Soda queen takes on Goliath

Kathleen Brooks
LAUNCHING a cola and taking on one of the best-known brands in the world doesn’t sound like it would be a success – not even Sir Richard Branson could topple Coke with Virgin Cola. But Miranda Walker, the co-founder of the Ubuntu Trading Company, was not deterred.

She launched Ubuntu, a cola drink, in September 2007. Its selling point is that it is made with fairtrade cane sugar, which is grown by a co-operative farming community in Malawi. “Ubuntu is tapping into the current zeitgeist where consumers are concerned about where their products come from.”

After spending the majority of her career at advertising agency Leo Burnett, where she
was an executive planning director, she wanted another challenge: “Advertising is great
fun and frivolous but I wanted to do more than that.” Hence the Ubuntu Trading
Company was born in December 2006, founded by Walker and her partners Sandy Muir,
Phil King and Philippe Sibaud.

So why cola? “The one thing I can do is brands,” says Walker. But it was divine
intervention that made her focus on fairtrade: “I was at church one Sunday and the vicar gave this big tirade on big brands and how important fair trading was. As we were walking out, my husband turned to me and said: ‘that’s what you should do,’ and then the wheels were put into motion for Ubuntu.”

The Ubuntu Trading Company was set up with £350,000: one third was from the
founders’ own money, and the rest came from the Small Firm Loan Guarantee Scheme
that is run by the government and is notoriously difficult to win. “I was literally working all day. I would go to bed at 11pm and then get up between two and five to get more work done. It was unspeakably hellish. But once you have the financing you have a responsibility.”

The biggest challenge has been production, says Walker. The company originally
manufactured the drink in Belgium. Producing the drink in euros and selling it in pounds
became a problem when the pound fell against the single currency. Walker then transferred production to Derbyshire.

So far, the new kid on the cola block has been a success. It is sold in universities across
the UK and since March it has been stocked in 90 branches of Waitrose. According to the
National Union of Students Services, Ubuntu’s cola share is 2.75 per cent of the entire
cola market in universities. This compares with Coke Zero, which has a 2.5 per cent market share.

The company has yet to make a profit, which is normal for newcomers to the carbonated
drinks market. It hopes to be in the black in 2011, at which point it will have to re-invest
15 per cent into local community projects across Malawi. Coke will always be number one, but as ethical consumption takes off, so should Ubuntu’s fortunes.


Age: 45

Family: Married, three children

Lives: Wandsworth

Studied: French at Exeter

Reading: “I always read about three books, on the go at the moment it is George Orwell’s Books vs. Cigarettes.”

Favourite brand: “Green & Blacks, I loved the way that it changed the way that people eat chocolate in this country.”

Name: Ubuntu is a sub-Saharan African phrase that means “I am what I am because of who we all are”.