Kola Nut, the untold African story behind Coke and Pepsi

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Coca Cola is the most recognizable beverage brand in the world. Pepsi Co (a short form of Pepsi Cola) is the second most recognizable beverage brand in the world. Both Coke and Pepsi brands have their origins in soft drink recipes based on Kola nuts (the “Cola” in Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola). Although Western public memory usually stops at crediting pharmacist John Pemberton for inventing Coke in 1886 and crediting pharmacist Caleb Bradham for inventing Pepsi, the inspiration for Coke and Pepsi lies in the domestication of the Kola nut by ancient West Africans and the domestication of Coca in northern Peru around 5,000 BC (~7,000 years ago). Kola nut was and still is a fruit with sacred and social significance to West Africans. A fair re-telling of the story of Coke and Pepsi should not leave out the role of Africa in developing the Cola element.

The love of Coke around the world demonstrates that Africa has tons more to offer the world, which they can enjoy if they are willing to get over the need for pointing to a “white or Asian inventor” or an originator with a name they can pronounce. Concomitantly, it offers inspiration to Africans that the tools of tomorrow may be an invention that lies in their hands, that is currently underappreciated. To date, Africa has developed up to 2,000 highly nutritious foods, a number that represents a non-exhaustive and significant contribution to the diversity of humanity’s food supply. Many of these foods developed by Africa are overlooked by the world because African inventions are seen as inferior, even by many Africans.

When a marketing consultancy Superbrands compiled a Consumer brands league table from 2014 to 2018, it was no surprise that Coca-Cola stayed in the top 5 for all five of those years. The Coca Cola Company, which manufactures soft drinks, employs 61,800 people and generates annual sales of 35 billion US dollars a year. The Coca Cola Bottling Company (Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated), which owns the supply chain for Coco-Cola products distribution, employs 15,500 people and makes sales of 4 billion US dollars a year.

What is a Kola Nut

Kola nut is a wonder fruit that has its origin as the tropical rainforest region of Africa, and it belongs to the Cola nitida and Cola family. They are extracted from the evergreen kola tree [also referred to as cola]. These nuts are super rich in caffeine, and they are linked with several health benefits.

Kola nuts have a shell-like structure with an ovoid leave surrounding it, and they are somewhat bitter when chewed in the mouth. However, if you chew the entire fruit, it will give you a delicious taste and a pleasant aroma like that of rose petals.

Apart from being a delicious fruit, mini kola nut also have many uses; it is chewed during some special events in certain African countries. It can be used to sweeten breath. It also serves as a flavouring agent for sodas. Some companies also use this fruit as an additive in their energy drinks and performance enhancers.

More importantly, the kola nut taste is used by several beverage companies as a flavouring agent, including the great Coca Cola and even Pepsi Cola. In fact, this is one of the reasons it is now popular in the commercial industries. These nuts are also used in making some types of chocolate bars.

Furthermore, Kola nut is widely used in the medicinal industries because of the numerous beneficial properties and micronutrients it is packed with. When kola nut is ingested, it boosts immunity and metabolism. It also helps in alleviating health issues like bone illness, gastric troubles, and respiratory disease. Additionally, this fruit is helpful in treating hypertension, kidney disease, and heart failure, but to mention a few.

Kola nut is beneficial to all and sundry, except for people allergic to nuts as they may experience symptoms like hives, upset stomach, breathing difficulties, etc. Additionally, kola nut is not ideal for all people with certain medical conditions like high blood pressure or certain cardiac issues. Also, kola nut is not ideal for people with insomnia because of the high level of caffeine it contains; this will make sleeping more difficult for them.

The significance of the Kola Nut in West Africa

As earlier said, Kola nut originates from the West African part of the world, and it has grown into a worldwide fruit. In certain African countries, kola nut is chewed as whole fruit, and it is found to be very effective in restoring vitality.

It is worthy of mention that kola nuts are used during special traditional and spiritual events, especially in Nigeria. These fruits are used in offering prayer and sacrifices to the gods of the land, by those who still hold indigenous beliefs. For instance, some Yorubas use the kola nut in certain divination practices where a priest will cut the fruit into four different parts and then communicate with the spirits. He will then throw the nuts, and the priest himself will interpret the message gotten to the people on the ground.

