Creating a social enterprise around Bissy Energy (a plant based beverage) has been exciting to say the least. My co-founder, James, and I have spent the past year developing our brand and finding new markets for Nigerian smallholder farmers to export their goods for a premium price. Our goal with Bissy has been holistic from the beginning. We incorporated as a Benefit Corporation and committed ourselves to creating social equity through the sale of sustainably packaged, delicious plant-based products that are made from ethically sourced kolanut. Kolanut is the fruit of the kola tree that is native to the tropical rainforests of West Africa. The caffeine-containing fruit of the tree has been conventionally used as a flavoring ingredient in beverages and is the origin of the term “cola”. Everyone is familiar with the most famous soft-drink beverage, Coca-Cola, that first introduced natural kolanut to the world over 100 years ago. As Coca-Cola grew and expanded its supply chain, it swapped out Kolanut for more scalable ingredients in its famously secretive formula. While Coca-Cola has become one of the world’s best-selling products, Kolanut and Nigeria were left behind — never benefiting from any agricultural development of the fruit for export.
The idea to work with Nigerian farmers first came to me last year after rediscovering an old family book, written about my great-grandfather. He was a traditional chief in Onitsha, Nigeria, where he spent much of his waking hours tending to the needs of the residents. I was intrigued by my great-grandfather’s traditional use of consuming and sharing kolanut in social ceremonies and wanted to learn more. As I further researched kolanut, I discovered that while the fresh nut is popular in Nigeria, it had almost no export market outside of Nigerian expats. It was clear that there is an opportunity to share this product with the world, and in the process, promote sustainable economic development in Nigeria.
Reach deep into Nigerian culture and you’ll discover people have long gathered for centuries to consume kolanut. To awaken the mind, perform extraordinary feats under gruesome conditions, and most culturally significant of all, exchange blessings amongst each other and for their ancestors. Of the three largest tribes in Nigeria, the Igbos, my family’s tribe, see kolanut as a divine blessing. They believe the kola tree was the first tree on earth. And therefore, its fruit being the first to grow. In a general sense, the kolanut in Igboland constitutes a remarkable social symbol of hospitality, peace, and good-will. In the UK, you are often greeted with tea when visiting someone’s home. In my families village in southeast Nigeria, you can expect to receive kolanut as a welcoming gift.
Following my visit to Nigeria this past March, we partnered with the Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria, a federally mandated research institute that manages a co-op of over 1,000 farmers in a three-state region. We have gathered a select group of smallholder kolanut farmers to source from that will comply with Fair Trade standards and practices to become officially certified.
By supporting our farmers with US certifications like Fair Trade, we secure a channel for them to sell their supply at a premium price, further limiting any risk to price volatility. This in turn provides them with opportunity to hire more employees and not rely on the unethical practice of child labor. We will establish a grading system for kolanut supply that encourages organic farming practices and prohibits the use of pesticides. Fair Trade certification presents a monumental opportunity for the growth and global recognition of Nigeria’s agriculture sector; not only do we plan to be the first to certify kolanut globally as a Fair Trade ingredient, but we will also be the first Fair Trade certified operators in Nigeria.
Our work in Nigeria means a lot to the partners we work with. Over the past two decades, kolanut consumption in Nigeria has declined drastically. The younger generations are not following the same social and ceremonial traditions as their elders. With consumption low, farmers have turned to other crops to generate income. Our partners see Bissy as a new and trusting way to market and sell their locally grown kolanut to the world.
When I first learned of how lowly priced Nigerian grown agricultural products were trading for, both locally and internationally, I wondered why there weren’t better systems in place to support a higher premium. Globally, kolanut is $2.6 billion raw commodity market. Nigeria alone is responsible for over 50% of global kolanut production. With production output that high, it’s instinctive to think that Nigeria would be enriched with export opportunities to developed markets. Markets such as the US, Canada, and the UK, that turn out large volume of food and beverage products to customers with high purchasing power. However, it’s quite the contrary, and is a large part of the reason why I care so much to restore Nigeria’s agricultural output.
As we develop our product line, we strive to vertically integrate our supply chain in Nigeria. We won’t slow down until we are selling Bissy products across the larger West Africa. The agricultural revolution for Nigeria has begun. There is a transformation brewing in food, transparent processing and sustainable packaging. Multinational food processing companies are embracing backward integration by either establishing their own commercial farms or empowering small farmers through out-grower programs.
We want to join and eventually lead that movement. Ethical sourcing, fair wage compensation, and environmental stewardship are among some of the more important modules that make up the core of our brand DNA and social mission. Bissy proves that there is no trade-off necessary between something that’s good for you and good for the world. There is a famous Nigerian proverb that I’m reminded of daily when I chat about Bissy… “he who brings kola, brings life”. If all life is made of energy, then we truly have much life to give.
My passion for supporting Nigeria’s growth is deep-seated.
I was taught that champions carry the conviction that they are the best in the world at what they do.
I fundamentally believe that I hold a unique position, given my story, family background, education and passion — to help solve Nigeria’s challenges and champion for a brighter future.