product away.

Students were divided on this point: some felt that a charity in possession of a life-saving treatment ought to be giving it away… and that’s the kind of aid model that I grew up with, back in the days of Bob Geldof. With a few wealthy sponsors and the assistance of the government, you probably could shift an awful lot of rehydration salts. You could just pitch the things out of the back of low-flying army transport ’plane, or something… but the purpose here wasn’t to deliver a life-saving product once: it was to change the economics of basic medicines fundamentally and permanently. With the ‘AidPod’ as a commercial product (albeit as inexpensive as possible) it gets treated differently. Stocking it at a sensible level is incentivised: tracking, and avoiding spoilage and pilfering becomes everybody’s concern. Manufacturing more ‘AidPods’ becomes something that companies want to do… and at some point between now and 2020, the whole venture becomes commercially sustainable.

Kit Yamoyo packaging

Like many really great ideas, it seems obvious afterwards. (Photo: Colalife)

Funny thing is, having created an award-winning package, Colalife are largely turning away from that design: a survey revealed that only 8% of retailers made use of crates of Coke to carry the kits. (Elsewhere in their published stats, Colalife report that they found just 4% of kits actually went into a Coca-Cola crate.)

In an effort to drive down the cost of Kit Yamoyo still further, a regular plastic ‘jar’ like the kind of thing you and I get peanut butter in has been tried… with the clever packets that fill the voids in drinks crates not entirely being phased out, but becoming rarer in the future.

“It was the space in the market, not the space in the crates that was important,” Colalife say. The Colalife website reports that approximately 60,000 Kit Yamoyos have been sold to date. Academics estimate that three lives have been saved per thousand kits used: if that’s correct, well… do the maths. While I was trying (and failing) to persuade the fishing industry to use crates made out of Pykrete, the Colalife team were saving dozens of lives – and they’re still ramping up the operation.

Let’s finish with what might be a particularly relevant message for our new MSc Supply Chain students in Botswana, Malawi, and Zambia:

“You can get any commodity/service to anywhere in the world by creating & sustaining demand & making it profitable to supply that demand.” – Simon Berry (Twitter: @51m0n)

Advertisements

It’s called “waste” for a reason…

Back in the days when I worked in a furniture factory, there was a sarcastic but surprisingly effective sign in the workplace:

“When the floor is full please use the bins provided.”

overflowing bins

It’s a scene that could be found in just about any city, nowadays – at least at times. Technology offers alternatives, such as the Envac system of urban waste collection which uses vacuum tubes rather like a giant version of those pipe systems that you used to see speeding capsules around within department stores and hospitals. Very nice… but it seems likely that the cost of such a major infrastructure project will confine it to airports and showpiece communities for a long time to come.

I’ve seen a lot of litter in the last few weeks, on my travels in Southern Africa. The character of that litter varies from one country to another, and I can only assume that’s because the prevailing economic conditions in different places make for a different pattern of recycling. In Malawi, for example, you see very few plastic bottles, although the shreds of old plastic bags are seen everywhere amid the crops. (In Rwanda, shops can no longer give you a plastic bag, but this rule hasn’t been adopted elsewhere, yet.)

I have to make assumptions here (since a literature search has revealed almost nothing about the economics of recycling in Malawi) but presumably plastic bottles are sufficiently valuable to be worth collecting. One tiny piece of evidence was found:

“The next day is warm as we drive towards Lilongwe, the country’s capital. Blandina drains her water, winds down the window and tosses the plastic bottle from the car. I give a disapproving frown and glance back to see a child give chase as it cartwheels over the road. “I’m recycling,” says my genial guide. “He’ll use it for mango juice.” Beyond the safari tents and sundowners, Malawi’s poverty plays out at the roadside.”

– Phillips (2012)

If plastic bottles are worth collecting in Lilongwe, it seems they aren’t in Lusaka – so the wealthier city actually has a worse litter problem. Many empty lots in the city seem to have acquired a colourful stratum of them (although as I write this, the long-awaited rain has just arrived, so perhaps that will move much of the waste on, via the drains). I fully accept that I’m part of the problem, because my delicate British constitution means I’ve been consuming vast quantities of bottled water (plus Carlsberg ‘Green’ or Mosi lager by night, but that’s another story…)

In both Malawi and Zambia, the tax base is very narrow, and the governments have other, more pressing needs than worrying about litter. “Will Malawi cities, towns ever be sustainably clean?” asks the Nyasa Times (Ngwira, 2014) and that’s the real challenge: not an expensive burst of activity, but a lasting shift to a different way of doing things.

Waste plastic is actually a very valuable resource. A thermal depolymerisation process could be fed waste plastic (including the lower-value plastic bags and films) plus old tyres, biomass and a wide range of other things, yielding sufficient gas to run the process while also producing light crude oil of considerable value.

For that matter, one might ask why we don’t do more thermal depolymerisation in the UK…

Waste-to-oil requires investment, of course… but do you want to live in a world where it doesn’t happen?

Have a look at this ancient piece of pottery from the early Bronze Age, which is to say around 4,000 years ago. It was found in a burial mound where an unknown young man was sent on his journey into the next world, perhaps with an alcoholic drink…

beaker

Early Bronze Age beaker.

Nowadays, it can be seen in the Hull and East Riding Museum, and it is artefacts such as this one that gave us our name for these ancestors: the Beaker People. Once a culture that covered virtually all of Europe, I understand.

And it makes me wonder…

Four thousand years from now, will we be known as the Garbage People?

 

References:

Ngwira, S. (2014) ‘Will Malawi cities, towns ever be sustainably clean?’, Nyasa Times, August 16th [available online, accessed 4/11/2014]

Phillips, A. (2012) ‘All creatures great and small in Malawi’, The Independent on Sunday, July 15th [available online, accessed 4/11/2014]