Seeking to improve opportunities and livelihoods for small-scale producers across the world, fair trade is a global movement that provides farmers with better wages and decent working conditions. Following their success with fair trade bananas, All Good Organics launched fair trade beverage company Karma Cola and the Karma Cola Foundation. Karma Cola contains kola nuts, which hold an economic and cultural importance for the communities that produce them. A portion of each individual Karma Cola sale is given back to Boma, Sierra Leone, the village where Karma Cola sources its nuts. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng and Joy Mwaniki reached out to Albert Tucker, head of the Karma Cola Foundation, to find out more about the fair trade brand and its role in community development in Sierra Leone.

All Good is known for selling fair trade bananas. How did you decide to venture into the soft drink business? 

All Good is an organic, fair trade company founded by three New Zealanders, who were very interested in environmental fair trade production. Chris Morrison, Simon Coley, and Matt Morrison decided they wanted to do something in the fair trade and organic space, so they went into bananas. With that experience, they decided they wanted to do something around the fizzy drink area by trying to make that more organic and fair trade. They were also very interested in very good natural ingredients.

I happened to be going to Sierra Leone when, through mutual colleagues, they contacted me. I connected with a German NGO working in Sierra Leone, Welthungerhilfe, and a local NGO, AFFA, who were working with a group of villages in Sierra Leone who produce kola nuts. We sourced those nuts, sent them back to the guys in New Zealand, who then created the most amazing drink. If you look at the branding of the kola drink, it combines the Maori spirit with the Mami Wata spirit from the West African side.

The thing with the kola nut is that, in Africa, it is symbolic. As Chinua Achebe wrote, “he who brings kola, brings life.” When you have special occasions like funerals, christenings, weddings, or when you make peace, you break kola nuts.

Across the world, two billion cola drinks are drunk everyday. Nearly all of them don’t use natural kola nuts—they use artificial flavors. We would like to see the people who produce the kola nut actually earn a living from those two billion colas. We are trying to make an example out of this that you really should go back to the natural products and the very kola that gave the cola its name.

Why have most soft drink companies opted for synthetic syrups rather than using the kola nut? 

Well, I think that you’d have to ask them that [Laughs], but I think that it’s easier for them, of course, to just manufacture their own synthetic flavoring. They keep their recipes secret, so I can’t tell you exactly what they have in it, but we know that they don’t purchase or source kola nuts for their production any more.

Because of our commitment to natural products, we published a booklet called “Drink No Evil,” where we give you everything that’s in our drinks. We have organic cane sugar, natural organic lemon juice, organic vanilla, nutmeg oil, coriander oil, cinnamon oil, organic barley, lemon oil, lime oil, orange oil, and citrus oil. Literally that’s all there is in it [Laughs]. We think that drink is as good as it gets.

At what point did you decide to start the Karma Cola Foundation?

When we realized there were no fair trade kola nuts available, we sourced directly from the village. We created a foundation to support the producers. There were eight communities in Sierra Leone based in a very environmentally important island called Tiwai Island. There’s now a small tourism project where people can go and visit the island.

Those communities started working together to develop themselves after the war. We structured it in such a way that we talk to the villages and we visited them in the first year of production.

We have three criteria for the foundation: the structural support, supporting education, and support in building livelihoods. Then again, we’re a small company so we’re not going to make huge claims. But we’re working and hoping that we make the difference that people in most communities want. In that first year, Boma Village said they wanted a bridge to connect the village. During the rainy season, one of the tributaries on the river floods and the village is divided in two, so the bridge would connect the village, which is very symbolic. In the first year, because girls tend to not be sent to school, they also wanted a bursary for girls to go to school. We created a bursary fund; as of now, fifty girls have gone to school through the bursary.

They also wanted us to help rehabilitate some farms so we helped pay for brushing and clearing of farms which they have continued doing from their own resources. Since then, they wanted us to help build a rice huller so it would make it cheaper for them to mill their rice and could add income from milling rice from other villages.

Image Source: Karma Cola

Image Source: Karma Cola

Where does the kola nut grow in Africa? Why did you decide to source kola nuts from Sierra Leone?

