When you think about the Coca-Cola Company what comes to mind?
A multi-national company?
A company whose’s Coke soda’s formula is only known by two people in the world and they have to travel separately so that if there is an accident at least somebody will be alive to pass across the formula (urban legend)?
Coke the flagship brand has been linked to Cancer?
Coca-Cola products are rumored to have been found to be contaminated with strange objects?
Coke has like 7 teaspoons of sugar?
And my personal favorite that smaller newer bottle of 300 ml Coke can’t contain the same amount of liquid as the longer bottle of Coke. Yes, that has been my perception all along.
Now if you didn’t get it from my excited tweet this morning I was at the Coca-Cola Company’s Coca-Cola Sabco (Nairobi Bottlers Ltd). A couple of weeks ago Coca-Cola and their PR agency RedHouse PR had a meeting with bloggers. The general manager Peter Njonjo talked to us about their products and told us about the quality control that is in place at the bottling plants to ensure that there is no contaminated products leave the plant. Coca-Cola then extended an invitation for us to visit the Nairobi Bottlers so that we see the process for ourselves.
I have always wanted to visit the Coca-Cola Sabco Bottlers. I pass it every day as I go on my sales route. It’s on my list of to go to places. I already did EABL so that is checked. Clearly my ultimate factory to visit is the Cadbury’s Chocolate Factory but I digress from the topic at hand.
The visit to the Bottling plant was very informative. Duncan Kimani, the Country Manufacturing Manager gave a presentation. Coca-Cola has franchises with bottlers to produce Coca-Cola products. Nairobi Bottlers is the biggest Franchise in Kenya. But all the franchises use one system, management, and quality control.
Nairobi Bottlers is owned by Coca-Cola Sabco (SA) which focuses on emerging markets in partnership with bottlers. Coca-Cola Sabco has majority shareholding but there is a significant (Kenyan) share held by centum investments. Apart from the MD, Patrick Pech, the whole management team is Kenyan and so are the employees. They want to build, and do build capacity in the local workforce. Coca-Cola Sabco has 974 employees at the plant and 242 distributors.
Coca-Cola Sabco has 8 bottling lines. 5 serve returnable glass bottles (RGB), 2 do Plastic bottles (PET) and I does premix (these are the ones you find at outlets like Nandos, Steers etc). In 2011 they distributed 21.5 million cases. Direct distribution is 10% and they outsource the other 90%. The growth of PET has made them invest in a state of the art new mega-line for PET. They actually outgrew the capacity of the then new machine that was supposed to be used for 5 years. I guess the demand was very high.
Soda cans are produced at the bottling plant in Mombasa. Juice is made by the Coca-Cola Juice company in Industrial Area. Minute Maid is also made in Mombasa and transported to Nairobi as well. There is a harmonization process though in the supply chain as everything is brought to a central point and distributed from there (single system distribution).
Coca-Cola Sabco makes 45 million physical cases in a year. Coca-Cola Sabco serves 15 million people in Machakos, Central, Nairobi, and Nakuru. The estimate for every person drinking Coca-Cola products is around 42 bottles a year, with Nairobi having 48.8 bottles a year and 48.9 in coast which is partly driven by tourists.
Did you know there is a 200ml bottle? I last saw one a long time ago. Apparently they are still around. They are sold in low income areas so that those consumers who love Coca-Cola products can enjoy them at affordable prices.
We got to visit the bottling plant but had to first go through safety rules and regulations. We then had to get overcoats to protect our clothing so as not to get stains and also to protect us from getting bits and pieces of our clothing stuck in machines just in case they have loose ends. We also got something to cover our hair and ear plugs as well. Apparently the noise from the bottling process is high.
We got to visit the lab where samples of materials (Packaging) are weighed and measured and tests are carried out. This lab also does tests of product quality to make sure that any product that leaves Coca-Cola Sabco has a guarantee of quality.
