Despite Its Familiar Name, Bolivian Cola Is No Coke

Ospicoca's Coca Colla Flaunts Link to Coca Leaf, Local People Ask for Government Support

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BUENOS AIRES (AdAge.com) -- Makers of a new Bolivian soft drink called Coca Colla are hoping the Bolivian government will help them find financing to expand production of the coca leaf-based soft drink and maybe hire an ad agency.

WHERE DO THEY GET THE 'ENERGY'? Brand plays up the coca leaf.
WHERE DO THEY GET THE 'ENERGY'? Brand plays up the coca leaf. Credit: Aizar Raldes
Coca Colla was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year when Ospicoca, the drink's producer, garnered wide publicity by cleverly serving the drink to the crowd at President Evo Morales' inauguration ceremony as he started his second term in office.

Unlike Coca-Cola, which for decades has denied that its secret formula has any connection with coca leaves or their highly concentrated end product, cocaine, Coca Colla flaunts the coca connection with a picture of the green leaf on its label.

The soda is produced by Ospicoca, a 4-year-old group of coca producers and chemists formed to find additional legitimate uses for coca leaves, which are widely used in Bolivia in products from tea to toothpaste and are often chewed by Bolivians to help fend off cold and hunger. Coca Colla is the first project for Ospicoca, which stands for Organizacion Social Para la Industrializacion de la Coca, but the group is already thinking about launching a coca leaf-based beer next.

Coca Colla isn't really ready for prime time yet. The drink is available only in 500 cc bottles, is sold mostly in small markets, and has a peculiar pricing structure. The first bottle costs 10 bolivianos, about $1.40 -- and pricier than Coca Cola -- but a second bottle can be bought for between 3.50 and 4 bolivianos, or about 50 cents.

Government help
Ospicoca has been in contact with the Bolivian government about helping the company find ways to finance its growth. A government spokeswoman said tests are currently being performed on the drink to make sure it meets health requirements.

"Ospicoca is still producing the beverage independently," said Heidy Orellana, the official spokeswoman of the government's coca leaf department, one of three divisions of the Ministry for Rural Development. "Our plan is to [help] seek financing channels to broaden the commercialization of the product, first locally and then internationally."

Sold in bottles with white lettering on a bright red label, Coca Colla is made from coca leaf flour, flavorings and a small amount of caffeine and sugar. The beverage is named after both the coca leaf, a plant that is virtually the national symbol of Bolivia, and the local population. The word "colla" is a local term referring to the descendants of the indigenous Aymara people, a heritage Mr. Morales shares. Mr. Morales has also headed a union of coca farmers.

PEOPLE'S BRAND: 'Colla' refers to Bolivia's indigenous population.
PEOPLE'S BRAND: 'Colla' refers to Bolivia's indigenous population.
Although the Bolivian government is still studying Coca Colla and hasn't provided any financing, Mr. Morales is no fan of the other Coca-Cola. He has criticized the soft drink, and referred to Coke in a recent speech as "the liquid that plumbers use to unblock the toilets." (Of course, he has also warned men that eating too much chicken could leave them impotent and bald.)

The Atlanta-based cola giant hasn't taken action against Ospicoca and Coca-Cola. Victor Ledezma, president of Ospicoca, said that despite the obvious similarity in the name his group has chosen, he doesn't see any reason for Coca-Cola to pursue any kind of legal action again them. And he may be right.

A Lima, Peru-based spokesman for Coca-Cola Transandina said, "The Coca-Cola system in Bolivia supports free enterprise and healthy competition, which help improve the national industry and provide consumers a variety of options to satisfy their needs. ...We welcome any business venture that favors the growth and development of the industry, as long as it follows the laws and regulations applicable."

Another Andean country, Peru, found great success with a local Coca-Cola knockoff called Inca Kola. Launched in 1953, Inca Kola, named after the indigenous Inca civilization, grew to outsell Coke in Peru. Coca-Cola bought a 50% stake in Inca Kola back in 1999 for $300 million.

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