KENNEWICK, Wash. - For centuries, it's been a cultural staple and the source of income for many Nigerian farmers. Now, it's serving as the "secret ingredient" behind a major product launch for two Kennewick natives.
Kamiakin High graduates James Swinyard and Zach En'Wezoh are using what used to be a main ingredient of Coca-Cola to create a healthy, environmentally-friendly and ethically sourced energy drink.
That special ingredient is called the "kola nut." Despite its name, it's a fruit that is grown in Nigeria. And despite its unique qualities, not many people in the United States have heard of it. James and Zach hope that's about to change.
"You get online and you realize, 'this was in Coca-Cola?' said 26-year-old James. "It gives you the same amount of energy, it's a great boost. It's not a jittery boost, it's not going to be like when you knock back a Monster or a Red Bull."
You could say this product was years in the making. James and Zach have known each other since they were 9 years old, and they have both had a creative streak since day one.
"I was always messing with ingredients and cooking stuff up and bringing it to my friends," said James.
Fast forward over a decade, and that childhood tendency would be put to the test.
About a year ago, now 25-year-old Zach, who has family in Nigeria, came across a book written about his great-great- grandfather who was the ceremonial chief of a Nigerian tribe. Zach took the book - a single copy - and digitized it so he could share it with all of his family members.
"As he's reading this book he's reading about the kola nut almost constantly," said James. "You couldn't get through three or four pages without it mentioning the kola nut."
Along with having cultural significance, the kola nut was used at times by Nigerian warriors and hunters - a source of stamina due to its caffeine and theobromine content.
Zach did a little research and couldn't find a current product that utilized the fruit. That's when the dream was born.
"When we approached the product we wanted to create something that was whole," said James. "Something that thought of all these steps that you need to take to create a company that thinks about things like the environment and micro plastics, and thinks about farmers."
The outcome was "Bissy," a fair trade energy drink based around the kola nut.
However, it didn't happen overnight. It started with many cold emails, the two men eventually partnering with the Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria (CRIN), which oversees around 500 kola nut farmers.
James said the beverage itself really came together one night in an Airbnb.
"We were like, 'alright dude, we're going to stay up all night and we're going to mix this and we're going to find our formula,'" he said. "We literally did just that."
After finding a flavor company on the East Coast, it took about six months of sampling different combinations to come up with the final formula.
The name "bissy" comes from the Jamaican term for the fruit, but it also serves as a slight play on words.
"If you're going to drink an energy drink you want to be ‘busy,'" said James. "That's kind of how we branded it, we really want people who are health-focused but also people who like to get creative and who like to be active to consume it."
The concoction combines kola nut extract with natural flavors including ginger, cinnamon and clove. James said he's had consumers compare the taste to chai tea or gingerbread.
"We got 'melted gingerbread house' once which was my favorite," he said.
For James and Zach, it's about more than just making a beverage that tastes good or makes a profit. The bigger goal is helping Nigerian farmers during a period of social and economic unrest in their country.
When purchasing the kola nut, the two will pay the farmers a premium and set a price floor, so if there's any volatility in the market the farmers will avoid any potential loss
"We mitigate their risk, we pay them more for the product and then at the end of the year we take two percent of what we paid them and invest it into a community project for them," said James.
Bissy can currently be found online and in limited stores, including Highlands Organic Market and The Local. Right now, the two men are in the process of trying to get the product sold in more stores. Zach and James launched a Kickstarter on Thursday to help fund further distribution and fair trade certification, which costs thousands of dollars. Later this month, Zach will fly to Nigeria to meet with some of the farmers.
"We want to take this product that is conveniently packaged in a 3.4 ounce glass, sustainable bottle and do something transformative with it, and create a new market for Nigerian farmers," said James.
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