From Coca-Cola to Freetown

Not many people know that part of the name of the world’s most globalized beverage, Coca-Cola, comes from Africa.

Kola nut is a caffeine-containing nut of evergreen trees of the genus Cola, belonging to the same family as cacao (Sterculiaceae), native to the tropical forests of West Africa, particularly Sierra Leone and Liberia, where it is still found growing wild. In southeastern Sierra Leone, in the Kenema and Kailahun districts, it is grown intercropped with coffee and cacao; the smaller plants thrive in the shade cast by the Kola trees. The nuts are harvested twice a year, from April to May and from November to January.

In Sierra Leone, kola nuts are an essential element in many rituals and ceremonies, used to welcome guests, as a symbol of friendship, to seal an agreement or to mark a reconciliation. During Ramadan, a kind of ginger ale is made from water, ginger, kola, chili and sometimes sugar. Kola is also used for its pharmaceutical properties (chewed after meals, it helps digestion, and its caffeine improves concentration) and the Mandingo and Temne ethnic groups use the nuts to dye fabric.

The country’s long civil war, which ended in 2002, devastated an entire generation and had a serious impact on kola production. The most expert growers disappeared during the war or emigrated, and the intergenerational passage of wisdom was abruptly broken off. These days kola cultivation is often haphazard, and the trees produce fruit erratically.

In 2012, as part of a project run by the Slow Food Foundation and the FAO, the Kenema Kola Presidium was established. It involves 48 small-scale producers in the villages of Dalru and Gegbwema in southeast Sierra Leone, close to the border with Liberia. Together they are working to improve the cultivation, processing and marketing of the kola nuts.

Which brings us to Coca-Cola, whose name derives from its two original key ingredients: coca leaves and kola nuts. And to Italy, where for the past few years some producers have been reviving “retro” soft drinks like gazzosa, ginger and spuma, using only natural ingredients and no artificial preservatives or colorings.

They include Teo Musso’s famous Piedmontese microbrewery Le Baladin. Says Teo: “When Slow Food suggested making a drink using kola nuts, I accepted immediately with great enthusiasm. Baladin had been making natural soft drinks without preservatives and colorings for some years, and interpreting the world’s most famous soda was a challenge I couldn’t refuse. Plus there’s the added value of Cola Baladin supporting important Slow Food Foundation projects, helping the kola growers in Sierra Leone and the Thousand Gardens in Africa project. So I created a recipe that allowed me to interpret the classic cola flavor according to my own personal taste, of course using only ingredients of the highest quality. I didn’t use any acidifiers, apart from a natural one derived from lemon juice, and I didn’t add any coloring. I’m proud that we’ve differentiated ourselves so clearly from the industrial version with the color. Our cola is amaranth, the color of the fruit itself.”

Baladin buys the kola nuts directly from the Presidium’s small-scale producers and uses a percentage of the proceeds from the sale of the cola to fund the Kenema Kola Presidium, the creation of 60 food gardens in communities and schools.

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