I was amazed that the PET bottle is just a small bottle the size of a test tube. It is blown up into the size of bottle that is required and then filled. I learn something new every day. We got to see the bottles that have been returned from the distributors. These are usually checked from the distributor level to ensure that there are no objects like straws left inside the bottles. By the time they reach the C bottlers they have already been removed and that is a policy that bottles should not be brought from the distributors with objects inside them.
At the beginning point the bottles are removed from the crates and they are out into a bottler washer upside down. The bottles are washed with water (I saw the cigarette butts which were washed out among other things) then caustic soda which acts as an enzyme to remove any remaining impurities and then the bottles are rinsed again. This ensures that there are no foreign objects remain after washing. Then there is an electronic bottle inspector that checks if there are any impurities in the bottle (if it hasn’t been washed properly) such bottles are sent back. The bottle inspector also checks for chips in the bottle if it has any, the bottle is destroyed. The bottle inspector also destroys any bottles that are in a line that don’t belong e.g. a bottle of Fanta in a line that is for making Coke. There is also a human bottle inspector who is the first security check before the Electronic one to sure that the bottles are ok. This is before it reaches the Electronic Bottle inspector. He removes any bottles he sees that don’t fit in. For example they are doing a Coke run and there is a bottle of Coke light. This must be removed so that it is not filled with the formula for Coke regular then customers complain.
After the bottle washer the bottles go to the machine that fills them and caps them. This is done in a closed environment. An interesting fact. Usually when you see bottles coming out of the washer they take a couple of minutes in a zigzag conveyor before they go to the bottle inspectors. We were reliably informed this is so that they can cool down. Apparently in the washer because of the process they get really hot so they have to cool down before getting liquid put into them. If not they tend to explode. We did hear a couple exploding so I guess they were too hot.
After the bottle is filled and capped it goes through another bottle inspector which checks if the quantity is right. If not they are pushed off the line. This bottle inspector also puts in a new date of expiry. Apparently the old date is usually washed out in the washer. So Coca-Cola Sabco can if there is a complaint trace a batch or a soda to a specific date, time etc. there is also a human bottle inspector who checks if there are quality issues with the bottles. This operator is changed after was it 15 or 50 minutes I have to confirm so that they don’t get too fatigued. So they operate in shifts. Then the products are put in crates and then they are ready to be distributed.
We visited the lines (production process) for making Coke (above) and Dasani. For Dasani we got to see those test tubes like plastics being blown up. They are then filled with water and then capped and a security seal and the packaging for Dasani put in. all the systems for putting in liquid and capping is done in a closed environment so there is no chance of the products getting impurities. After seeing the process of making sodas and water from the un-crating process to washing, filling and capping, to packaging I can confidently saw it would be almost impossible to get contamination of Coca-Cola products from the bottling side.
We also got to see the water treatment facility. Coca-Cola Sabco has its own line of water from Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company. They also have their own borehole. All the water is purified there and ozonated if it needs to be (for Dasani). Coca-Cola Sabco has outsourced Johnson Diversey to do its water treatment as apparently they are the best in the world at doing so. So the guy from Johnson Diversey explained the process of water purification. Apparently they have a five step program. I will not bore you with the details but let’s just say that it is very thorough.
Coca-Cola Sabco also have their own power line or is it a cable? They use a lot more electricity then their surrounding neigbours they need a dedicated line. These they share with I think Kenya Airways and the Army. They also have very powerful generators. This means that even if electricity disappears they can still run at normal capacity.
We did manage to get a peek from far the formula for the sodas. Apparently Coke has two liquid ingredients that are mixed together. The others have one part liquid and one part powder. The only thing imported for the sodas is the formula (from Swaziland) and refined sugar which is not available locally so they have to import. Everything else is gotten from here. The water, the bottles, the plastics, and packaging. The challenge for Coca-Cola Sabco is to build supplier bas as fast as product sales are growing. About 5 years ago they were at 80% imports and now they are at 75% local.