Kola nuts are called different names in Nigeria; the Yorubas call it ‘Obi,’ Hausas call it ‘Gworo’ while the Igbo tribe calls it ‘Oji.’

Some people groups also use it during special occasions like naming ceremonies, funeral ceremonies, matrimony, etc. for symbolic purposes.

In parts of Africa, the kola nut is believed to have some divine powers, and it is used for several things in many societies. It is offered to guests and also used in religious rites and prayers.

A very common practice in some West African countries, especially Nigeria, is that some elders they will hold a kola nut while praying earnestly, and after a few minutes of prayer they will begin to share the fruit to everyone present in that occasion, with the belief that the prayers have been answered.

Health effects of the Kola Nut

Some of the health effects of the kola nut include the following:

  • Boost to metabolism: Kola nut products contain a high level of caffeine, which is found to be very effective in boosting the human metabolism.
  • Aid to digestion: Kola nut powder and extract aid digestion in human. They are responsible for boosting the production of gastric acid, which in return boosts the effectiveness of the digestive enzyme in the stomach.
  • Increase in circulation: Kola nut contains caffeine and theobromine, which are very effective in speeding up the heart rate which leads to accelerated circulation.
  • Boost to energy levels: Kola nut acts as a stimulant to the central nervous system which is capable of boosting energy levels and concentration levels.
  • Antibacterial benefits: Kola nut contains some antibacterial properties which help in preventing harmful bacteria from growing in the body.
  • Promoted weight loss: Kola nut increases the rate of metabolism and excretion while it allows your body to store less without affecting your digestive system negatively. The aftermath of this is that you will be able to get rid of excess fat very fast. During this process, the fruit also provides the essential nutrient that your body needs.
  • Boost Immunity: kola nuts contain some anti-oxidant properties which help in eliminating free radicals from your body, and thus improving the sturdiness of your immune system against harmful toxins. This makes kola nut an ideal fruit for people with ill health; it strengthens the immune system against all the odds.
  • Aid Prostate Cancer: Kola nut contains phytoandrogens (1) and phytoestrogens, which serves as an anti-inflammatory drug and these properties work in synergy to reduce the risk of prostate cancer to the barest minimum by blocking the development of the cell frequently.
  • Cures Bones illness: some components found in kola nut are found to be very effective in easing the pain, especially around the knees. Regular intake of kola nut will help prevent Osteoarthritis disease perfectly as it improves your bone density.
  • Treat Respiratory Disease: The caffeine found in kola nut is very helpful in dealing with respiratory illnesses such as influenza, pneumonia, and asthma. It reduces the occurrence of the aforementioned to the barest minimum.
  • Natural Cold Therapy: with the aid of certain properties, the kola nut is helpful in dealing with chest therapy. In fact, it is popularly used as a home remedy to treat chest colds ranging from one country to the other.
  • Relieves Migraine: People with migraines also find kola nut beneficial due to the theobromine and caffeine it contains. What these compounds do in the human system is to boost the blood flow rate so as to help relieve some pains in that region.

However, Kola nut is beneficial to all and sundry, except for people with allergies to nuts as they may experience symptoms like hives, upset stomach, breathing difficulties, etc. Additionally, kola nut is not ideal for people with certain medical conditions like high blood pressure or certain cardiac. Also, kola nut is not ideal for people with insomnia because of the high level of caffeine it contains; this will make sleeping more difficult for them.

Famous Kola Nut Traders

Some of the renowned traders of Kola nut include:

  • Alhassan Dantata

Alhassan Dantata was a renowned business tycoon while alive. He was born in Nigeria, and one of his descendants includes Aliko Dangote, the current richest black man.

Dantata started his kola business in the early 1900s when he used coastal steamers to transport his kola nuts to Lagos where they were resold to Kano-bound traders. As a result of this, he was able to generate sizeable income such that he decided to try his hands on some other businesses, including beads, necklaces, European cloth, but to mention a few.

