By Chris Meehan | Oct 05, 2020
San Francisco, California
Founded as a socia- purpose company by longtime friends Zach Jide En'Wezoh and James Swinyard, Bissy Energy aims to offer healthy energy drinks while working with small farmers in Nigeria to establish what they say is the first sustainable and fair trade supply chain in Nigeria. They turned to the kola nut, which was used in traditional ceremonial drinks in Nigeria by En'Wezoh's family, but the fruit sees little, if any, use outside Nigeria.
Now they're hoping to change that, starting with an energy shot launched in late 2019. "It was kind of ripe for disruption with 5-hour Energy owning 99 percent of the $1.1 billion market that it was in 2018 when we were getting this ramped up," says Swinyard.
The company imports powdered and liquid kola nut extract and makes sure the supply chain meets their requirements. "Zach, my co-founder, is Ebo, he's Nigerian, and he's traveled to Nigeria a number of times to form these relationships and make sure that the operations are running smoothly and that everybody's taken care of," Swinyard notes.
If the kola nut sounds familiar, it should. While cola is ubiquitous across the world, most aren't aware of its origins, Swinyard says. When John Pemberton was originally formulating Coca-Cola to help wean himself off morphine, he created a beverage using the coca leaf and the kola nut. The kola nut was used for taste and energy in the original Coca-Cola but the use of it has largely been replaced in soft drinks with other flavoring.
"Nobody knows what the kola nut is, it kind of has been lost in the lore of Coca-Cola," says Swinyard. "Nigeria, which produces 50 percent of the world's kola nut, has kind of just been left in the dust in terms of recognition for bringing this ingredient to America and to the world."
He adds, "Nobody is using the kola nut for its caffeine and its theobromine. What a lot of people don't understand is that kola nut has three times the caffeine as a coffee bean. So where a coffee bean has 1 percent of caffeine per gram, kola nut has 3 percent. So we just looked at that and said boom, there's more function."
Another compound found in kola nuts, theobromine, has additional benefits, says Swinyard. "It gives you that feel-good feeling," he explains. "It opens your lungs, allows your lungs to receive more oxygen."
The dearth of kola nuts in American products represents a wide open playing field for Bissy, he continues. "There's a product market fit, I think in the U.S. and there's non-consumption of the kola nut. But there's also this story and this component of kola nut that is not known. And we just felt it really needed to be known, which is why we started Bissy with the purpose and the intent of certifying our farmers with fair trade in Nigeria."
"That's our purpose. That's why Bissy exists, it is not to just be another cola or another soda. But to really utilize the function of the kola nut. And also pay homage to its roots in Nigeria and West Africa."
Challenges: According to Swinyard, awareness. "The biggest challenge that we face that we have faced and continue to face is product education. And just helping people understand that the kola nut is not really that exotic and not foreign. They've been drinking it for most of their life or they've been drinking some form of it for most of their lives.
Awareness about the kola nut is another. Swinyard says the company is educating consumers that "it's actually better for them, if they're trying to get an energy boost than coffee or matcha or really any other variety of natural caffeine-containing ingredients."
Opportunities: Bissy will next introduce two new drinks in carbonated form. "What we've realized is that our core customers aren't the people who are really interested in consuming a shot-sized beverage," Swinyard says.
"We're really excited about the opportunity to help Nigeria and help spread some positive energy from Nigeria," he adds. "I think the opportunity for us to come in and make a real impact is the most exciting thing for Zach and I. Beyond that, we're also providing really healthy energy alternatives to people."
Needs: "There are so many," Swinyard says. "Capital is the biggest constraint Zach and I have to be able to go full time and full steam ahead. And also for marketing the products right now. Most of the money that we put into the company has gone into product development and gone into the initial product runs."