Good Karma

Abiding by its 'drink no evil' mantra, the Karma Cola Company transforms Sierra Leonean cola nuts into delicious and preservative-free soft-drinks, and gives the profits back to the villagers who harvest its ingredients.

Lucy Chesters spoke with co-founder Simon Coley about everything from cultural exchange in Sierra Leone to motorbike loans, and becoming local legends.
Published —
08.29.17
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Karma – the Buddhist and Hindu principle that the sum of an individual’s actions has a direct effect on their future fate, and perfectly reflected in the age old adage: ‘what goes around comes around’. This is also the mantra of the Karma Cola Company. Not normally a concept that is associated positively with global business, karma is the lifeblood and soul of the challenger soft drinks brand, which does good in the communities where it sources its produce.

Founded in New Zealand in 2012 by Simon Coley and brothers Chris and Matthew Morrison, the Karma Cola Company is a Fairtrade, organic drinks company that benefits the lives and communities of its growers and farmers in Sierra Leone.

Before starting the Karma Cola Company, the three founders shared a background in the drinks industry and had worked with Fairtrade imports. “We spent time importing Fairtrade bananas into New Zealand, which taught us a lot about supply chains, and how we could promote the benefits of the lives of the growers and the environment that they were growing in.” Coley says.

With experience under their belts, and on a quest to discover an item less perishable than bananas, they found themselves looking to West Africa – the home of the cola nut.

The cola nut is the core ingredient in the world’s most popular soft drink; with over 1.9 billion cola drinks consumed each day around the world – that’s over a million a minute. However, although the demand for the cola nut is high, the communities who harvest the cola nut see no return on their yield, despite their crop being at the heart of one of the world’s most infamously enigmatic recipes.

Realising that this needed to change, and discovering that there was no such thing as a Fairtrade cola nut, the three founders set out on their path to creating the Karma Cola Company, and its charity the Karma Cola Foundation, which is dedicated to helping the communities of Sierra Leone.

 

 

“We spoke to Albert Tucker, who had experience of running pioneering Fairtrade companies and who subsequently became the chairman of the Karma Cola Foundation,” says Coley. “He introduced us to a group of villagers in Sierra Leone who lived amongst the rainforest where the cola grows – and they very generously sent us a pack of cola nuts.”

Using the donated cola nuts, the trio went through around 60 recipe variations until they hit upon the authentic cola recipe that makes up their flagship soft drink. The next step was to send a batch of soft drinks to the Boma villagers, whose efforts had been instrumental in bringing Karma Cola to life.

“I think that they were perplexed,” Coley tells me. “We’ve almost become a part of the local mythology now; I was there a couple of weeks ago and the village storyteller was telling me about how they had sent away a packet of cola nuts and received these drinks in return – he went on to describe the benefits that the foundation’s funding had had on their community.”

The Karma Cola Foundation invests all of the proceeds from the sale of Karma Cola, back into the Boma and Tiwai communities where the cola nut is grown. The designation of the foundation’s funds is through a democratic process which asks the people of Sierra Leone what they need, and then turns their needs into a reality.

“We think that trade is the best form of support for the communities,” says Coley. “Rather than hand things out, we think about things in terms of giving the people a hand up.

“We have a simple rule around the funds that we can give back through the sale of our products – it needs to be spent on things that support the entire community and helps to create some form of future economic independence.”

Over the past 30 years, the west African country has been plagued by war, famine and disease. The ‘10 years war’ ripped through the communities of Sierra Leone, tearing apart families and decimating vital infrastructure in its wake. More recently, the country was devastated by the Ebola crisis which claimed over 11,000 Sierra Leonean lives, and saw the country placed in a state of quarantine, making the transportation of food and basic supplies virtually impossible – resulting in a nationwide famine.

“During the Ebola crisis, a group of three young women asked us for a loan to purchase some motorbikes. They wanted to travel to the larger markets outside of their community, to bring back urgent goods that they could sell,” says Coley.

 

 

“They became entrepreneurs; they started their transportation business which provided a much needed shop for their village, and they’re still going strong today. They’ve paid back their initial loan and now they’re running a self-sustaining business in its own right”

Since its inception in 2012, the Karma Cola Foundation has sent over 80 young women to school, and is currently researching how to continue this with bursaries for tertiary education. It paid for the construction of the Makenneh Bridge; joining old and new Boma and ensuring the safe transportation of people and supplies. It’s helped with food security in the region by funding a rice hut, meaning that rice growers can save on labour by harvesting rice that they can store. The foundation’s funds have set up a seed bank, which is a place to store and withdraw certain seeds, meaning the community can manage the seasonal fluctuation between seed availability.

“I guess the impact on the community is our reliable relationship; it’s really important for us to have a mutually beneficial, respectful relationship that isn’t just charity,” Coley explains.

“We think that education is really important. The biggest challenge in a community like this is that it’s natural for young people to farm, or to marry a farmer. There aren’t many other choices, so it’s really important for us to help broaden horizons. Not every kid in this village can become a farmer – these places grow and change, and to create any kind of independence then you need other types of professions and vocations; it’s all down to education.” he says.

As well as creating Karma Cola from the Sierra Leonean cola nut, more recently the Karma Cola Company has added a couple more strings to its bubbly beverage bow…

Lemony, the company’s organic Fairtrade lemonade uses lemons sourced in sunny Sicily, combined with cane sugar from the Suminter Organic Farmers Consortium in Maharashtra, India. And Gingerella, a feisty, flavoursome ginger ale which combines Fairtrade ginger found in the Sri Lankan rainforest, with Indian cane sugar and Sicilian lemons.

As with all of the Karma Cola Company’s soft drinks, trust and transparency are key. You’ll find no bleached sugars in its drinks, nor will you find any preservatives, phosphoric acid, high fructose corn syrup, caramel colouring or E numbers. With Karma Cola, what you see is what you get, and unlike other cola companies, the full list of ingredients are readily available online.

The Karma Cola Company speaks to today’s conscious consumers who care about what’s in their drinks; where the ingredients come from; and about the manufacturing process involved. The company wears its ethical badge with pride – its slogan direct and honest: ‘drink no evil’.

As Coley and his cofounders focus on the future of the company and where it can take them next; they are always drawn back to their roots in the villages where Karma Cola began.

“There’s much more that we can learn from the people of Sierra Leone. Their sense of pride after so much hardship is a real lesson to me.” Coley says.

“There’s a lot to learn from a community who don’t have electricity, who will rise in the morning when the sun comes up and look after each other – and have, not simplistic, but simpler lives perhaps to us, but a very strong community spirit and caring relationships for each other. The world can learn a lot from them.”