First Published: 2003-08-28

Watch out for Kufa Cola

Homegrown Iraqi cola battling tough post-war competition, determined to win.


Middle East Online

By Selim Saheb Ettaba - KUFA, Iraq

The Cola war

Launched six months before the war, homegrown Kufa Cola, is facing stiff competition in a market inundated with better-known soft-drink brands since coalition forces invaded the country in March.

Named after the Iraqi holy city of Kufa and owned by one of the country's wealthiest Shiite Muslim families, however, Kufa is determined to win the popularity war.

Packaged exclusively in cans, which are more heat-resistant but dearer than the bottles used by rivals, the war drastically curtailed Kufa output.

"We produced more than 350,000 cases (each containing 24 cans) before the war and we stored them," says Raid Najjah Kubba, at 26, general manager of the drinks factory of 150 workers.

"At the start of the war, the American army used our factory as a base for its operations. They stayed for more than two weeks and took 7,000 cases from storage, as well as our trucks.

"We filed a compensation claim asking for more than 250,000 dollars," he adds.

But, although there has been no reimbursement from the US military, the businessman is delighted to have them as customers.

"They like it so much. We sell them more than 100 cases a week, especially the orange," he says.

Initial hopes for a partnership deal with Pepsi Cola -- the only cola producer allowed in Iraq after Arabs boycotted Coca Cola in the mid-1960s for building a factory in Israel -- collapsed in the wake of UN sanctions imposed following Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

But since Kubba took over in 1998 and the product was named Kufa, after the city where the first Shiite imam, Ali established his capital before being killed in 661, it has towed a firmly Iraqi line.

"We took the name Kufa because we are close to Kufa and we belong to this city," said Kubba. His uncle, chairman of the family empire, which includes a bank, clothes shop and agriculture industry, was born here.

He insists that the name was not chosen to exploit the anti-American boycott, like Zam-Zam Cola in Iran, or more recently, Mecca Cola.

As well as cola, the factory produces Kufa orange, Kufa seven up, Kufa soda and diet drinks.

The liquid concentrate comes from Lebanon, the cans from Jordan and the water from the nearby Euphrates river, Kubba says.

"We sell more than 10,000 cases per day," he says, adding that it's impossible to keep up with nationwide demand.

But, while the red Kufa cans are on widely seen in Iraq's central cities of Najaf, Kufa and Karbala, they face stiff competition in the capital.

An influx of imported colas has flooded into the country since the UN Security Council lifted 13 years of economic sanctions and the US-led coalition scrapped tariffs on most goods until the end of the year to boost the shattered economy.

"Not many people buy them, because they are more expensive than the bottles," says Karim Hashim, 40, who sells drinks in Sadr City, Baghdad's Shiite quarter named after the late Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Sadr.

"The best is Saudi Pepsi because it's very strong," says 27-year-old Riad Najim Abdullah, in the neighbouring Shiite quarter of Jamila.

Kufa brand recognition has a long way to go in the capital.

"I didn't know that it was an Iraqi product," admits Abdullah.

But Khalid Odat, a 31-year-old grocer in Jamila, predicts a rosy future for Kufa.

"It's popular here thanks to its sacred name, like Sadr and because it tastes stronger," he said, a portrait of Ayatollah Sadr hanging on the wall behind him.

Not to mention that it benefits from one essential asset as an Iraqi product: "It lasts a long time in the sun."


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