Health is wealth. Who could forget that fun old saying? Yes it’s about the painstaking choices we make day in, day out about what goes into our bodies – 37 calorie quinoa brownie anyone? But health also extends to what we buy, why we buy and how well we feel when opening our wallets. It was that quest for wellness that drove Simon Coley and partners to bring ethical, organic cola to the masses. Karma Cola not only contains no evil, it does no evil- the good stuff is ethically sourced and gives back to the farmers in all kinds of ways. Proving once and for all that you can take on some of the world’s biggest players and do it in a way that’s better for everyone. I’ll drink to that. MC, editor
Tell us what led you to entrepreneurship.
Chris, my business partner, had made an awesome organic cola in a previous life as founder of Phoenix Organics and I’d been interested in designing products that could make a difference. We joined up with Chris’s brother Matt, who takes care of the finances. We were at a climate change conference that got us thinking about how we could do business differently. We had a hunch that there was a growing cohort of conscious consumers that would come on our journey with us. We formed a company called All Good, offering organic and ethical goods that would be good for the land, good for the growers and good for the people who bought them. Karma Cola came out of that, a product that represented that circle of virtue.
Would you say entrepreneurship came naturally to you or is it something you’ve had to work at?
I’ve definitely had to work at it. Being creative is in my DNA, but you can’t build a business on creativity alone. I also think it’s really important to understand the things you’re not good at, and then surround yourself with people who are.
I’m constantly learning new skills, especially when working across different timezones. Naively I also thought it would be easy to run a business like this over the Internet, but not when you’re working in West Africa! I quite enjoy the challenges though.
Was there ever a Plan B?
Karma Cola is our Plan B! When we started, we were the first company to import Fairtrade bananas to New Zealand under the company name All Good Organics. All Good is still going strong, but we learned a lot – not least that bananas are perishable.
But by looking around for similar ideas, we stumbled across the fact that nearly 2 billion branded cola drinks are drunk every day globally. That’s over a million a minute. So we wanted to go back to its roots and find out where cola actually came from and, a bit like our banana business, if we could redress the balance and make an ethical version that the growers could benefit from.
Who or what do you turn to for inspiration?
The communities we work with in Sierra Leone. I’ve learned so much from people there – they have such resilience and a strong community spirit. People like Chief Khadi Bao, who is the female chief of Boma, is an incredible woman. She knows exactly what she wants to achieve during her time as chief. And I quite like the responsibility we now have to these people – we’re in it for the long haul and are an inherent part of their journey.
People tend to avoid the ‘F’ word (failure), yet without it success wouldn’t exist. What are some of your most memorable setbacks since starting Karma Cola and what did they teach you?
Going up against one of the biggest brands in the world was always going to be challenging. They’ve spent millions to establish themselves in every home in every country across the world.
In New Zealand we’re relatively well established and people had heard of our previous company. But when we launched in the UK, no-one knew who we were and bigger brands had such a stronghold in the market. We underestimated how long it would take to convert leads and get meetings with key people.
But we realised pretty quickly that we were never going to gain any recognition if we just did the expected. So we’ve tried to make our drinks look arresting – and we’ve gone through many design iterations to get where we are now. We know the journey of discovery follows a pattern. Firstly people pick up our drinks because they look good. Then they taste them and, because we’ve sourced the best Fairtrade and organic ingredients from around the world, they taste great, and finally we feel we’ve earned the right to tell them a bit about our story.
You’ve said that you don’t have a secret recipe, that you make it very obvious to people. Would you say that transparency has been the secret to your success, your longevity?
We have a real purpose behind our drinks. Simply by buying a bottle of Karma Cola you’re helping communities in Sierra Leone, because 3p from every bottle sold goes back to the Karma Cola Foundation. Other companies that sell soft drinks are notoriously secretive about their recipes and ingredients, but we feel it’s important to be totally transparent about what we use in our recipes. Everything is recognisable, sourced ethically and you will have tried it before – whether it’s vanilla, cola nut or the ginger in Gingerella. We strongly believe that everyone has the right to know what they’re putting in their mouth.
What would you say is the biggest impact you’ve personally seen Karma Cola make since you started?
Visiting the village of Boma, on the edge of the Gola rainforest in Sierra Leone, you can see what’s been achieved through the Karma Cola Foundation. We’re welcomed by dancers, drumming and the entire village who harvest our cola nuts. We’re shown the Makennah Bridge which was the first thing they built with our support to ensure the people could cross the village in the rainy season. We’ve paid for children to go to school, funded teachers, built a rice processing plant and helped set women up in business. All from the sale of a fizzy drink.
How did you come up with the #drinknoevil tagline?
It started as a play on ‘see no evil, hear no evil’, Google’s former ‘do no evil’ mission etc. and then became a way we could unite all the odd personalities in our range of drinks to include Karma Cola, Gingerella Ginger Ale and Lemony Lemonade under the same banner.
They’re all produced using responsibly sourced ingredients. Soft drinks aren’t essential – for hydration you can’t do better than water – but if you do fancy a fizzy drink, make it a good one. One that contains organic and Fairtrade ingredients, and ideally one where someone else benefits.
Years from now, looking back at Karma Cola, what would you have hoped to achieve?
Apart from global domination it would be good if the work of the Karma Cola Foundation could reach even further to ensure more farmers and families were supported through the sale of our drinks.
“I never just did what people told me. I questioned everything.” – Jessica Alba. What advice would you give to an aspiring entrepreneur or changemaker about finding and following their path?
Firstly, your values define you, so keep them top of mind. Secondly, find and work with people who share your values. And finally, it takes a long time to be an overnight success, so just get started and don’t stop.
Quench your taste buds with Karma Cola’s Sugar Free & Natural variety, out now.
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