Kola Trader Image Source: Karma Cola

Kola Trader
Image Source: Karma Cola

West Africa. I grew up with the kola nut. As a child, if I was a little unwell, I would chew kola nuts. The Fula traders who would trade up in the Sahara areas, Mali, Senegal, and Guinea, used to take a lot of kola, which gave them energy and helped them go for long periods without having to eat, so they would chew the kola all the time.

One of the village leaders told me a story of the kola nut. When the kola nut begins to grow, it’s sweet, and when it ripens, it becomes bittersweet. So, he told me that the kola nut was a gift from Allah to Mohammed. When the nut arrived, Mohammed wasn’t in, so the nut in waiting, turned bitter. So he said to me, “If God sends you a gift, better make sure you’re there to receive it.” The kola nut is seen to be a gift from God in some communities.

How was your business impacted by the Ebola crisis?

We’re a small business, but we’re doing our bit. I think people should continue trying to do business with Sierra Leone, which is what we tried to do through the Ebola epidemic. We sourced more kola nuts from the village, because, as you know, the Ebola didn’t affect the crops, but it did affect the people very badly. We also continued supporting the village. So, for us, it didn’t affect us negatively, and the communities were very certain that they didn’t want things to stop. But, it was very difficult in an environment where people couldn’t move around. We supported development through such things as seed banks, so that they could develop themselves, and training for Ebola prevention. Sierra Leone will have to rebuild and we can continue supporting in any small way we can.

How much money do farmers derive from each sale of a Karma Cola bottle? 

Well, at the moment, it’s something like six cents per bottle go towards the Foundation. We agree on a budget with the communities and they look up programs to implement every year. They make proposals and decisions on what support they want. Fair trade is our basic approach, so we pay where we can. But in future, we want the Foundation to give in more value to those communities we trade with, and that’s what we’re looking at. But, really, in this first instance, because the kola was not a fair trade product, we try to support development in those communities through the Foundation.

Image Source: Karma Cola

Image Source: Karma Cola

Did you have any difficulties entering the saturated beverage market? 

[Laughs] Well, you know, this is the most competitive market in the world, the soda market. It was very difficult, but what we were lucky with is that the founders Simon, Chris, and Matt, started building the company in New Zealand where they, too, have a very strong independent café market and independent retailers like Whole Foods, and so on. They found that the drinks were very popular with those retailers.

Here, in the UK, we launched at the London Coffee Festival and targeted the same community of independent shops and cafés that were interested in organic and retail, who liked our branding and the flavors of the drinks. We’ve just recently now started in Waitrose, so we’re interested in that proposition.

We make the Karma Cola, the kola drink. We also have two other drinks: ginger-ale, called Gingerella which is a very feisty, ginger red-headed woman in the branding. She is a champion for red-heads and for independent women. Then, we have Lemony, which is the more light-hearted character, it’s a whistling lemon. It is a challenge for us but we think there’s space in the market for a brand like us. We’ve won the Great Taste Awards for our drinks as well as a Fairtrade Awards as the Fairest Trader of 2014. The drinks are very softly carbonated, so they’re good for children and good to drink on their own. I am told that they also go well with alcohol [Laughs], so we’re very proud of the three drinks. As we grow, we’ve also got some other ideas for drinks coming up.

karma cola ayiba

Gingerella, Karma Cola and Lemmy Image Source: Karma Cola

In which countries are you currently operating?

Unfortunately, we are in about ten countries in very small ways, but we’re not yet in Africa. So, I have ambitions on that front, particularly for high income cities like Nairobi and Accra and places like that. I and my colleagues very much have that in mind, as we grow strong enough to engage in the African market, I would certainly love for it to be in Sierra Leone as well. It is on our agenda, but I don’t know how soon we can manage that. We need to strengthen our position in the market at the moment.

Are you currently selling in the US? 

No, it’s been taken to the US in the past, and we’re looking at the US markets, though we’re not currently there yet. We’re looking at it. We’ve had some very good reviews from the US where people have tasted the drinks, and they are very positive.