Karma Cola is a soft drink with a serious mission. For three years we've been buying cola from a village called Boma in the Gola Rainforest of Sierra Leone, where the nut originally comes from, and sending proceeds from the sale of every bottle straight back to the villagers to help them rebuild their lives in the wake of civil war.
Today these communities face another crisis – Ebola – and our support is even more important. So we’re stepping up trade and increasing our commitment to empower the people we rely on to supply us with cola for Karma Cola.
Beyond the need for immediate aid in times of crisis, the future of the people in the communities we work with depends on economic independence. We believe equitable trade is the best form of long-term aid on this journey to self-sufficiency.
Which begs the question.
How can a fizzy drink possibly help?
There are 1.9 billion cola soft drinks consumed every day around the world. Yet most people have no idea that the name ingredient comes from a place where people can’t afford to buy food, let alone soft drinks. What’s worse, those people don’t receive a cent from the sale of cola drinks.
Karma Cola began with a simple idea to acknowledge and reward the people who originally discovered the name ingredient of the world’s most popular soft drink.
We wanted to show fizzy drinkers where their cola originally came from and how they could support its sustainable cultivation and a sustainable economic future for the rainforest farmers who traditionally cultivate and harvest the crop. Appropriating the eastern idea of karma in a western way we thought the actions of consumers could benefit the lives of producers – what goes around comes around.
We would make a premium, refreshing, organic and Fairtrade drink from real cola and Fairtrade and organically certified ingredients. It would be the real, real thing.
This fit snuggly with the founding principles of our company; to create products with a conscience that are good for the people who grow the ingredients, good for the land and, in this case, as good for you as a fizzy drink can be. Hence our name; All Good.
We didn’t know that our journey would lead us to a village in the centre of the Gola rainforest of West Africa and introduce us to the people who live there who are passionate, creative and curious just like us.
A crazy idea.
When we first thought of Karma Cola our instinct was to look for Fairtrade certified cola nut. But there are no Fairtrade certified cola nut cooperatives. Why?
Cola is a food, a medicine and a symbol for friendship at the centre of West African life. It is used for health and wellbeing, ceremonies and rituals and for giving you a boost, like coffee.
But there is little demand for the nut beyond domestic use in West African communities. Big soft drink companies have long since substituted the ‘real thing’ with artificial alternatives like burnt sugar to create the cola colour and phosphoric acid to synthesise its bitterness and tang. Even if big soda were reliant on a supply of genuine cola, getting hold of it from countries like Sierra Leone, who face ongoing political turmoil, is tricky.
Small farmers in Sierra Leone who harvest crops like cola from the rainforest to supply a domestic market, have the odds stacked against them. They are at the mercy of traders who set their own price for goods. Their route to market is affected by bad roads, high costs of transport and, above all, an expectation to make payments to get their produce past check points. All of these things contribute to very low returns. And, after 10 years of civil war and political turmoil there are still basic amenities that need urgent attention, including the rehabilitation of roads, construction of bridges, culverts, schools, guesthouses, provision of safe drinking water and things as simple as toilets.
So we thought why not pay these farmers a really good price for their produce and help them get back on their feet. Then perhaps we’d be able to help them alleviate some of this hardship and build a sustainable future and we’d get some real cola.
From crazy to commercial reality.
Fortunately we were able to find partners who have long relationships with communities in the Tiwai region of Sierra Leone’s Gola Forest. The people in one of these villages; Boma, have supplied our cola since we began.
Boma and the other Tiwai communities are only just beginning to re-establish their livelihoods in the aftermath of civil war. We believe creating more demand internationally for cola nut and paying farmers a fair price for their crops, will help them them do just that and more. To make improvements to their farms and infrastructure, to improve their yields, rebuild their community to help turn their fortunes around.
Every bottle sold saves lives.
We also understand that good trade relationships can support mutual development, but at the moment the cola market price is so low it’s not yet sufficient to support the aspirations for further development (until we sell a hell of a lot more Karma Cola).
To help do that, in addition to paying a fair price for the cola nut, we established the Karma Cola Foundation so the farmers benefit directly from sales of the drink.
As well as the price paid for cola a few pence from the sale of every bottle of Karma Cola goes back to the people of Boma for sustainable farming and community projects.
Building more bridges
Since bottling our first batch in 2012, funding for the Foundation has reached $30,000 USD (£19,151). The people of Boma democratically decide what the money will be used for and the implementation of projects is assisted by our partners Welthungerhilfe and the African Agro Forestry Farmers Association.
The first project, the Makenneh Bridge, joins old and new Boma and ensures the safe transportation of people supplies.
The people of Boma have also decided to spend the funds to send 45 young children to school annually; to install a primary school teacher in a community run school; to build a rice-processing centre in order to ensure security of food supply and self sufficiency; to support an educational HIV/Aids theatre group, and to rehabilitate 25 acres of forest farm.
Our ongoing work and commitment to the people of Boma and Tiwai communities has been made even more critical in the advent of the devastating Ebola epidemic. We continue to focus our effort on supporting the community and helping them recover.
As well as continuing to support our existing projects we’re funding medical and hygiene supplies for the Ebola effort and a sensitisation work programme.
We may not be a major contributor to Sierra Leone’s GDP but we believe that trade is aid. Symbolically, trading is the best form of aid we can offer and it can develop to become reliable revenue supporting these communities. This is the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial partnership.
Our aim is to sell as many frivolous fizzy drinks as possible.
The more we sell. The more good we can do.