By Michael Wakabi
Working with communities in western Uganda, field staff employed by milk processor Pearl Dairy, the makers of the Lato brand of dairy products, often came face to face with touching instances of childhood disability. Disability was most prevalent among borderline populations that live below or just above the poverty line.
“When we looked at the official numbers, we were actually shocked by the burden of disability on a national scale,” recalls Mrs Drashna Kotecha, a member of the LATO Help Project Governance Committee.
For instance, a study that was conducted by the World Health Organisation found that more than 1.4 million children in Uganda were living with disability and while they all needed corrective surgery, none could afford it because of their social status.
“That is how we began thinking about putting together a partnership which, through pooling of resources, could create a pathway to corrective surgery for some of the most deserving cases,” Kotecha recalls.
After identifying the key project functions, Pearl Dairy was able to define the external partnerships that would be necessary to deliver the major objectives. The idea was to channel a portion of the proceeds from the sales of Lato milk to the project however, that would only solve part of the problem.
“We needed external support ranging from the product to the sales channels. You also had to think through the hospital that would perform the surgeries, the media partners who would provide the publicity, the packaging partners and the various specialised institutions that needed to buy into the initiative,” adds Kotecha.
Global food processing and packaging solutions company, Tetra Pak came on board, offering a free of cost, specially designed pouch to distinguish the products whose proceeds would support the initiative while ten retail partners including Shoprite, Tuskys, Quality, Master, Fraine, and Millennium Supermarkets agreed to stock and sell the pouches dubbed ‘Lato Red’ at zero margin.
UMC Victoria Hospital waived all professional and bed fees for the surgeries and post-operative care.
“The costs involved in corrective surgery can be prohibitive because as much as 40% of the cost of treatment can go to just one item – expert fees. Then there are the bed costs and the consumables, all which can rack up to a bill beyond the reach of even middle-class Ugandans,” says Dr Edrin Jjuuko, the Chief Medical Officer at UMC Victoria Hospital.
The hospital began by looking at what it could give on its own. Since the consultants were already employed by the facility, their fees were taken out of the billing. Bedside costs were also removed, leaving only the consumables.
“The consumables such as specialised drugs and other inputs to treatment can be expensive but once sponsors for that component were identified, then corrective surgery could be brought within the reach of those that needed it but could not afford it,” Jjuuko explains.
The project hit the market in October 2018, when Pearl Dairy launched the ‘Lato Help Project’ pouches as a separate product line whose proceeds net of taxes are remitted by retailers direct into a charity account that has been set up for the purpose. An independent governance board monitors and controls the proceeds as well as selection of beneficiaries.
The product is presented in a pouch that features a distinct red colouring and a unique barcode. The pouches bear information about the social objectives associated with the project and are left to make an independent decision to buy or not to buy.
So far, proceeds from the project have facilitated corrective surgery for 28 children. The cohort of 28 was selected from screenings of 250 children from camps conducted in different parts of Uganda.
“Corrective surgery is fundamentally liberating in two senses,” says Dr. Jjuuko.
“Restoring the physical functionality of the individual allows them to live a normal life and to bring their personal dreams within reach. More fundamentally however, it also frees the trapped productivity of those whose time would otherwise be dedicated to their care.”