Coca-Cola Sabco has won 7 awards in 5 consecutive years for outstanding products, quality control, and customer orientation. They also do a lot of CSR. They had the highest donation for Kenyans4Kenyans at 134 million. They have also built 8 permanent homes for IDPs in Mai Mahiu (Naivasha). They also have donated the plant they had in Machakos to build a college in a joint venture with the Catholic Church. The college which they hope may one day become a university is called the Machakos Institute of Development Studies. For e
One of the challenges Coca-Cola Sabco has faced is the recycling of PETs. They had contracted a company to do it. But the issue of how people recycle has made it hard. That and the fact that there are cartels that control where the plastic waste can be taken (Dandora). Apparently selling used plastic bottles is big business.
Coca-Cola Sabco has been working on reducing their carbon footprint. One of these ways has been introduction of PET. Because PET bottles don’t have to be returned it means that there is less use of transport bringing bottles pack. The fact that they use high flow carbon coolers is also another way. These don’t emit greenhouse gases. They are also working with new technologies that reduce the amount of water and electricity to run the plant.
I asked about the machinery component as opposed to human resource. The plant is 80% mechanized. Even though this is the case a lot of human labor is still required as we saw all around the plant.
The difference between Coke and Coke Zero was explained. Coke is made with refined sugar and Coke Zero has no sugar and instead is sweetened with non-nutritive sweeteners approved by authorities including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and is permitted for use in foods and beverages in more than 100 countries worldwide. As a result Coke Zero maintains great taste with low calories.
We also discussed the issue of people saying that Coke causes cancer. I have attached a PDF COFEk presentation Ndemwa Karama 2 with some of the facts about coloring and caramelization which is the process of adding the colour that Coke has. I am not a scientist so I would definitely not be the best to explain that process. We did learn that Coke levels are within the safe range. You would actually be shocked to know a lot of products like your favorite loaf of bread or beer (dark Beer) are added the same colour but no one talks about it. According to the expert I spoke to at the last event, Phillip Ndenwa from Kemri, curry powder actually is one product that carries dangerous levels. Even your nyama choma goes through a stage of caramelization.
4-methylimidazole (4-MEI) is a by product formed in certain foods during the normal heating and browning process and possibly as a by product of fermentation. So Coke 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI) levels of which is a by-product of caramelization are in a same range according to world international standards set by USA FDA and European Food safety Standards. Coca-Cola goes by the stringent global standards as opposed to local standards which vary according to country or region.
A few things Coca-Cola wanted us to tell you. Don’t put candles in bottles (apparently people do that) its one of the things that leads to impurities. If you want to live a healthy lifestyle balance your calorie intake with output. That is having energy balance. Coke doesn’t have 7 teaspoons of sugar. It’s a myth. Coca-Cola also advocates for living a healthy lifestyle that’s why they have come up with products for people who want less calories (Coke Light, Coke Zero) and Dasani (emphasis being drinking water to stay healthy). If you do have issues with a product you can take it back to them and they will check it to see if it has been interfered with and if it hasn’t then they will take appropriate action.
Having seen how Coke bottles are filled I am now fighting the dissonance that I have had that the new smaller bottles of Coke have less soda then the longer bottle. I enjoyed the visit. It was an experience I would advocate for anybody can manage to go. They do allow factory visits although you have to get clearance. The people at Coca-Cola Sabco were very nice to us. We had a great time even managed to meet the Managing Director Patrick Pech who acknowledged the importance of social media and bloggers. The main Coca-Cola fan page on Facebook in the US is apparently run by fans not the company.
So the questions I asked at the beginning about your perceptions of Coca-Cola? Have they changed? I would welcome your comments if you have any!
I wrote a post a couple of weeks back about my history with Coke. Read it here Coke and I.
Potentash Founder. A creative writer. The Managing Editor at Potentash. Passionate about telling African stories and stories about the inclusion of minorities. Find me at email@example.com.
“We're all stories, in the end.” ― Steven Moffat