INTERVIEW: Founder of Karma Cola Simon Coley

What if I told you that everything you knew about cola was about to change? Of course, when I say cola, I’m not talking about the billion dollar company synonymous with the colours red and white. I’m talking about the little company. The little company that does good on a massive scale and happens to make fizzy drinks.

I’m betting that if you’re reading this you’ve probably drunk a can or bottle of cola in your lifetime but how many of you actually know where cola comes from, who makes it and what kind of impact fizzy pop has on the planet? I caught up with Simon, creative, campaigner and Founder of Karma Cola to talk cola nuts, illustration, giving back and flavour sensations…

What is Karma Cola?

Basically, it’s a company that’s aiming to redirecting the world’s love of cola. Fizzy drinks aren’t an essential but if you’re going to drink something you may as well understand where the ingredients come from and try to have some positive impact. If you’re going to spend your hard-earned money on a soft drink, why not benefit from that and have others benefit too?

The thing that I always find quite surprising is there is an enormous amount of carbonated soft drinks consumed in the world every day, of which 1.8 billion use the word ‘cola’. They may not necessarily be a cola but they’ve got the cola branding. It seems like a hell of a lot of something we don’t really need. So we thought that maybe we could redirect just a little bit of that into something altruistic.

What were you upto before Karma Cola? What’s your background?

We began importing Bananas back in New Zealand. I met my two business partners, two brothers called Chris and Matt Morrison, on the west coast of New Zealand. We’d worked with drinks before and we were wondering what to do next. We thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could do something that made a difference? Chris had been surfing in Samoa and found that there was so much great organic produce there. We decided to start selling bananas but we had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for…

I’d always thought that if you showed that produce in New Zealand came from island neighbours and that it was organic, good for the land, good for you and good for the people that grew it, of course people would buy it. We called the company ‘All Good’, got these bananas to New Zealand and then… they didn’t sell. They were smaller than the ones people were used to and they tasted their best when they were almost black. We obviously had a bit to learn.

It was clear that people really did want an ethical option but fairtrade wasn’t such a big thing in New Zealand at that time. It has become much more prevalent now and of course, we’ve been trying to work out how to educate people about it and give people more options. We had the idea of creating a virtuous circle, a karmic arrangement and the plan was to support communities in Samoa and Ecuador. That was where the Karma Cola journey started.


So why Cola? What inspired you to found the brand?

We were confident that people wanted to buy fairtrade products and we’d been doing some research into what we might do next. We thought cola sounded great, especially the name ‘Karma Cola’. We had a great relationship with fairtrade already and we caught up with the CEO at Fairtrade International and Albert from Divine Chocolate. Albert is a native Sierra Leoner and a pioneer fairtrader with a background in coffee and chocolate, he’s had a lot to do with how fairtrade has been established in the UK and is a great activist and driving force.

Albert was in Free Town when we got there and helped us to track down some cola that would help people. We got 5kg of cola nuts farmed by villagers in a place called Boma and we popped the nuts in the post back to New Zealand. We got some friends involved who were very good at developing flavours and we made the first batches of what would become Karma Cola. When we’d made the first bottling run, we sent a box back to the Boma village in Sierra Leone. Our contacts there were perplexed, they didn’t think much of it.

Six months later we sent them a cheque for 10k US dollars which we figured was equal to the first six months of sales. We set up a fund, pretty loosely, we were like a DIY NGO. We said we wanted the funds to be available to the people living in Boma and that the money should be spent on things that would benefit the entire community; infrastructure, education, food security and the like. We didn’t want to treat the fund as charity but as an independent means of change.

How does Karma Cola give back? Tell us about its status as a fair trade brand…

Well, six months after we had sent the cheque, we visited Bola and were greeted by everyone singing and dancing. The entire village was standing on this bridge which connected the old and new villages over a tributary that used to wash away the old bridge every year. That was pretty exciting and totally surreal. Everyone there had a reason to celebrate what we were doing together and it was great.

That was five years ago and since then, we’ve been able to educate a few hundred children, provide scholarships for at least 70 young girls to go to school, pay for teachers to educate kids and built infrastructures, houses, meeting houses, rice hulling plants and repaired schools and accommodations. We’ve basically tried to give these people a hand up. That’s the karma in the drink, and as long as we know this is all happening, we can put karma on the label.

Two summers ago, we came to the UK and because we’ve worked very closely with fairtrade and organic certifiers, the Fairtrade Foundation recognised that we’d gone a bit further than many other licensees and they gave us an award for being a kind of fairest amongst the fair. Because of  that the BBC ran a story on us. There was a lot of interest in what we were doing because it was unique.


What about the design? Where did Karma Cola’s bright, unique illustrations and inspiring zines and merch come from?

My dad’s an artist, he went to art school in the ’50s with a cohort of artists who have since then all become successful in their own right. I was lucky to grow up in this community. The idea of studying design was normal to me, even though in New Zealand at the time it might not have seemed the most usual career. My first job was sweeping up at a printing press and learning how to set type on old printers. I used to love it, the smell of ink and learning from the guys there.

I then studied to become a graphic designer. I went from being a practitioner to a consultant and now I still do a bit here and there. The great thing about choosing to do this was that I had to take my own advice and think carefully about our branding. Fortunately, I met a lot of people along the way who were willing to help with Karma Cola. We linked up with so many great craftspeople and the fact that we had a great name was half the problem solved.

Two friends of mine, Heath and Emma were the amazing creatives that collaborated with us originally and the thing that stood out to us was this drawing of a snake eating its own tail. ‘What goes around comes around’. It was very rock’n’roll. We also looked at Mexican folk tableaus, these little scenes that told stories and we loved this one of an angel chasing a devil.

There was also a story of a mermaid-type spirit from the village in Sierra Leone that inspired us. The water spirit was both kind and punishing and it felt close to the idea of karma. We worked with illustrators to create the original can and bottle designs until they didn’t look like any soda label we had ever seen before and that was when we knew it was perfect.

Where can we find Karma Cola?

Our drinks, Karma Cola, Sugar Free Cola, Gingerella Ginger Beer and Lemony Lemonade are in stockists all over the UK as well as supermarkets like Waitrose and Occado. You’ll find them at cafes, restaurants, festivals and bars here, there and everywhere. Read about our new stockists on our blog or keep up with us on Twitter and Instagram for news on where we might pop up next.

Some of my favourite London spots at which to try a cracking can of feel-good fizz are: Temple of Seitan, CookDaily, The London Beer Dispensary, The Breakfast Club, Honest Burgers and Jamie’s Italian.


Find more here


Words: Emily Beeson | boogiemargaret