Spark of an Idea

Speaking to some of the world’s foremost business, political and academic thought leaders at the 2009 World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Muhtar Kent, CEO and Chairman of The Coca-Cola Company (TCCC) conveyed TCCC’s ongoing commitment to the United Nations Global Compact. After he spoke, one member of the audience, who had worked in the field of global health for years, wondered “if only we could utilize Coca-Cola’s distribution system to distribute pharmaceuticals.” Although he disagreed with the idea of putting pharmaceuticals on Coca-Cola’s trucks, the audience member thought that TCCC’s core competencies were the “best in the world.” How then, could TCCC use its core competencies to save lives?

This would hardly be the first, nor last time that such a question would be posed to TCCC. The global health community had long recognized that while a bottle of Coca-Cola could be found in some of the world’s most remote villages, life-saving drugs and medical supplies could not. Although TCCC had started exploring different ways to leverage its distribution networks to improve health, it was not until the 2009 WEF in Davos that a high-level conversation sparked a novel way to respond to the perennial question: if you can find Coca-Cola everywhere, then why not medicine?

Leaving the stage of the World Economic Forum, Muhtar Kent found himself listening to a pitch by Rajat Gupta, then chair of the board of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The Global Fund was seeking greater engagement from the private sector in its mission to treat and prevent AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. Thinking of how to best support The Global Fund’s efforts, Mr. Kent reached out to Bobby Shriver, who was well known for his innovative work to engage the private sector through (PRODUCT) RED. The circle of conversations continued to expand as Mr. Shriver reached out to Todd Summers, who then worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and also served on the board of The Global Fund. The question was simple: how can TCCC best help The Global Fund? Mr. Summers’ reply: supply chain management.

And so the seeds of an idea were planted. Within the following month, Mr. Kent invited Mr. Shriver, Mr. Summers, and a team of their colleagues to TCCC’s Atlanta headquarters to discuss the idea further. Given TCCC’s expertise in the area, it was agreed that supply chain management would be the focus of a new public-private partnership between TCCC, the Global Fund and the Gates Foundation. The challenge now was to translate this high-level idea into action.


At TEDxChange, Melinda Gates makes a provocative case for nonprofits taking a cue from corporations such as Coca-Cola, whose plugged-in, global network of marketers and distributors ensures that every remote village wants -- and can get -- a Coke. Why shouldn't this work for condoms, sanitation, and vaccinations too?

 Partners' Perspectives

I probably had just connected in my brain the dots between what the board of The Global Fund had been hearing at a fairly regular pace about challenges that countries were facing and the business side of managing the huge influx of resources… and we all have the sense that Coke has some expertise in this area.” Todd Summers, Gates Foundation