Going bananas: Simon Coley and the Karma Drinks story

by | Dec 1, 2022 | News

Simon Coley is the co-founder of All Good Organics, the pioneering importer of ethical bananas, and of Karma Drinks, which just celebrated 10 years and was named supreme winner at the Sustainable Business Awards. Vincent spoke to Simon about fake nuts, good business and why he’s not buying that superyacht just yet.


Vincent: Clear something up for me: there are two companies, Karma Drinks and All Good Organics. Same HQ, same shareholding, same sort of branding. What’s going on?

Simon: They’re deliberately different, but they started from the same place. So the purpose is pretty much the same across both of those organisations. We started thinking we could rectify a problem in the Pacific around revenue from locally grown produce in Samoa to kind of offset remittance money that was coming from people that didn’t have jobs in Samoa and had to come and work in New Zealand. You know three white middle-class white men being altruistic that we might be able to kind of rectify that.

[Co-founder] Chris Morrison was there surfing and saw so much tropical fruit not making it to market, literally lying on the ground and thought there must be a market for this. And one thing led to another and we were importing bananas from Samoa, which wasn’t smart. I mean we learned a lot in a short time enough to know that we should probably import bananas from a different place. But we were able to make good of that relationship and sell the bananas. We now source from organic providers in places like Ecuador.



What’s the connection to Karma Drinks then?

We learned from the banana business that you can take on a pretty big market with a different story and a different supply chain. You know, a way of showing that we have an authentic ingredient, that people are looked after all the way back to production. Chris Morrison had set up Phoenix Organics and we were kind of thinking it might be time to do another drink. And we asked [banana ethics campaigner] Harriet Lamb if she knew where we could get some cola from and she introduced us to Albert Tucker which was kind of wonderful because he’s such an incredible man and has given us access to this culture that we would otherwise never even got close to. But he was quite surprised when we first got in touch with him and then thought about it a bit and managed to find this group of people in the middle of a rainforest in Sierra Leone who could access cola nut for us.


And you discovered that Coke and others don’t use the nut anymore?

Yeah, as we did the research we discovered that it’s not an ingredient in any of the colas that you can drink anymore. But if you’re going to call something cola, we thought you should probably put some cola in it.


Seems sensible. But Sierra Leone is not sensible. It’s famous for its civil war, right?

The word association with Sierra Leone is not optimistic [laughing]. But it has got a lot better. It’s gone from, you know, blood diamonds, civil war, child soldiers to an agricultural economy with amazing rainforest and beautiful people. Having braced myself the first time I went it was the total opposite. We did a lot of the first negotiating on the internet and over the phone with Albert. One thing led to another and we ended up with five kilograms of cola that he had managed to get posted to us, which was awesome because now we know you’ve got to have a lot more paperwork to get plant material into the country. And ours had slipped through. It came to the office in a courier pack, which was great. Yeah. Because we were able to use it to come up with some recipes [laughing].


What does a cola nut look like?

It looks a bit like a chestnut, but if you imagine a big pod, like a cocoa pod a bit bigger, you break it open and inside is this sort of fist of nuts of maybe half a dozen smaller seeds. And if you split them open, they have a sort of a white pith on the outside. If you take that off and split them open, the cola is the center of that. The meat of the seed.

It’s still a tradition to split cola in friendship and in greeting. If you split it and chew on it, it’s so bitter. You don’t need much of it to flavor anything. It’s a stimulant.



Like a cacao bean.

Yeah and it has caffeine and stimulants that encourage conversation and friendship. There is a saying there that he who brings cola brings life [laughing], which sounds a lot like a jingle we had heard before.


Tell us about the Karma Foundation. The latest impact report shows you’ve built seven bridges, given 155 bursaries to girls, helped build four schools which are educating over 700 students, eight teachers trained and funded, three rice mills, three seed banks and on and on. That’s fantastic! All from just 1% of the drinks? You’re clearly becoming a wildly successful multinational. 

Hmmm, [laughing]. The thing is when you spend it in the way we do, it goes a long way. It doesn’t really account for the amount of time we spend in contact with the village, especially for Albert because the way we’ve set up this D-I-Y NGO, we didn’t really know what we were doing when we started. Fortunately, Albert knew a lot more than we did.

Albert was born there then he moved to the UK but he’s back there all the time. In fact, in November he’ll be back with the villages again. And he’s in constant communication with them. We have a couple of people we employ there. It’s not the intention to tell anyone what we thought they should do. So the first question we asked ourselves was, if we’re gonna do this and we’re gonna call ourselves Karma, we better be clear about how we think that money we send back will be spent without directing it. Because what do we know?


All that said, is Karma a good business? 

We are not without needing to make profit, but we have a triple bottom line to meet. So the great thing about a company that’s solely focused on returning dividends to shareholders is that that’s all they have to do. And anything else goes through that lens.  We go, okay, we’ve gotta be profitable, otherwise we don’t have a business. But we also have to be conscious of the social impact of what we do and the environmental impact of what we do. And that really complicates the profitable side of it because we’ve got to spend more on ingredients. We’ve got to do a whole bunch of things that most of the brands we compete with don’t have to do. But that’s what gives us our strength.



What is your own motivation for starting this? I think when I met you all those years ago, you were a designer.

A good day for me is still doing some design work. But it’s probably more about designing systems than it is products anymore, if that makes sense. Like being able to set these things up so they are enduring. I sort of came to it thinking in from a product development point of view, how could we make this sort of ultimate soft drink? You know, what would it be if these things aren’t that useful to anyone? No one needs a soft drink.

What interests me is being able to change the model, right? If one of the largest most well-known brands in the world gets to keep 60% of their revenue – that’s incredible. It’s sugar and water, right? The magic is in why we buy this stuff, not in the manufacturing. So how do you flip that to a better, more equitable model? If 1.8 to 2 billion soft drinks from one big brand is consumed every day it’s a load of liquid being shipped; the company owns water rights, they own supply chains for sugar from all sorts of ingredients; they own manufacturing, packaging, shipping, all that stuff. It’s an enormous amount of revenue, wealth, and  value tied up and in one behaviour and one company. How do you make that work for the benefit of everyone?

It’s like the bananas, we’re probably not going to be the cheapest banana ever unless the entire system changes and everyone expects to pay this amount for all the true costs.


What does your family make of this bender you’ve been on for 10 years?

[Laughing]. My partner Jodi and I have these conversations about what’s going to happen to these businesses that I started and a couple of weeks ago I said, ‘well why don’t you go on the board of one of them because you are really good at marketing’. So she’s now a director of All Good. She’s a very competent marketing and brand development person with international experience from places like Fonterra and retail in the UK.  So she now has to deal with some of the complexity that I’ve been wrestling with.


Sounds like karma.

What can I say?


Congratulations on the awards and thanks for your mahi. I’m a fan, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Thanks Vincent. Thanks for all your enthusiasm over the years too. I remember when we first started your son wore our banana mascot outfit to school.


It’s a family affair.


This story is an edited version of the longer and rambling conversation Simon and Vincent had at Vincent’s other podcast This Climate Business.



About the Author

Vincent Heeringa

Hi, I'm Vincent! I'm a co-founder of The Feed, a writer, marketer and PR expert specialising in food, tech and sustainability. In a previous life I was publisher of Idealog, Stoppress, NZ Marketing and Good magazines and helped establish the Science Media Centre. I'm also the host of a podcast ‘This Climate Business’. When I'm not burning the midnight oil, I'm hitting the town or planting trees with my wife Sarah. Ping me to talk about all things food. @vheeringa

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