Sara Byala: ‘Coca-Cola has immense power in Africa’

The historian tells Mike Higgins about the corporation’s contentious role in apartheid’s last years and how its outreach work empowers women and attracts criticism.

The World Today
4 minute READ

Bottled: How Coca-Cola Became African
Sara Byala, Hurst, £30

In ‘Bottled: How Coca-Cola Became African’, Sara Byala examines the ubiquity of Coke’s products across the continent and what it reveals about development and capitalism.

Coca-Cola is available pretty much everywhere. What intrigued you about its presence in Africa?

I’m originally from South Africa and an Africanist historian by training. When I travelled in Africa as a child, I would collect upcycled items made from Coke cans and bottles. Also, I am not the first person to go somewhere remote in Africa and wonder how there is a cold Coke on sale there. Then, in 2014, I saw a BBC article about how Coca-Cola marketers in South Africa celebrated the 20th anniversary of the end of apartheid by making rainbows above downtown Johannesburg using clean water, and a light bulb went off in my head.

I started reading everything that I could on the history of Coca-Cola. I learned that two of its most important chief executives got their starts working in southern Africa. Otherwise, Africa is a gaping hole in its history, yet the corporation has been selling products there for a century and is reportedly the biggest private employer on the continent, responsible directly and indirectly for at least 750,000 jobs. Coca-Cola also allowed me access to the corporation and its archives.

So, I’m trying to do two things in this book: document how this remarkable reach came about and ask what we think about this.

A motif in the book is that ordinary Africans have had as much of a hand in bending the will of Coca-Cola as the company has had in commercially exploiting the continent. What were the most striking examples?

What I saw in my research is that people who are brought into capitalized systems actually have power and influence. It’s like the Christian missionary presence in Africa. Some say it steamrollered a continent. Another, more nuanced interpretation looks at all the reasons people convert and how they change a religion. That’s what you see in the history of Coca-Cola in Africa as well.

We can view Coke cynically, gaining access to more consumers with these projects. But my field work did not bear that out

A well-known activist told me in Johannesburg that Coca-Cola shouldn’t be bringing clean water or electricity to communities or doing any of its sustainability work because that work should be done by the government. I agree, but in many parts of the continent governments cannot or will not provide those amenities. We can view Coke cynically, gaining access to more consumers with these projects. But my field work did not bear that out.

I visited several water-access projects under a Coke initiative called Replenish Africa Initiative. One was in Naivasha, the flower-growing region north of Nairobi. The water has high levels of fluoride, which causes health problems, as well as brown teeth – imagine applying for a job. A local Catholic mission discovered that you could reduce the fluoride content using simple bone-char filters made from animal bones, which Coca-Cola helped implement by funding water kiosks with bone-char filters run by local women who sell clean water to the community.

The corporation has immense power to bring together a big organization like the Gates Foundation with an implementing partner that might be a tiny NGO. Like similar projects I saw, the one in Nairobi wasn’t branded by Coke and Coke wasn’t on the minds of the people I met there. 

But aren’t Coca-Cola getting a lot out of these initiatives for little financial outlay?

There’s no doubt that they’re protecting a licence to operate – that’s the language they use. If you look at Coke’s history in Asia and Latin America, where they were thought to be using too much water or taking water unfairly, for example, a community can quickly turn against a product. Coca-Cola sees a need to embed the corporation in the community by becoming integral to it.

You write that Coca-Cola’s 5x20 project has empowered two million women in Africa, by involving them in small distribution centres supplying Coke to shops. What happens when these initiatives stop?

This is one of the hardest things with fieldwork. The bone-char initiative I saw was successful and had finished several years earlier, but that’s not to say that’s the case everywhere.

Coca-Cola aligned itself with African independence movements in the 1960s. That looks high-minded, but it’s also the business protecting itself

The 5x20 initiative had a specific, UN-designated set of criteria which included access to business skills, financial services and the like. And the women I met have been put on their way, they’re resourceful.

I visited a poor neighbourhood in Cairo where unlike sub-Saharan Africa there is not a strong culture of women working outside the home. I met women running stores the size of a telephone booth selling chicken, eggs or whatever, but selling Coke got them started and still anchors their businesses. It has changed lives.

As you portray it, Coca-Cola’s engagement with African politics has changed over the decades. In the early 1960s it celebrated the newly independent nations in its marketing and then retreated into images of ‘wild’ Africa. What was going on there?

In countries such as Senegal, Ghana and elsewhere, the company went from supporting colonial structures to aligning itself with independence movements in its marketing. That looks high-minded, but it’s also the business protecting itself.

By the late 1960s, it makes an about-face. In Coca-Cola’s marketing, Africa appears as the ‘edge of the world’, ‘wild’ and a safari destination. Those tropes aren’t new, but at that time they are Coca-Cola’s response to the anxieties around waning white-settler colonialism.

In places where Coca-Cola was, and still is, deeply anchored such as South Africa, Kenya and the Rhodesias (now Zimbabwe and Zambia), the marketing changed to focus on, say, elephants and lion cubs, paying attention to African nature, rather than engaging with African people. This identification of wild beauty as being authentically African was fraught, particularly in the case of South Africa’s nationalistic goals, and placed Coca-Cola within the logic of apartheid. 

You write that there is hubris in the way Coca-Cola dealt with difficult political regimes in Africa. Its disinvestment from apartheid-era South Africa would seem to be an example of that.

In the 1970s and 80s Coca-Cola, like many big corporations, was being pushed to stop doing business in South Africa. But not only did Coke products remain available throughout the apartheid era, they exploded. In the 1980s Coca-Cola sent Carl Ware, an African-American executive, to South Africa. He told me in two interviews that he thought then that if Coca Cola just left South Africa, it would hurt South Africans and not pave the way for Coca-Cola to play a role in the post-apartheid state.

‘The Coke Campaign’ was set up in opposition to Coca-Cola’s form of disinvestment from South Africa – its slogan was ‘Coke sweetens apartheid’

So, he devised a plan to technically remove Coca-Cola from South Africa – the concentrate plant moved to Swaziland (now Eswatini) and operations were transferred to a new South African company. This company and independent bottlers then expanded the reach of Coca-Cola into townships and poorer areas via dozens of little ‘spaza’ shops and kiosks. Ware also managed to secure Desmond Tutu to head up a Coca-Cola-funded charitable fund, the Equal Opportunity Foundation, with fellow anti-apartheid activists on board.

There has been plenty of criticism that this strategy was a sham. One senior employee who worked with Coca-Cola in South Africa at the time later called it ‘obviously a lie’. The Coke Campaign, which was set up in direct opposition to Coca-Cola’s form of disinvestment, said by enabling the sale of Coke products throughout this period Coca-Cola was still entangled with the apartheid state. Its slogan was ‘Coke sweetens apartheid’.

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Ware also told me about Coca-Cola’s apparent involvement in secretly funding meetings between the exile wing of the African National Congress and South African politicians and businessmen who, by the late 1980s, had begun to imagine South Africa after apartheid. He said Coca-Cola didn’t document these activities in its archive because it didn’t want them publicized. 

What are Coke’s biggest challenges over the next decades in Africa?

There’s a tremendous amount of push back to Coca-Cola, especially given the rise of noncommunicable diseases such as type-2 diabetes brought on by high sugar intake. That is a big threat to Coca-Cola, which is why they are moving to produce drinks with less sugar and packaged in smaller containers.

But packaging, too, is a big problem, whether it’s aluminium or plastic. Coca-Cola has a history of endless growth, and has this techno-optimism that, by closing loops and reusage, they can solve this, but there’s a limit.