In Sierra Leone West Africa there is a small, remote village called Boma that is home to about 120 people. Their lifestyle is basic; primitive in comparison to the western world. There is no electricity in the village and the homes have dirt floors. The aftermath of the 10 year civil war that devastated the nation continues to have an affect as communities struggle to rebuild 11 years on.
But life in Boma is changing for the better. Forest farms have been rehabilitated, locals have the ability to earn an income and girls are attending school. All this and more has been made possible because some kiwi blokes decided to do a bit of good.
Their business is called All Good Organics. It’s a company with a conscience on a mission to make a difference in the world and serve some tasty bananas and top notch soft drink in the process. Its products are Fairtrade and organic, meaning they are good for the land, good for the farmers and good for the customers.
All Good is by no means a charity, but rather than holding onto all of its pennies, it is sharing its wealth by returning a percentage of its sales to the farmers it sources its produce from. It’s a novel approach and one rarely seen in today’s business model. But co-founder Simon Coley says it’s working remarkably well, both for the business and the farmers.
Pulling off the veil
Food production is a subject of mystery around the world. Consumers aren’t typically shown where food comes from or how it is made. But All Good Organics is different, it has ripped off the veil and welcomed customers into every inch of its business, there are no secrets here.
“Doing ‘good’ business is something that is very important to us. We want to make the supply chain transparent. People should understand where their food comes from and the consequences of them purchasing it, and we give our customers that right.
“There is a growing movement in the country which has crystallised in the last 10 years around conscious consumption. We recognise that people deserve to know what they are putting in their mouths beyond the nutritional information on the back of the bottle or packet.”
In typical kiwi fashion the idea for All Good Organics was sparked in a laid back style. The location was Piha Beach, where three mates, Simon and brothers Chris and Matt Morrison met up to enjoy the surf, sand and hatch a plan for the business.
The plan, in brief, was to sell bananas. They’d take bananas from Samoa which grew abundantly and were seldom exported and bring them to New Zealand.
In the 1950’s 20 percent on Samoa’s GDP came from fresh fruit exports, but the ensuing few decades saw Samoa’s exports squeezed out as large plantations from the Philippines and Ecuador began to dominate the industry with cheaper prices and larger quantities.
They took it upon themselves to change this and reinstate Samoa as the banana exporting nation it once was. “We naively thought that it might be good to try and bring that business back and bring those bananas to New Zealand,” Simon says.
But in the rush of blood to the head there were a few logistical obstacles they hadn’t accounted for. “We didn’t really understand the complexities of supplying perishable fruit. At first glance it seemed like getting delicious bananas from your neighbours in the South Pacific was a great thing to offer New Zealanders, but it turned out to be quite challenging.”
The first shipment was rotten and the second shipment was impossible to sell. The Samoan bananas are smaller than the Cavendish bananas New Zealanders are familiar with. “Plus they aren’t ready to eat until they are really ripe, almost black. So that was a bit of a disaster.”
After two unsuccessful imports it was time for plan B, but the criteria still remained the same; the bananas had to be high quality and sustainably grown. “We wanted to show people it was possible to purchase fruit that was sustainably produced by farmers who received a fair price for their product. Typically large banana companies haven’t been kind to the people who grow the product, often paying less than it’s worth.”
The solution was found when they discovered the Fairtrade El Guavo Association of Small Banana Farmers in Ecuador. The co-operative comprises of 150 small family farmers who under the Fairtrade organisation pool their bananas to sell large quantities to businesses like All Good. Typically it can be extremely hard to get a share in the market when competing against mammoth plantations, but the El Guavo association has found the solution.
Its first boxes of bananas were sold in 2010. “The minimum amount of bananas we could bring in was one container load and in the first insistence we needed to sell 1,200 boxes or about 100,000 bananas. It was quite scary when we started because that’s a lot of bananas.”
But those nervous days are long gone. Today All Good import three containers a week which are sold to New World and Pak n’ Save supermarkets across the country and a number of independent organic grocers. “We sell around 60,000 bunches of bananas each week and hold around five percent of the competitive banana market in this country.”
