EDITOR’S NOTE: Coca-Cola is once again supporting (RED) in the fight to end mother-to-child transmission of HIV by raising awareness and funds through the organization’s 2016 World AIDS Day shop-a-thon, partnering with actor/comedian Neil Patrick Harris to offer a once-in-a-lifetime experience (check back next week for more details). (RED) is celebrating its 10th anniversary and launching the shop-a-thon tonight (Nov. 22) on Jimmy Kimmel Live. 

We wanted to take this opportunity to highlight the on-the-ground work our system is doing, in collaboration with several key public and private sector partners, to help deliver an AIDS-free generation through the groundbreaking Project Last Mile initiative.

“If you can get a Coca-Cola anywhere in the world, then why not medicine?”

That critical question inspired a meeting of the minds at the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative, where The Coca-Cola Company, the Global Fund and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation vowed to pool their collective resources and expertise to get vital medicines – including vaccines and antiretroviral (ARV) drugs – and supplies to those who need them most.

Coke previously had used its fleet of delivery trucks to transport condoms, malaria nets and more to rural areas, but the would-be partners had bigger, more sustainable plans that transcended disaster relief and financial aid. Their vision? To leverage private sector expertise to tackle public sector challenges.

Project Last Mile launched in 2010 with the goal of helping African governments – starting with a pilot in Tanzania – get vital medicines and supplies the “last mile” to hard-to-reach communities. The innovative public-private partnership uses the Coca-Cola system’s distribution, supply chain and marketing expertise to help improve public health systems across Africa in a sustainable way.

“Our core focus is on capability building, and the transfer and sharing of intellectual property,” said Adrian Ristow, Project Last Mile director for The Coca-Cola Company. “In the same way we take our portfolio of products to within an ‘arms reach of desire’ in communities around the world, we’re sharing that expertise to take essential medicines, including HIV/AIDS medicines, closer to the community where they are needed most. We’re sharing the essence of our business model to help the public sector operate more efficiently.”

By learning from the Coca-Cola ecosystem – which includes local bottlers, company leaders, suppliers, agency partners and more – government agencies find ways to more efficiently distribute medicines and promote the availability of these supplies. For example, Coca-Cola worked with the Tanzanian government to redesign its distribution system, increasing the availability of medicines in medical clinics by up to 30 percent where an improved model was implemented. Now, medicines are distributed directly to more than 5,500 health facilities in a more efficient way.

Based on this initial success, Project Last Mile expanded to Ghana in 2013, and additional projects launched this year in Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa and Swaziland. In June 2014, the partners committed to investing more than $21 million to expand Project Last Mile to 10 total African countries by 2020. This expansion also includes the formal addition of The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to the coalition. Collaboration with Yale University’s Global Health Leadership Institute and the Global Environment & Technology Foundation (GETF) is also critical to the initiative’s success.

Each project is unique. For example, in Swaziland, Coca-Cola is working with The Global Fund and the local government to drive awareness of effective HIV treatment and prevention techniques. Project Last Mile is working with Mozambique’s Ministry of Health to revamp the country’s supply chain strategy, and in Nigeria, the collaboration focuses on improving uptime for refrigerated equipment used to house vaccines.

“Although we do not determine which medicines receive the focus of Project Last Mile, a significant portion of the support we provide is to ensure HIV treatment such as antiretrovirals get to places of need,” Ristow said. “The types of medicines we help distribute are determined by our donor partners and by the challenges our clients in the Ministries of Health are trying to address.”

In participating countries, Project Last Mile partners with local Coca-Cola bottlers to train government agencies responsible for medicine distribution on everything from supply logistics and route to market, to planning and procurement, to marketing communications. Project Last Mile also sets up coaching networks by pairing representatives from both sides with similar roles and responsibilities. Potential new models for medicine distribution are also benchmarked against local bottlers who deliver Coca-Cola products in those same geographic areas. 

“For example, in Tanzania, we set up a workstream where the senior demand planning manager at our local bottler became a mentor to the senior planner at the Medical Stores Department (MSD),” said Ristow, who’s based in South Africa. “The MDC planner was able to mirror our bottler demand planning processes,  leading to much more professional and accurate planning in their organization.”

Project Last Mile hires dedicated consultants – many of whom are retired or veteran Coca-Cola employees – to spend a 12 to 18 months, on average, facilitating the initial knowledge transfer between Coca-Cola and the local governments. They are responsible to facilitate knowledge transfer between the Coca-Cola System and the Government Agency being supported. They tap into volunteer networks from The Coca-Cola Company and its bottling partners, who provide part-time support in their area of expertise depending on the focus of the project. 

“This facilitation is vital”, Ristow said. “Because it’s one thing to demonstrate a best practice and another to help implement, customize and make the change sustainable.”

'In the same way we take our portfolio of products to within an ‘arms reach of desire’ in communities around the world, we’re sharing that expertise to take essential medicines, including HIV/AIDS medicines, closer to the community where they are needed most. We’re sharing the essence of our business model to help the public sector operate more efficiently.'

After a time period of initial training and benchmarking, where Project Last Mile provides dedicated project support, the local Coca-Cola bottler ensures the sustainability of the program by owning the relationship with the entity being supported.

“The passion we see from Coca-Cola associates in each of these countries… how embedded they are in the community… is incredible,” Ristow said. “Their collective willingness to share our business expertise to make a difference is something we’re very proud of.”

Ristow says Project Last Mile embraces the true essence of Golden Triangle (business, government and civil society) collaboration. “We have something to offer as a business… one of our greatest strengths is our reach," he said. "By sharing the very essence of what makes us successful to fight HIV/AIDS, we can make a significant contribution to Africa. We see tremendous opportunity in using business practices to make a greater dent in the fight against HIV/AIDS.”

But, Ristow insists, the power of Project Last Mile lies in the cumulative contributions of all partners.

“None of us could do this alone,” he concludes. “We give full credit to our partner organizations like the Global Fund, USAID and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for their tremendous work to raise funds and awareness to help deliver an AIDS-free generation. We’re simply building on their great work by ensuring medicines are available where they’re needed.