Albert Tucker, Chairman of the Karma Foundation: How we create change
'Humans of Karma' introduces you to some of the brilliant people who make up the do-gooding world of Karma Drinks. Albert Tucker, chairman of The Karma Foundation, shares why Fairtrade matters, how we can create change, and why buying fairly sourced products makes a big difference.
What’s your role at Karma Drinks?
I'm chairman of the Karma Foundation, and I work directly with the team in Sierra Leone and the communities supported by the Foundation, which runs thanks to the sale of Karma Drinks.
How did you end up at Karma Drinks?
When the founders were creating Karma Cola [their first product], they had sourced Fairtrade, organic, natural ingredients to make a drink that tasted really, really good. Even the sugar was the most natural and good sugar you can get.
They found out cola nuts are no longer used in any of the big-name cola drinks. Artificial flavours are used, and the communities that grow this product, one of the most economically profitable in the world, get no income from it. And those products are not being used in those drinks. That became a really important thing for us.
So the one thing the founders couldn't find was a Fairtrade version of the cola nut, which happens to come from West Africa, which is where I was born and grew up, particularly in Sierra Leone.
They were connected with me because of my Fairtrade work in the past. We talked about what they were trying to do and I knew where we could get cola nuts.I knew that the best way for communities to develop is to actually have people collaborate and work with a wider group – rather than working with just one village. And so we found this community of eight villages that lives on the Tiwai island in Sierra Leone.
What does 'Karma' mean to you?
What's important to Karma is to live up to its name 'Karma' in terms of the people it sells to, and the people who supply it.
We do that through our Foundation, which extends that principle of creating better karma for those we work with. But we also do this through our work with Fairtrade. The initiative has played a really important role in giving the training, support and place in the market to small farm organisations or communities so that they can actually engage with trade in a way that helps them do better.
I was one of the early Fairtraders and I started in coffee. One of our main questions was, “How come one of the most valuable commodities in the world is produced by people who are overwhelmingly poor?” This is what Fairtrade sought to change, and it was extended to other products like cocoa [and cola nut].
These principles are critically important to Karma Drinks. The principles of making trade better and fairer for those involved in it, consumers and producers. And it works both ways: for consumers it's a product that hasn't got any surprises in it, is made with natural ingredients, is the best-quality product you can get and has a good relationship with the suppliers.
"What's important to Karma is to live up to its name 'Karma' in terms of the people it sells to, and the people who supply it. We do this through our foundation and through our work with Fairtrade."
When did you start to align yourself with Fairtrade principles?
was a youth worker in Ladbroke Grove 80s during the riots in the 80s, where the young people I worked with were mostly frustrated entrepreneurs. They were really trying to get ahead but were hitting glass ceilings left right and centre. The policing of them was terribly institutionally racist.
I learned then that being economically disempowered is problematic. We started running social enterprises, and by the time I left, I had started to have ideas about people using their consumer power to actually develop themselves.
I was approached to help run a Fairtrade organisation where they didn't want a conventional business person, they wanted someone with some entrepreneurial nouse. It was a company working with coffee farmers in Mexico and beginning to work with cocoa farmers in Ghana, and I developed really good relationships with the farmer coops and leaders in those different countries I visited and learned a lot from them. I could see that the market wasn't doing enough to support these communities in developing themselves.
We became one of the drivers behind Fairtrade to make it grow. The company I was working for set up Café Direct, before me, but we really took it mainstream because that's where we thought it should be.
When I started, about 3-5% of coffee was Fairtrade, and that has grown so much. Fairtrade was almost what the Chinese would call a demonstration farm: we were showing that it could be done. People were saying it couldn't be done, that you couldn't pay people more, that you couldn't spend too much time training them to understand the market. But Fairtrade proves it can.
So Fairtrade really turned a corner by giving more people an understanding of markets and coming up with a supply chain to small farmer organisations and collectives. When I started, these farmers didn't know what coffee was selling for around the world.
"People were saying it couldn't be done, that you couldn't pay people more, that you couldn't spend too much time training them. But Fairtrade proves it can."
Why is it so important for brands to become more sustainable?
As people, we struggle with change. When you look at the climate emergency, and we all understand it's an issue, we still struggle to adapt. Talking to American colleagues, they're comparing it to the civil rights movement. They say that what really created change was the way it made it easier for people to protest and for people to act.
I think that's quite important in the climate emergency. Businesses should be put under pressure to make it easy for people to reduce their impact on the environment.
In my opinion, one of the key triggers is that if the large corporations see that people are choosing to buy from companies like Karma Drinks and are making similar consumer choices, that will create change much faster.
If there aren't businesses trying to change, then we will never achieve change. And we need that. That influences others to actually move. It shows that another way is possible.
Can something as small as buying a sustainably made fizzy drink make a difference?
There's always a price, but it's about who pays that price. Often, it's the small farmers that pay that price. The true cost of those that are not farming in an environmentally friendly way cost is very very high, but we don't talk about it enough.
Fairtrade is trying to do what it can, but we as consumers need to say, every product we buy should contribute to the impact of the climate emergency, not just rely on Fairtrade and on others.
Even still, there are many many trades these communities have to do that are not Fairtrade, a long way away from it. The mistake we make is that, those who are trying to do something, we load all the responsibility on them. The responsibility lies with everyone who consumes and everyone who purchases.
What's your favourite story from the work of The Karma Foundation?
Whenever we go to Sierra Leone, we have a principle of funding things that are beneficial to the community as a whole rather than individuals, unless the community has decided it – like the bursaries to send girls to school.
We funded one chief Idoa to go and get medical advice because he said he can't afford it and he was going to wait out the illness. But I was so concerned that we paid – he's been one of the staunchest supporters of Karma. It turned out he had yellow fever and malaria. If he had waited, he wouldn't have survived.
We started talking to the community about the best way to respond in these cases. One of our founders, Simon Coley, was interviewing one the community's entrepreneurs that we had funded. We were worried about the interest rates that were charged, but this man said he'd paid it all back within a year with interest, and that he was making enough profits to lend his neighbour money to take her daughter to hospital. And there came the idea to set up a health fund. There's now a committee of three men and three women who make the decisions about who benefits from the fund.
The following year, a young man came up to us when we were about to start a meeting and he said to me very formally that he wanted to thank me for saving my life. He had received a loan for a bad hernia and the family could never have afforded it, and the committee gave us money from that fund. It was inspiring that the community was so attuned to the seriousness of the situation – the fund is accessible to everyone.
What's your favourite Karma Drink?
That's an unfair question! I love Karma Cola. I never really used to drink cola drinks. Coca Cola was always too sweet for me. Karma Cola doesn't leave an aftertaste in your mouth, it's light. It tastes how cola should taste, and I love that about it.
Chief Hindowa with the original Karma Cola
Want more? Read our Humans of Karma interview with co-founder Chris Morrison.