Instant karma: Simon Coley makes cola cool again

Karma Cola might just be the hippest brand to emerge from these shores in quite some time. Not only does the product look (and taste) great however, but the company’s putting their money where their mouths are in creating a business that has sustainability, social justice and fair trade right at the core of its philosophy.

Idealog sat down with All Good Organics co-founder Simon Coley to find out just what it takes to build a world-class brand without losing your soul. 

Idealog: What’s the Karma in your cola?

Simon Coley: The world drinks 1.9 billion coke drinks every day but the people behind the name ingredient have never earned a cent. So we decided to something about that. Every time someone buys a bottle of Karma Cola proceeds go back to the people who grow cola in Boma village, Sierra Leone.

Karma is the ethos behind the business – the more fizzy Karma Cola sells the more good we can do.

How did this idea become a reality?

Although we liked the name Karma Cola and the concept, when we started we didn’t know much about cola or the people who grew it. Our first challenge was to figure out how to get hold of some. We discovered it originated in the rainforests of West Africa. We were fortunate to be able to shoulder tap our friends in the Fairtrade community and we were introduced to Albert Tucker, a keen Fairtrade advocate and former director of Twin Trading, a pioneering Fairtrade company. Albert is a native of Sierra Leone and he was able to hook us up with Dr Hans Peter Mueller from NGO Welthungerhilfe, in Sierra Leone, who introduced us to the people in Boma who grow cola.

What sort of road was travelled to make the dream tangible?

When we first made contact with Dr Hans-Peter Muller, who is stationed in Bo in the Kenemah district of Sierra Leone, he thought we were mad but graciously introduced us to the elders of Boma village and sent us the first consignment of cola. Six months later when we sent him the first box of Karma Cola to show the people in the village, he was amazed. Six months after that, when they received money from the proceeds of the first years sales they couldn’t quite believe it.   

It’s a long way from New Zealand to the rainforests of West Africa. It takes a day and a night on two planes, a really bumpy boat ride across the harbour to Freetown, a couple of days in a four-wheel drive and a bit of a walk at the end to get to the village of Boma. But, it’s the most worthwhile trip I’ve ever made. When we caught the first glimpse of the celebrations in our honour I was overwhelmed. Everyone from the village was there, dressed up as devils and dancing and singing for us. The party carried on all afternoon and evening. They certainly know how to make you feel welcome in West Africa.  

Metaphorically it’s been a long and winding road as well. We’ve battled with biosecurity to try and get cola into New Zealand and been tested by people who prefer their cola cheaper, made of corn syrup and sold by the litre but we’re making progress and loving the journey.

Did you have to think differently/innovate?

When we first started trading with Boma it soon became apparent that the communities needed more than an income stream from cola nut. After a ten-year civil war everything was broken, what was needed was infrastructure, rehabilitation of roads and plantations, bridges, schools, and safe drinking water.

What the farmers told us they needed was a good, reliable and consistent price for their produce and some support to start their own development programmes. Then perhaps they could fix a few things and start to build a sustainable future. So that’s what we are endeavouring to do.

We officially set up the Karma Cola Foundation to make sure everything was legitimate. So on top of the price of cola, additional proceeds are fed into the Foundation for development initiatives. We call it Thirst AID.

We’ve had a lot of help along the way. The Karma Cola Foundation is headed by Albert Tucker, and Welthungerhilfe and the Agro Forestry Farmers Association help administer the funds. 

While dedicated to creating a sustainable future, the Foundation does not dictate the path for Boma.

‘Buy one, give one’ is popular right now but Karma Cola operate under the model of ‘buy one, give some’ - we don’t dictate the ‘what’. The village elders and chiefs decide what to use the funds for as they know what they need way more than we do.

What has the Karma Cola Foundation achieved?

Since bottling the first batch in 2012 the Foundation has sent, in small reliable increments, USD30,000 to the people of Boma.

The first project, the Makenneh Bridge, joined old and new Boma, ensuring the safe transportation of people and supplies.

The people of Boma also decided to spend funds sending 50 young girls to school annually, install a primary school teacher in a community school, support an educational HIV / AIDS theatre group, rehabilitate 12 forest farms, build a rice huller so villagers could develop an income, and develop a seed bank for future seasons.

Karma Cola may not be a major contributor to Sierra Leone’s GDP but trading is the best form of aid as it creates dependable revenue supporting communities. It’s the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial partnership.

Any key learnings?

Dealing with a remote community in West Africa who don’t have access to the Internet - even power is limited – has its challenges. However they teach us a lot. Like patience. And how wonderful the human spirit is especially during tough times.

But at the end of the day, doing good is all very well but it’s vital to connect with customers, and make them feel like they can be part of it too.

Transparency is very important to us. In everything we do. Having an open book policy with the Karma Cola Foundation is essential but also being transparent across all facets of the business from packaging to understanding every step of the supply chain to ingredients. We list everything that goes into our drinks. We have no secrets.

What does Karma Cola provide that other drinks/refreshments don’t?

Karma Cola and the rest of the drinks in our range are the real, real thing. They are made of authentic, organic and Fairtrade ingredients and a healthy helping of respect for everyone involved in their creation, all the way from farmers to the people who drink them. And even though they taste great I reckon this make them taste even better.

Any tips for others wanting to create a business for good?

1) WHY. First off, answer this question 'beyond making money, why are you in business?' In 10 years how will the planet, or people on it, benefit because from what you're doing?

2) WHAT. If you’re in business to change the world you need to stay in business - make sure your business idea addresses an emerging trend, an unmet need or does something no one else can do as well as you. 

3) SHARE. Great business, product and service ideas inspire people to share them. The urgent need to create ways of transforming materials and transacting in ways that repair some of the harm we’ve done to our planet is a story millions are willing to share. Make sure you tell yours in a way that allows them to do just that.

4) DIG. Investigate your supply chain and the impact you/your business will have all along the way. Understand the effect of every decision, from packing to employment to how you communicate, to people you partner with.

5) OPEN. Be prepared to show everyone every step of your business. Transparency is essential for trust.

6) WATCH. Find other brands or businesses doing what you want to do and do the opposite. If everyone is earnest, be witty. If everyone is trying to be PC, be shocking.

7) LISTEN. The people who buy your product or service will teach you more than any business school or list of tips from so called experts.