Coca-Cola in Africa

A new book by Sara Byala of the School of Arts & Sciences examines the century-long history of the soft drink manufacturer and its local impact in Africa.

Sara Byala portrait and book cover for Bottled How Coca-Cola Became African by Sara Byala
Sara Byala, a senior lecturer in creative writing and associate director of the Penn Global Documentary Institute, is the author of a new book, "Bottled: How Coca-Cola Became African." 

Born in Johannesburg and raised in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Sara Byala took a course on South African history during her first semester as an undergraduate at Tufts University, and that set the course of her career. Byala went on to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard. 

Throughout her life she has travelled to Africa, to visit relatives after her family moved to the United States in the 1970s and for academic research, including her dissertation on 20th century South Africa. She noticed that no matter where she went, even in the most remote corners of the continent, Coca-Cola was there, often ice-cold. The brand, with its iconic red sign, is ubiquitous. 

“The more I travelled around the continent, the more I realized Coca-Cola is everywhere in Africa,” says Byala, who has been a senior lecturer in critical writing in the School of Arts & Sciences since 2007. 

In 2014 she read about Coca-Cola bottlers creating a rainbow with recycled water over downtown Johannesburg, a nod to the country’s moniker Rainbow Nation, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the end of apartheid. At that moment she made a decision. “I thought now is the time to write this book. Somebody has to do this,” she says. 

That book, “Bottled: How Coca-Cola Became African,” was released this month in the U.S., after its initial publication in the United Kingdom and Africa. 

“Bottled,” Byala says, is the first assessment of the social, commercial, and environmental impact in Africa by one of the world’s biggest brands and largest corporations. Through a combination of archival research and on-the-ground fieldwork, she examines the company’s century-long involvement in myriad aspects of life on the continent. “This is not a story of American capitalism running amok but rather of a company becoming African, bending to consumer power in ways big and small,” she says. 

Byala’s ancestors arrived in Africa from Europe and the Middle East. Her mother was born in Zimbabwe, her relatives resettling in Africa from Russia and Eastern Europe. Byala’s father was born in South Africa, his mother having left the Netherlands right before the Holocaust. “They were all part of the Jewish diaspora that sought refuge in Africa,” says Byala, who became a U.S. citizen when she was 18. 

At Penn, she teaches a range of writing seminars about Africa, including one on Coca-Cola, and will use her book for the first time in a course next year. Byala is also the associate director of the new Penn Global Documentary Institute, that aims to tell global stories through local collaboration. She has travelled extensively with students in Africa through her research and through Penn Global Seminars. 

Penn Today spoke with Byala about her research and writing, her work with students, and her hopes for “Bottled.” 

Sara Byala standing among hundreds of coca-cola bottle cartons.
Born in Johannesburg, Sara Byala studied South African history. She has traveled to Africa to conduct research, including in Ethiopia.  (Image: Peter Decherney)

How did you get started on the book project? 

First, I read everything that had been written about Coca-Cola. I learned pretty quickly that Coke is in every African country. By most estimates, it’s the single largest private employer on the continent, with a multiplier effect that means that for every official Coke job, there’s maybe 10 other people or more who are supported. So, the footprint is enormous on the continent. And I also quickly learned that while there are many books on Coca-Cola, in most of them Africa is just a footnote. At the same time, I found hints early on that Coke played a role in the anti-apartheid movement and in helping to end apartheid in South Africa; that really grabbed me. Then, I discovered Coca-Cola’s contemporary efforts around sustainability, which support its ability to continue operating into the future by helping sustain the local communities it is operating in. This, too, captivated me.

How did you pursue your research? 

I had an adviser who had a contact at Coca-Cola. Through this channel, I was able to approach the company and gain access to its remarkable closed corporate archive. Over a couple of years, I worked in the archives at the global headquarters in Atlanta, looking at photographs, speeches, advertisements, and boxes upon boxes of documents. And at the same time, I undertook field work in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, Egypt, and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland). I conducted interviews with Coca-Cola people on the ground in each country: executives, bottlers, workers on the lines, the people selling Coke at shops by the side of the road, and more. I went to look at energy projects, women’s empowerment schemes, and water initiatives. I interviewed, all told, about 200 people for this book.

I have three children, so my field work has been during the U.S. summers over four years, 2016 through 2019. One summer I did three trips to the African continent.

How did you start shaping the book? 

I am very much a storyteller. All seven chapters open with a story, and they close with a story, and there are stories throughout. I open the book with the cola nut, which is not a nut but instead a kind of a fruit that is highly caffeinated. In West Africa, people break them and eat them. That’s one of the origins of Coca-Cola. So, I start the book by locating the origins of this beverage on the continent. Then I tackle the arrival of Coca-Cola in Africa. Common wisdom is that Coke came to South Africa in 1928, but I found evidence that it arrived much earlier, in 1909. To put this in perspective, Coca-Cola was invented in 1886. There’s a kind of lore that Coke comes and it’s immediately popular everywhere, but that’s not really the case. Lots of things have to happen to grow a market and a taste for this beverage, which I then document in chrono-thematic chapters. 

Everywhere in the world, Coke exports concentrate to local bottlers, who are in turn embedded in their communities. That is what led me to what’s essentially the central proposition of the book. What I found is that the way Coca-Cola has spread across the continent, has become as ubiquitous as it is, and as beloved as it is, was not by an American corporation steamrolling a continent but rather by an American company becoming African. In the book, I look at how that happened on a large scale, particularly when it comes to defining moments like the end of apartheid. I also look at a whole series of small but deeply meaningful adaptations around sports, women’s empowerment, music, and more. The sum total shows that the company has been willing to adapt to the needs of its consumers in ways that sometimes even governments are unable or unwilling to do. 

I offer these stories within a framework of the giant environmental and ecological questions that hover over this company: How much soda can anyone consume, and what is the human bodily and planetary cost of that? 

How was the field work and research with students? 

I’ve worked very closely with undergraduates as research assistants. I think it’s profound for students to do this kind of travel and research. The students with me, not only were they helping with interviews, recording, transcriptions, and note taking but also learning the ethics and intricacies of doing work in often challenging scenarios. The way that field work works is that you just don’t know exactly where the day is going to take you. Travel itself is complicated on the African continent. There’s often bias you can face. And when you’re a woman traveling there are different concerns to take into account. So, it’s learning those skill sets that makes a difference to students’ education. At the same time, I have found Penn undergraduates to be brilliant assistants.

What are your hopes for the book?

I am keenly interested in the idea that you can tell stories about the past which inform how we understand the present through things that don’t seem that important. So, on the one hand, Coke and Coke products are just everywhere, right? But I hope that people read the book and see that there's something important behind that ubiquity, that, in fact, it’s a lens onto something much bigger about this African century. So that’s my goal. Yes, the book is about this company and this product, but really it’s a book about a hundred-some years of African history.