With banana sales making progress the boys didn’t sit still, branching out into drinks. Their backgrounds naturally lent themselves to the drinks industry as Simon had previously worked at 42 Below, while Chris was the pioneer of Phoenix Organics and the former head of Biogrow.
Over 1.9 billion cola branded drinks are consumed everyday in the world, but many of them are a far cry from All Good’s premium fizzy beverages. Simon says it was a niche in the market ripe for the taking and they simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to provide a better alternative.
The range includes Fairtrade and organic Gingerella Ginger Ale and Lemmy Lemonade, and its signature product Karma Cola. The businesses philosophy of doing good is exemplified by its relationship with the farmers who grow the cola nut; the key ingredient which gives the drink its genuine cola taste.
Once upon a time the cola nut was an essential ingredient in the original cola beverages we are all so familiar with, but today that flavour is synthesized in almost all cola drinks expect for one of course – Karma Cola.
The cola nut has been central to life in Boma for hundreds of years. It is used for important rituals, medicine and also as an appetite suppressant and stimulant, but no formal farming of the nut for commercial export has ever been set up in the region.
In keeping with All Good’s business philosophy, the team turned to the Fairtrade association for help to find a cola nut farmer, an extremely rare commodity in South Africa. Through their contact in West Africa, Albert Tucker, All Good was able to receive samples of the cola nut in New Zealand.
After experimenting with hundreds of samples mixing it with vanilla bean grown by the Forest Garden Growers Association in Sri Lanka and organic sugar cane from the Suminter Organic Farmers Consortium in Maharashtra, India, it came up with a product it thought was darn good.
Pleased with the product, Simon travelled to Boma to meet the growers face to face and formalise their relationship and supply. The Cola nut farming business has now brought new life to the primitive village and opened up a world of opportunities.
But All Good is helping the region by more than just doing business with it; it has set up the Karma Cola Foundation. With every bottle sold part of the proceeds go back to Boma.
“Our drinks really do make a difference. When customers purchase the drink they are supporting something bigger than just the product, but the whole community in Boma.”
With Karma Cola what goes around really does come back around.
The fairest of them all
In June last year All Good was recognised for its outstanding efforts with its innovative projects and relationship with its growers, when Fairtrade International recognised it as the fairest trader in the world.
Out of the 27,000 products that carry the Fairtrade mark in 120 countries, the fledgling kiwi company took out the highly sought after international Fairtrade Trader award, something Simon is pretty chuffed about. “It’s not something we sought out to get, but we are very grateful to be acknowledged by Fairtrade. It is good proof that what we are endeavouring to do really is making a difference.”
And it is easy to see why it received the prestigious award. Thanks to kiwi consumers who have bought All Good Fairtrade bananas over the past five years, $6.6 million has been sent back to the farmers and their families in the El Guabo Co-operative. The money has been used to give 6,400 people free medical care, 2,000 children school packs to get a proper education and 460 children with special needs have been able to go to school.
Meanwhile through the sales of Karma Cola it has contributed over $US 60,000 to the Karma Cola Foundation, truly transforming life for the people of Boma. The foundation has funded a bridge connecting the old and new villages of Boma, supported 50 young girls to go to school and funded an education programme to teach HIV awareness and prevention. It helped the 2000 villagers of the Tiwai community to avoid Ebola infection by providing education, training and equipment, and supported the wider Sierra Leonean effort to fight Ebola. “Thankfully no one we work with has been infected. There’s still a need to be vigilant, but it appears the worst of the Ebola crisis has passed.”
The foundation was also able to support the rehabilitation of 12 rainforest farms that had fallen into disuse during the civil war. The forest farms are of crucial significance for producing food crops and to enable villagers to develop their own income.
Karma Cola is now sold in nine countries: New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, China, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Stockholm, with over 60 percent sold in overseas markets.
And its growth is on the rise; in the last financial year Karma Cola grew by over 150 percent in turnover, to $3.5 million. “We anticipate that we will double our turnover and the number of boxes of drinks we sell, in the current financial year.”
With massive growth potential on the horizon, Simon says there’s an opportunity to do a great deal of good – and that is exciting.