There's a growing movement in food around provenance, as seen by US restaurant chain Chipotle's recent campaigns. And there's a growing, but still unfortunately fairly niche movement in business around ethics, as evidenced by the creation of organisations like The B Team and the real steps being taken by big companies like Puma. All Good Organics has tapped into both of these trends, first with bananas and recently with its drinks range, and co-founder Simon Coley recently put down the crayons at Powershop and, along with Matt Morrison, headed to the jungles of Sierra Leone to see how the kola nut farmers it works with have benefitted.
Earlier this year, All Good Organics launched two drinks, Karma Cola and Gingerella (it's recently launched its third variety, Lemmy Lemonade). And the Karma Cola mission is to make real cola, from real kola nut grown by real African farmers, with proceeds from each sale sent back to the farmers. In a country still recovering from a debilitating 10-year civil war, something as simple as having some money to build a bridge between two villages and make it easier to transport the numerous crops grown in the region can make a huge difference, so that's what All Good helped to build. And it's also helping 15 young girls with scholarships, bags and stationery so they can go to school.
"There's more of this going on in the world," he says. "The idea of having some responsibility for the provenance of your ingredients as a food producer and having a strong relationship with the people who grow the crops. And that's something we're very interested in."
"Philanthropy tempered with commerce" isn't a new concept, of course. But it's a mission that's introduced Coley to a whole lot of new friends and taken him all around the world in the hunt for producers.
In the corporate world, decentralisation is typically a bad word. Industrialised food producers require certainty of supply and look for cost-effeciencies through economies of scale. As Coley says, once you get into massive production, you tend to lose touch with the people producing the crops. He admits it is easier for a small company like All Good to use this model, but it's still not easy finding and then managing a whole heap of smaller producers. Even so, he believes it's a better way of doing business.
This approach obviously makes its products much more expensive, but he says sales of the drinks are going well and more and more mostly smaller, independent operators who know about the company and its story are now asking to stock its products, "so that's reassuring".
"Most of our products include ingredients that you can't get in New Zealand. Kola nut from Sierra Leone, ginger from Sri Lanka, sugar from Paraguay, vanilla from Papua New Guinea. They don't come from places that are easy to get to or to export from. We discovered them in a kind of DIY way. And it takes a lot more organisation. But it means that we understand the supply chain from the beginning."
He says it hasn't talked a lot about the karma aspect of its drink too much so far, largely because it's expensive to tell that story through advertising and he wanted to wait until they had something concrete—in this case, quite literally—to show for the scheme. He says many are surprised to find out the company is so involved with the producers. But that understanding of its philosophy is growing as the company grows, something he says Special Group is assisting with through its graphic design.
"Yes, I think the design helps sales," Coley says. "I think people recognise them as something a little bit different than the other products on the shelf. So if that inspires them to pick up a bottle, they might read what's on the back, find out about the story and hopefully keep buying it."
Sales of Fairtarde products are growing around the world and, on average, Fairtrade’s growth in New Zealand over the past five years has been above fifty percent. It's still a small slice of all purchases, but All Good is Fair Trade certified and Coley believes consumers are increasingly understanding that independent certification guarantees the ethics of a supply chain and "they're prepared to pay more for that". At present there's no such thing as Fairtrade kola nut (he believes the large drinks producers now synthesise the flavours, and, in case you were wondering, real kola nut is a great appetite suppressant and makes you very talkative).
He says walking through the jungle in Sierra Leone with the locals is "a little bit like visiting a pharmacy", and the company is always interested in creating new products. So we look forward to All Good striking up a deal with a Peruvian collective and putting some cocaine back in to our drinks, just as it used to be in the good old days of the original, more medicinal version of Coca-Cola.
- If you haven't had enough of Coley, he also caught the attention of Monocle, which interviewed him in London for the Entrepreneurs radio show (interview starts 20 minutes in).