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How we put the karma in Karma Drinks: a guide to running a business that doesn’t suck

OPINION: When the world consumes two billion soft drinks every day, what would make anyone get into the business of adding another one to the mix?

If you’re going to make something new, like a soft drink, when we already have plenty, you’d better make sure it does more than just taste good. 

Social justice, environmentalism, and food politics are unusual ingredients, but that’s how Karma Drinks began. Chris Morrison and I were at a pow-wow trying to understand the impact of climate change and how we could do something about it.

We realised that if you’re concerned about the big issues, it helps to think about the small things you can do in your day-to-day that add up to make a positive impact.

This was the catalyst for our first combined foray into a sustainable business, All Good, where we sourced and produced ethical food and drinks. Not long after the company launched, we had another idea that became Karma Drinks.

The drinks business has long been one of the most competitive consumer goods categories. When we discovered the world drinks around 1.9 billion of the most famous brands of fizzy drinks daily, and that none of the revenue went back to the people who discovered the magical properties of the cola nut, we saw room for an alternative that did more than sell sweetly flavoured water for profit. The truth behind any fizzy label is only a taste test and a Google search away. 

We still have a long way to go to make a dent in that number: we sell about 30,000 Karma Drinks a day in a handful of countries. But we have created an authentic drink that makes a difference in the lives of growers in West Africa, helping protect the rainforest it comes from. Other Fairtrade and organic farmers behind our ingredients benefit, too. As do their land and the people that drink our drinks.

We know our approach is also good for business. If our drinks didn’t taste good and do good, people wouldn’t trust us. That’s why we established the Karma Cola Foundation, to deliver on our promises and support the people growing cola in Tiwai, Sierra Leone, West Africa.

It’s been going for over a decade enabling:

  • Education for 910 children over the last 10 years with bursaries for 150 girls to go to school per year.
  • 5 of them have graduated to higher education in Universities.
  • 10 teachers in 4 schools built and supported by the Karma Cola Foundation.
  • Support for 60 female Entrepreneurs in their businesses, with micro loans and training in literacy and governance.
  • 7 local communities road access by building 10 new bridges and 2 new roads.
  • 1 new truck for farmers to trade their goods further afield, more than doubling (sometimes tripling) their average income.
  • Clean drinking water to 7 villages by fixing and providing training on how to use and maintain their water pumps. 
  • Life changing health funds for 169 people in the last year alone. 

Quite a list, and a reminder of why we got into this in the first place. We’ve learnt a few things about running a business that’s trying to do things better. Here, I’ve boiled down the advice I’d give myself if I were to start again.

Read more: The growing world of B Corps


People aren’t always the most obvious place to start when developing your business idea, but if you don’t consider them carefully from the start, you won’t get far. Especially in a social enterprise.

The idea behind Karma Cola (and All Good) is to connect our products’ growers with the people who enjoy them. This unites us all with a common purpose – our farmers, customers, and employees. 

We’re all here to make sure our products are good for the farmers, the land and, with Karma Drinks, as good as non-alcoholic drinks can be.

One way to determine your impact is to ask how your enterprise will benefit the people (and planet) you’re doing it for in 10 years.


Our people and purpose are a package deal. This is what sets us apart from other soft drink companies. We believe if you make a drink, it shouldn’t just taste good, it needs to do good.

It helps when your purpose is your point of difference. If you’re in it to change the world, you need to stay in business. Ensure your business addresses an emerging trend, an unmet need, or something no one else can do as well as you. For example, we’re the only company that gives back to the people in Sierra Leone who discovered cola and still use it today.

The company DNA incorporates social and environmental innovations to deliver a long-term impact. We named our first drink Karma Cola, so we must ensure we deliver on that promise. What goes around comes around.


Having a great idea that benefits people, our planet and has a purpose is a good place to start, and it’s likely to encourage people to try your new venture. 

But if the quality or service doesn’t impress your customers, they won’t come back for more. And if the story behind the product doesn’t live up to expectations, they won’t tell their friends about the great stuff you’re doing.

In our case, the quality of our products and the integrity of our supply chain deliver a great customer experience. Let’s deep dive.

Investigate your supply chain and the impact your business will have along the way. Understand the effect of every decision, from packaging to employment and communication with your partners. Finding our partners in Sierra Leone took a lot of work, but it was worth it. 

Be prepared to show every step of your business to the world, because transparency is trust. Wherever we can make our products Fairtrade and organically certified, we do, and we’ve established the Karma Cola Foundation to support farmers in West Africa. That all means our customers can trust us to do what we say.

More recently, our B-Corp certification has proven an excellent external framework for measuring the standards we hold ourselves accountable to. 


You have to get noticed for your idea to take off. Encourage people who appreciate your product or service to get involved and tell their friends. This type of marketing is often just good old-fashioned storytelling.

Capturing imaginations helps to explain your purpose and promote your product. We do a lot of this visually. Our packaging and the imagery we create engages our customers, helping make things fresh and eye-catching. West Africa is a long way from New Zealand, but we connect our customers to our growers with our stories.

People love to share inspiring businesses, products and services. The current and urgent need to transform materials and repair some of the harm we’ve done to our planet is a story millions are willing to shout about. Make sure you tell yours in a way that allows them to do just that.

On the flip side, listen to your customers. The people who buy your product or service will teach you more than any business school (or list of tips like this one).


We are a for-profit company. Many social enterprises are charities or NGOs, but we believe proper trade is the best aid when you make something that relies on high-quality ingredients grown in developing nations. We want to create economic independence, not an expectation of charity. 

Sales and profitability are our scorecard. Money from every Karma Drink goes back to the farmers who grow our cola and other Fairtrade and organic ingredients.

The more drinks we sell, the more good we can do.

Finally, the best advice I ever got was to start. It’s not easy but the best lessons and motivation comes from doing the work and seeing the difference you make, and that’s what keeps you going.

Simon Coley is the Co-founder of Karma Drinks.

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