Cola Doing Good
Chatting with Fairtrade and organic Karma Cola co-founder Simon Coley about how the brand works with their cola bean famers in Sierra Leone as well as breaking into the soft drinks market
1. What inspired you to develop Karma Cola?
Chris, my friend and co-founder, had made an awesome organic cola in a previous life with his pioneering organic drinks company Phoenix Organics and I’d been interested in designing products that could make a difference. Chris’s brother Matt shared our enthusiasm and gave up his day job at New Zealand’s Treasury Department to use his MBA and previous experience in the NZ Army to do some good, joining us to keep our finances in shape.
At around the same time we were at a climate change conference that got us thinking about how we could do business differently. Seeing the growing movement of conscious consumers who would come on our journey we formed a company called All Good offering organic, sustainable and ethical goods, starting with bananas we imported from Samoa. Karma Cola came out of this, a product that would represent a virtuous circle between growers and consumers.
We’d discovered the astounding fact that 1.8 billion cola branded drinks are consumed around the world every day – that’s over a million a minute – but the farmers who grow the name ingredient in the world’s most popular soft drink have never received a penny. We wanted to do something about that – to create a drink that not only tastes good, but is good for the land, good for the people who grow the ingredient and as good for you as a fizzy drink can be.
2. What has been the biggest barrier to entry in an already crowded marketplace – how have you overcome this?
Our challenge is to have a voice that can be heard in a market that has some very loud players.
Our story, the taste of our drinks and being clever about the way we get people involved in this is key. We have a few drinks we hope appeal to the tastebuds and minds of conscious consumers. Currently there is a lot of talk about sugar in the media so it’s a great time to be offering our all-natural Sugar Free version of the original Karma Cola.
3. How do you convince retailers/bars to stock Karma cola when you are competing in a market place with some of the biggest brands in the world?
Firstly the taste.
Secondly our story; cola with actual cola nut in it that supports the people who grow it. And thirdly we know that sellers interested in Karma Cola know their customers want an ethical, great tasting alternative to mass market brands.
Ultimately knowing that by buying Karma Cola, Gingerella Ginger Ale or Lemony Lemonade, you’re doing good because other people are benefitting seals the deal.
When it all comes together it makes a pretty compelling argument.
4. Who have been the biggest supporters of your brand?
In the UK there are something like 2,000 artisan bars, cafés, restaurants and shops who have similar values to us, and their clientele.
This includes a few partners who have been with us since we started like Monocle, Honest Burgers and national retailers such as Waitrose, Ocado, Whole Foods, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and As Nature Intended. We recently launched Sugar Free Karma Cola nationally in Jamie’s Italian, and have created a Chilli Karma Cola exclusively for Wahaca.
5. How did you identify Sierra Leone as a source of your raw materials?
We reached out to our friends in the Fairtrade movement. One introduction led to another until we met Albert Tucker who helped us find our first cola nuts in Sierra Leone. Albert is now the Chair of our Karma Cola Foundation.
For centuries, the cola nut has been a vital part of West African daily life. There is a saying there; “he who brings cola, brings life.” Cola is consumed during religious rites and ceremonies, to welcome guests, as a symbol of friendship, seal an agreement and to celebrate a marriage or reconciliation.
When friends get together they split the cola, taking a nut and dividing it in half to share. It contains natural caffeine, and is apparently good for giving ‘manpower’, and helping cure asthma. Learning these stories and discovering the good we could do in partnership with these communities made the choice for us.
6. What aspect of sustainability is most important to your business (people/environmental/wildlife/waste/food miles)?
In a world where the truth is a few words typed into a search engine away, if you write the word ‘Karma’ on your product you have to consider the impact of all of the above.
In our world part of the proceeds from the sale of every bottle of Karma Cola we sell goes back to the people in eight villages in the Tiwai region of Sierra Leone where the cola comes from. We’ve set up the Karma Cola Foundation to work with these people and to manage and continue to figure out the best use of that money.
In the first year we built a bridge to connect the first village we worked with, Boma, in the rainy season. Now we’re helping 75 young girls in eight villages go to school. We’ve helped through the ebola epidemic, enabled micro-loans to encourage entrepreneurship, promoted protection of wildlife and rainforest productive gardens, built infrastructure and continue to try and develop sustainable incomes these communities.
The people in these villages are genuinely grateful for the support we’re able to provide by buying their cola nut and understand that we’re endeavouring to encourage a commercial relationship with mutual benefit as much as we are being altruistic.
7. Tell us more about your fair-trade credentials – how do you ensure that the support you provide communities gets to the people who need it most?
Fairtrade makes a huge difference to the lives of small farmers and their families in developing communities around the world by making sure they get a fair price for their produce.
Requiring a very strict set of standards that cooperatives must work to, Fairtrade certification covers everything from workers’ wages and conditions to human rights standards, healthcare and child labour. This is an independent certification that is audited each year to make sure producers and purveyors of Fairtrade produce and products are on track.
What many people don’t know, is that Fairtrade also have a pretty robust set of environmental standards that growers need to adhere to, using organic fertilizer, limited use of chemicals (around 120 chemicals are banned for use under Fairtrade standards) and sustainable farming techniques where possible to protect the environment and integrity of their crop.
We set up our Karma Cola Foundation because we couldn’t find a Fairtrade certified ingredient; cola, and we’ve tried to apply the principles we’ve learnt from Fairtrade to our own organisation. Wherever we can we use Fairtrade and organic certified ingredients in all our products.
8. How do you define “the fairest fair trade brand”?
Since bottling our first batch of Karma Cola in 2012 we’ve sent back proceeds from every bottle sold to the people in the villages we work with in Sierra Leone and developed a mutually beneficial trading relationship.
It’s probably the effort we’ve taken beyond the basic requirement for Fairtrade certification that led to Karma Cola being named the Fairest Trader by Fairtrade International in June 2014.
9. What do you think the impact of Cadbury’s dropping the ‘Fairtrade’ certification will be?
Perhaps organisations like Sainsbury’s and Cadbury see the accumulating value of the small premium they pay Fairtrade and think they could use this to better effect or even reduce it.
Or, perhaps they just don’t want to pay as much to answer the growing consumer demand for ethically sourced products. Maybe they think Fairtrade has done its job now consumers, producers, manufacturers and sellers are more involved in creating and supporting the Fairtrade process.
If they intend to have greater control over Fairtrade or similar standards, then the consequence would be a private label, independent of the widely adopted practices that have enabled the Fairtrade movement to be such an effective agent of change. But without a recognisable third party certification and scrutiny, who will hold them accountable?
10. What’s the future of Fairtrade?
With so many companies competing to establish social, environmental and ethical credentials, it’s imperative our customers have a recognisable, agnostic and ethical label with a reputation they can believe. We choose Fairtrade for these reasons.
The Fairtrade movement as we know it today was developed by religious groups and non-governmental organisations soon after World War II. It has made a massive difference to the lives of millions. The label enables people to make decisions based on good conscience.
Abandoning the Fairtrade licensing initiative and the organisation that made this possible puts these principles and standards into question.
Perhaps not challenging and upgrading standards and ways of working with diverse supply chains or making the Fairtrade system more efficient is the reason The Fairtrade Labelling Organisation’s licensing partners are looking for alternative ways to achieve a different kind of deal for producers in developing nations.
Like any other far reaching organisation the Fairtrade movement is challenged to respond to the opportunities of an accelerating world where producers, manufacturers, brands and consumers are more connected than ever.
Enquiries: Karma Cola, karmacola