Review of Sara Byala’s Bottled — How Coca-Cola Became African: The story of Africa’s ubiquitous beverage since 1928

Reflecting the entrenched realities of globalisation, development and capitalism, Bottled narrates the tale from the perspective of Africa where the sugary drink is available everywhere, when most life-saving medicines are not

Published - May 31, 2024 09:01 am IST

Cities across the world are suffering from a severe water crisis as climate change fears turn real; there’s also a huge pushback against the use of sugar with diabetes on the rise. Yet, travel to virtually any place on earth, and one is likely to find a bottle or can of Coca-Cola. How has this carbonated drink become ubiquitous across the water-stressed world, and whose primary constituent is locally sourced water only?

The story of Coca-Cola reflects the entrenched realities of globalisation, development and capitalism, and Sara Byala’s Bottled tells it from the perspective of Africa where the sugary drink is available everywhere, when most life-saving medicines are not. “In its profound breadth and depth, Coca-Cola offers an unequalled lens onto modern Africa,” she writes.

A Coca-Cola retro advertisement

A Coca-Cola retro advertisement | Photo Credit: Getty Images/istock

Kola nut to Coke

Yet, as Byala points out, “there would be no Coca-Cola without the African kola nut”, and she begins her story with how America got enamoured with the west African tree and its seed which has a caffeine-yielding stimulant. “In May, 1886, as Europe was scrambling to carve up the African continent, John Pemberton [in Atlanta, America] created the earliest version of a beverage that would soon be called Coca-Cola, a drink whose name and whose origin, came in part, from Africa.”

Whole and cut kola nuts

Whole and cut kola nuts | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Coca-Cola, says Byala, narrates its African story as one of “unstopped progress” that began with its first bottling in South Africa in 1928, and is now present in every African nation as the continent’s single largest private employer “with a multiplier effect”.

A Coca-Cola plant in Whitestown, Indiana.

A Coca-Cola plant in Whitestown, Indiana. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/istock

Byala, a senior lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, provides an in-depth assessment of how a global beverage brand adjusted its marketing strategy to the socio-political demands in conquering a continent. While she undertook fieldwork in eight countries, Egypt, Eswatini, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, Byala guided research assistants to conduct interviews in several nations.

Coca-Cola cans stacked at a supermarket in Spain.

Coca-Cola cans stacked at a supermarket in Spain. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/istock

From Cape Town to Cairo — the accompanying illustrations and photographs, including one of a Coca-Cola stall in front of the Sphinx, Egypt tell a thousand words more — the company aligned with everything from education to the anti-apartheid struggle in locating the beverage in the lives of people. “The more I researched and spoke to people, the more the story of Coke appeared as a parable for late capitalism, full of both cause for concern and seeds of optimism,” she says.

Fringe benefits

By 2020, more than three quarters of a million Africans were being supported by Coca-Cola, not to mention that 10-12 indirect jobs were being created in related industries. It is a familiar narrative on how corporations contribute to solutions while generating problems in the first place.

Coca-Cola’s sustainability initiatives around water, carbon use, and waste recycling have been talked about. The company promotes healthy, youthful, and active living in its marketing campaigns but never in its century-old history has it ever suggested how much of its intake will be enough for a healthy body.

A Coca-Cola Billboard in Kings Cross, Sydney.

A Coca-Cola Billboard in Kings Cross, Sydney. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/istock

Like elsewhere in the world, Coca-Cola’s century of existence in Africa is not without its fundamental share of contradictory compromises. While increased consumption of the global beverage is not without serious ecological and biological impacts, its missionary endeavour to plough back a small portion of its profit back into social emancipation is anything but greenwashing — justifying capitalism’s logic of insatiable growth against what the ecosystem can sustain.

Bottled is as much a social history of colonisation by a beverage company as an expression of self-determination and acceptance of modernity by an unsuspecting mass of people across the continent. Byala highlights how Coca-Cola positioned itself differently in each country, bending to consumer power in generating a distinct narrative focused on its sale. While it does help enhance an understanding of a globalised and integrated world it also raises a critical question: at what cost can the planet and human body endure it?

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

The reviewer is an independent writer, researcher and academic.

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