Mecca-Cola comes to Africa

Soda marketed to Muslims takes on big U.S. rivals
Reuters, Apr. 17, 2003

DAKAR, Senegal (Reuters) — Sarr Elyse took a sip from a plastic cup. Like an experienced wine taster, she swilled the dark liquid around in her mouth then swallowed.

“I love Coca-Cola and this is not Coca-Cola,” she said with a slight grimace.

It certainly wasn’t and that’s the point of Mecca-Cola — a soft drink named after Islam’s holiest shrine and created to protest against U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Senegal is one of the first sub-Saharan African countries to put Mecca-Cola on the market, and it’s an obvious choice. The population is 95 percent Muslim and opposition to the war in Iraq has been more vocal here than elsewhere in the region.

Thousands took to the streets to protest against the fighting in Iraq, and now Mecca-Cola, which has sales of about 5 million bottles in Europe, will gives thirsty Senegalese a thought-provoking, alternative thirst slaker to the U.S. brand.

“Being a Muslim, I was attracted by the name Mecca-Cola,” said Hassane Brahim Fardoun, the businessman behind the drink’s distribution in Senegal. “I will do my best to penetrate the Senegalese market with this new product.”

The drink’s launch coincided with increasing popular opposition to U.S. foreign policy and the first six-packs of Mecca-Cola were delivered to two shops in Senegal’s capital Dakar the same week U.S. troops stormed Baghdad. More will follow if it sells well.

At first glance, the 1.5-litre Mecca-Cola bottles look just like Coca-Cola. But closer study shows a green mosque, Arabic writing on one side and the sales pitch in French and Arabic: “No more drinking stupid, drink with commitment.”

Fardoun’s son Ibrahim frenetically supervises the first deliveries in a noisy, narrow Dakar street where teen-age boys pull heavy metal trolleys through snail-slow traffic.

He says the advertising campaign has not yet started because posters have not arrived from France, but he has high hopes for word-of-mouth marketing.

Elyse is one of the first to taste the new beverage at a tiny shop in the city center. Unfortunately for Fardoun, she is Catholic, and a little reticent about whole-heartedly backing the political viewpoints behind Mecca-Cola’s existence.

“Why not Roma-Cola?” she said, sounding a little miffed.

Taking on the ‘Real Thing’

Mecca-Cola has already found fans in Africa and elsewhere.

The cola with a crusade is the brainchild of French businessman Tawfik Mathlouthi, who launched the drink in November in France. The drink is sold in several European countries and the Middle East as well.

Mathlouthi, who is originally from Tunisia, says 10 percent of the profits will go to help Palestinian children and another 10 percent to European charities.

Soft drink behemoth Coca-Cola Co., based in Atlanta, has not commented directly on its upstart rival but said Wednesday in announcing its quarterly results that it had not been significantly hurt by a rise in anti-U.S. feeling in some parts of the world recently.

The first shipments of Mecca-Cola have been delivered to the African countries of Mauritania, Libya and Sudan as well as Senegal. A spokeswoman in Paris said the company expects to ship to Gabon and Mali in the coming weeks.

A bottling plant has opened in Morocco where the cola is being distributed in five districts in Casablanca. “It’s doing better than we expected,” said Omar Elalami, president of Mecca-Cola, Morocco.

“We started a week ago, and we have sold 300,000 bottles,” he said. “It’s not bad.”

Elalami says Mecca-Cola is sold at the same price as that charged by “the Americans. As this is a quality product, we don’t see why we should cut the price.”

Mecca-Cola is not unique. There is a wide range of similar ideological drinks, like Muslim Up or British-based Qibla-Cola, whose Web site cries “Liberate your taste.”

‘Dont shake me, shake your conscience’

Ironically, the drink that typifies the American way of life was flavored originally with cola nuts, widely prized in West Africa as a stimulant and a dowry gift at weddings.

And Coca-Cola is firmly entrenched in Senegal’s capital Dakar, a seaside city of cool breezes where the calls of the midday muezzin drift over catchy African rhythms and hooting cars.

Posters of healthy, happy young people drinking Coca-Cola hang on shop doors, with the slogan “Refresh your life.”

Fardoun’s son doesn’t want to talk about the idea that Mecca-Cola is taking on the U.S. soft drink giant — for him this is business not politics — but others are not so shy.

“Mecca-Cola is excellent,” said Rania Malkani, a Lebanese woman after tasting it at one of Fardoun’s outlets. “We must buy it and drink it. We must not drink American Coca-Cola.”

On its Web site, Mecca-Cola says: “Don’t shake me, shake your conscience” and runs pictures of Palestinian children firing slings at Israeli tanks and soldiers.

It’s a long way from the peace-loving nation of Senegal but Fardoun, who runs a soft drinks company called Afrijus, thinks the message and the drink will appeal.

He imported 11,700 bottles from France, but hopes to win the rights to bottle Mecca-Cola in Senegal for distribution throughout West Africa with its sizable Muslim communities.

But Mecca-Cola may not be everybody’s cup of tea, especially those who like to spice up their soft drinks.

“Please do not mix with alcohol,” says a tiny note at the bottom of Mecca-Cola’s label — a polite nod in the direction of the Muslim faith which bans liquor.

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This post was last updated: Thursday, November 21, 2013 at 8:52 PM, Central European Time (CET)