During a February 2008 visit to Atlanta, Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza commended MedShare International for its plans to send 40-foot shipping containers filled with medical equipment to his country.

A metro Atlanta-based charity that sends surplus medical supplies to hospitals in developing countries ended 2008 having partnered with three new countries and opened an office on the West Coast.

MedShare International bridges the U.S.’s health care abundance with the dire need for medical supplies and expertise in poorer countries.

Many foreign dignitaries – including the presidents of Burundi, Cameroon, Liberia and Mali – have come to Atlanta to recognize MedShare’s assistance. 

The charity has also worked closely with Atlanta-based global companies like Coca-Cola Co., law firm King & Spalding LLP and others.  The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation gave the largest donation in the charity’s 10-year history, a $400,000 grant.

MedShare now has 34 partner hospitals that regularly donate materials that might be unneeded in the U.S. but would still be useful in the developing world.

On Oct. 16, MedShare set up an office near San Francisco to gather even more equipment from the “huge numbers” of hospitals in the area, said Nell Diallo, the organization’s executive director of corporate and international development.

The process by which these supplies reach foreign physicians, though, requires a lot of manpower and a good bit of cash. 

Here’s how it works: MedShare gathers supplies at its warehouse in Decatur, a suburb east of Atlanta, and uses its worldwide connections to find qualified non-profit hospitals.

Volunteers sort supplies that full-time workers enter into a searchable database, where hospitals can put in requests for what they need.

Once an order is finalized, MedShare works with companies, organizations, churches, recipient organizations and individual benefactors to raise the money needed to send 40-foot shipping containers to the hospitals.

It’s almost too good to be true for many of the countries, said Ms. Diallo, who brought the African heads of state to Atlanta using ties formed during 18 years living and working in diplomatic circles in Burkina Faso and other countries on the continent.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo president “did not believe MedShare was real.  He didn’t believe all this stuff was available and that it could be shipped out, so I invited him to send a delegation,” she said.

He obliged.  Since those first talks, at least five delegations from the country have come to Atlanta.  The most recent one returned to the Congo last week.

Now, the government has funded 18 containers, and Ms. Diallo is trying to extend that model to other countries. 

Shipping a container to western Africa costs MedShare about $22,000 apiece, and it’s about $2,000 less for those going to Latin America and the Caribbean, Ms. Diallo said.

Most of that money – some $16,000 – goes to cover overhead costs.

The rest pays for the actual shipping charges.  MedShare ships containers out of the Port of Savannah or other ocean ports around the Southeast.  The port selected depends on the freight forwarders used and the container’s final destination, Ms. Diallo said.

MedShare conservatively estimates the market value of each container’s contents at $150,000, but that’s probably only about half of what it’s really worth, Ms. Diallo said.

In 2008, MedShare shipped out 79 containers, one more than in 2007 and two more than in 2006 despite a struggling economy and high gas prices.

“We saw a 50 percent spike in shipping costs during the summer of 2008 due to the rise in oil prices,” said Holly Frew, the organization’s public relations director.

And the higher costs caused the need for greater donations.

“When the gas prices went up, we had to adjust by raising more funds or ask the receiving sponsorship organization to provide more funds,” Ms. Diallo said.

Still, Ms. Frew said MedShare added three new countries to its list of destinations this year: Burundi, a small central African nation that borders Rwanda and Tanzania; Swaziland, a landlocked nation on the border between Mozambique and South Africa; and Namibia, a large but sparsely populated country on the continent’s southwestern coast.

The packing list for the Burundi shipment contained more than 300 sets of items that weighed a total of more than six tons.  The container cost $20,300 to ship.  It held mattresses, beds, syringes, dental tray covers, crutches, sponges, gloves, carts, gowns, incubators, laryngoscopes, infectious waste bags and more.

The Burundi shipment fulfilled a high-level commitment.  The country’s president came to Atlanta in February to thank MedShare in advance.

We thank you very much for the gift you are planning to give to our country,” said President Pierre Nkurunziza at the time, adding that it would augment his work to lower Burundi’s high infant mortality rate and provide access to free health care for young children in rural areas.

The container started its journey toward the capital city, Bujumbura, on Sept. 10.

But MedShare hasn’t been idle since then.

In November, it started a new project with Atlanta-based law firm King & Spalding. 

The firm produced cookbooks called “So Sous Me,” featuring 450 recipes submitted by its employees throughout the world. 

King & Spalding has five offices in Europe and the Middle East.

Together, the law firm and MedShare have sold about a third of the 3,000 copies printed.

Proceeds will fund shipments of supplies to Liberia, a western African country where the firm has done a lot of pro bono legal work, Ms. Diallo said.

MedShare has donated more than $50 million worth of supplies to non-profit hospitals since its founding a decade ago, according to the organization’s Web site.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...