Tragedy struck in 1908 when Dantata’s widowed mother died in Ghana, and he decided to limit his kola nut trading to Lagos and Kano only.

However, Dantata’s business dreams started becoming a reality when the UK-based Royal Niger Company (RNC) contacted him to source cocoa for them, which he agreed to. Although, Dantata was not the only one contacted by the company, what gave him an edge was the quick assent he gave to their offer, and also he had a good mastery of English [which he gained during his trading with some businesses in certain parts of Nigeria].

As someone who had heard of people becoming wealth through the cocoa trade, Dantata honed his trading, financial, and management skills, and eventually he was able to dominate the industry despite the fact that he was a greenhorn. Due to his excellent skills, he became the wealthiest business executive in Kano, while pushing Umaru Sharubutu and Agogo who were the top 2 on Kano’s rich list beneath him.

In the few years before his death, Dantata emerged as the chief buyer of groundnuts for the Royal Niger Company (which became the United Africa Company as a result of a merger). He was able to trade almost 50% of all the groundnuts secured by UAC in northern Nigeria.

Dantata continued with cocoa trading, alongside other businesses like cattle, cloth, beads, precious stones, grains, etc. and he was able to amass considerable wealth for himself, but one thing about this business guru is that he never lived an extravagant life despite all his riches. He related to all his employees with the utmost fairness and respect. Not that alone, Dantata was also known for his calm nature. It is claimed he never wished to offend anyone, and even in rare cases when conflicts occurred, he did everything in his capacity to put an abrupt end to it.

  • Coca Cola

Coca Cola is yet another famous Kola Nut Trader. The company was incorporated on September 5, 1919, as a beverage company.

The Company deals in several non-alcoholic beverage brands, ranging from sparkling beverages and a range of still beverages, such as waters, flavoured waters, and enhanced waters, juices and juice drinks, ready-to-drink teas and coffees, sports drinks, dairy and energy drinks.

The company which started as a one-room business has grown tremendously such that it is now one of the most popular brands in the world. The company is worth millions of dollars presently.

However, Coca-Cola’s huge success could be traced to several factors, including its marketing strategies- distribution, pricing, promotion, positioning, etc. There is hardly any nation of the world that Coca Cola products are not in circulation, ranging from the African continent, Europe, America, Asia, and lots more.

Coca-cola products are made available to the end-consumers worldwide through its array of controlled bottling and distribution operations. The bottling partners, distributors, wholesalers, and retailers, also are not left out.

Some of the top Coca-Cola competitors include PepsiCo, Inc., Nestle S.A., Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, Inc., among others.

  • Pepsi Cola

Pepsi Cola is a leading beverage and Snack Company, and also one of the most successful brands in the world. Despite the increasing competition and turbulent environment in the industry, the firm was able to gain a leadership position and does not seem to be dashing off soon.

Pepsi Cola, after over one hundred years of existence now produces thirty-two different kinds of carbonated and non-carbonated drinks, alongside Pepsi-Cola which are currently being served to 160+ countries worldwide. Pepsi also deals in numerous snack foods, cereals, and other grain-related foods through the aid of its sister company [Frito Lay and Quaker Oats].

Pepsi Cola is also one of the famous beverage companies making use of cola in their products, alongside other companies like Coca Cola.

The current leadership state of Pepsi Cola would’ve not been possible; if not for the strong management and unique vision the firm is built on.


(1) Usui T. Pharmaceutical prospects of phytoestrogens. Endocr J. 2006;53:7–20. doi: 10.1507/endocrj.53.7

4 thoughts on “Kola Nut, the untold African story behind Coke and Pepsi”

  1. Pingback: Myths about Africa: the "Europeans and Arabs brought Africa agriculture" myth - Think Africa

  2. Pingback: Africa's forests - Think Africa

  3. Pingback: Food series: Africa's domestication of 2000+ foods - Think Africa

  4. Ramon D. Caballero

    Hurray to cola cola and more power to you, and your produce, and aim more for healthy product benefits. God bless!

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Kola Nut, the untold African story behind Coke and Pepsi

by Editorial Team time to read: 9 min