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Opinion

How social innovators design value chains

Bringing medicine where it’s needed, making coffee farmers the winners: Learn from Social Entrepreneurs how to design serving value chains

How can it be that you can have a bottle of Coca-Cola almost literally everywhere in the world, but life-saving medicine often fails to find its way along the “last mile”? This is a question serial social entrepreneur Simon Berry asked himself during his numerous assignments internationally. After letting this thought sink and mobilizing people around it, he and his partner Jane founded ColaLife with a first pilot in Zambia – and in strategic partnerships with UNICEF and Coca-Cola, as well as local partnerships with producers, wholesalers and retailers. 

The clue: Simon and his wife designed an innovative solution to fit diarrhea disease medicine kits in the Coca-Cola crates that were to be distributed in two remote trial areas in Zambia. More than 26,000 kits were sold in 12 months, and left the team being featured at the UN General Assembly as a Breakthrough Innovation for Child Health in 2013. Up to today, more than 1.2 million kits were sold following the guidelines to always offer an aspirational, affordable and profitable product. 

In the meantime, ColaLife has not only worked with the WHO to change standards for packaging and medicine combination to make the offer even more effective in the fight against diarrhea, but the small team also strategically works as a catalyst for organizations worldwide to build on their learning in the open-source ColaLife Playbook. What we can learn from them: The clear approach to put mission and impact growth first, to aim for systems change instead of growing their own organization. 

From Coca Cola to Coffee, the world’s second most traded good following oil: This is the turf of social entrepreneur Joseph Nkandu, who set out to redesigning value chains for this lovely good many of us enjoy too much of. Building Smart Networks and collaborative solutions from the bottom up is something he puts at the center of his endeavors. Within NUCAFE in Uganda, he pioneered a farmer ownership model that removes middlemen and increases the value farmers retain. 

While coffee production is one of the most lucrative agricultural industries in Uganda, the old model left farmers with less than five percent of the retail value – leaving many of them in poverty. That is what he set out to change – and did. The clue: Educating farmers and allowing them to produce goods of higher value and providing a facilitating structure that helps them to sell directly. Today, NUCAFE has a membership to 200 community farmer associations and cooperative enterprises including over 1.2 million smallholder coffee farmer entrepreneurs.

Two examples only from numerous around the world of entrepreneurs striving to eradicate social issues and create fair and sustainable futures for all. Which broken system do you want to fix? Which kind of value chains are you building along the way? Who else around you works in the field and what would the Smart Network look like you need? How can you think of growth in terms of growing a solution rather than growing an enterprise necessarily? 

Interested in more food for thought? Have a look at design principles you can learn from internationally leading social entrepreneurs that are “systemic and empowering”.

This social innovation insight is part of our series with the global network Ashoka – Innovators for the Public, through which we bring stories of social entrepreneurship and social innovation to you. Written by Laura Haverkamp, Partner at Ashoka Germany.