As I banter with Zion and Malaika, founders of Catha, a jaba juice brand centred around wellness- I workshop a working title I had for this story titled “Jaba juice: The Black Man’s cocaine”, explaining my theory that black people, especially those of us of African descent, were not made for cocaine. Or rather, cocaine was not made for us.
I have little science and data to back this up but I’ve observed inter-racial groups of people indulge in lines of coke, and it always seemed like the more melanin a person possesses, the less fun they have on cocaine compared to the least melanated person in the group.
Zion goes on to tell me that apparently in South C, jaba is colloquially referred to as ‘mugucaine’.
“And now when you actually use that analogy of ‘mugucaine’, a lot of these guys have never used coke but they know that inherently, ‘this definitely has got to be our crack. This has got to be what crack feels like’. Without 70% of the harmful effects of crack.
What we do with Catha that is unique, that has actually defined a lot of how the industry is shaping, is ensuring that we’re making wellness for that. Curating it in such a way that it doesn’t become addictive. Even at product level, our whole ethos and process by the time you’re getting the bottle, it [percentage of jaba] is balanced enough.”
“Yeah I noticed that with the tamarind one?” I make reference to the 330ml Tamarind-flavoured Catha jaba juice I had ordered a few hours prior to meeting them, purely for pre-interview research purposes of course.
“You wouldn’t expect that, would you? It has no sugar. You’d expect a sweet tamarind, but the more you take it the more your palate adapts to it.” Zion says.
“That’s how it’s supposed to be. That’s how Tamarind tastes.” Malaika emphasizes.
“Exactly. We don’t want to create any fake sensations.” Zion emphasizes even more.
“It’s authentic.” Malaika finalizes. I keenly watch and find the inter-personal energy bouncing between the two of them remarkable, as I reach for my third chocolate-oatmeal muffin.
“That’s what we want to champion. No fake sensations but as clean as possible,” Zion elaborates, “we’re actually even growing our stuff [miraa] in Embu…”
“Wait, you’re growing yourselves?” I interject, mouth stuffed with half-masticated muffin.
“Yup,” Zion replies with a proud grin on his face.
“We wanted to understand the plants better. We want to make sure that it’s something that doesn’t become addictive, it’s something that’s productive- you can use it and work. It’s not just about times when you wanna go out, or have a good time, you can actually get work done.”
“Strictly Catha me si mix na any-gin” I rap the lyrics to one of my favorite songs, which as a principle, I play before indulging in jaba juice.
“Strictly Catha me si mix na anything. Nakunya neat mi si changanyi na gin” Zion corrects me. He should know. After all, he wrote the song. I ask them why and how they came to partner in this venture.
“We both have a deep abundance mindset and we both harness those parts of ourselves, and I feel like that’s the bed I want our organization and everyone who benefits from our work to sleep on. A bed of abundance,” Zion explains their origin story.
“There’s such a man-eat-man toxic environment out there which is what’s making people sick. It’s making people unhappy. They’re not able to access the right art or the right spaces, and so we’re trying to make healing an art in itself.
We’re trying to show people that it’s the art of tapping into yourself. Creating the right networks. Doing the right events. Curating the right music. Connecting with people who can genuinely care about one another because there’s also a lack of care in our society. Self-sabotage is on an all-time high so if we can redefine how we approach things, I think we can set that tone.
We’ve tapped into a magic which is undeniable. Our passion for what we’re doing is undeniable. I’m not really threatened by anyone at all.”
“Not even mass commercialization?” I ask, devil-on-my-shoulder.
One of my biggest fears for small successful brands is the man-from-overseas who sees a small Kenyan industry thriving and takes it to a pitch meeting to source funding for mass-commercialization. Think Kune Foods. Think of the long-running myth of the Japanese patent over the Kiondo, a hand-woven bag indigenous to the Kikuyu, Kamba and Taita community. Or the UK company that tried to trademark the kikoy, a cloth native to the coastal tribes of the Swahili Coast.
“Not to invalidate what you’re bringing up. Those things definitely could happen,” Zion validates my fears.
“Also, we can’t supply everyone,” Malaika adds. “We can’t supply the world. The pie is so big. So even if they’re trying to get everyone. We’re trying to get a different kind of everyone.”
“We have a community,” Zion explains.
“And those guys tell their community, they tell their loved ones, they tell their family, they tell their friends who are visiting town that part of you experiencing Nairobi is trying jaba juice. Those are the people we’re after and want to grow with.
We don’t really want to industrialize that. We don’t want to mass-commercialize.
Sustainability is also a factor. That’s why we have 1000 trees. We have to learn. We have to be involved. We have to actually play the part.”
“What do you think the future of the jaba juice industry is? 10 years from now, where do you think the whole industry is going to be?” I ask, sheepishly reaching for another cupcake.
Malaika responds, “It’s really hard to project. I think it all depends on the type of timeline you’ve decided to be on, so Catha is choosing to be on the timeline of abundance. Of creating a solution. Of creating healing…”
“…it’s also about helping black people be able to access the power within themselves, their true authentic self because that’s where the true super power comes from. Jaba helps with that. I know there’ll be that aspect of it, and then there’ll be another world which we’ll be experiencing entirely differently and it’s hard for us to predict it.
I can honestly only say what I hope it will look like.”
“Because the world is becoming so unpredictable,” Zion continues Malaika’s train of thought.
“We could be projecting something for ten years and then it happens in five. Or two. I don’t even know what could happen next year, judging by the rate at which [Catha] it’s growing.”
“Because it could suddenly become legal everywhere,” Malaika chimes.
“It could become standardized in a second. They were talking about that in a conference in 2021, they had a conference in Meru for Muguka. Guys brought [jaba] wines. Guys brought [jaba] juices. It was documented. People were calling us like, telling us ‘have you seen this on the news?’ ”
The conference she is referring to is The 1st Meru County Scientific Conference on Khat which ran from 27th-28th October 2021 with the objective of understanding the impact of khat on health, social and economic well-being using research evidence.
“Ruto also did that thing when he became president, he went to visit khat farmers. So there’s something there. With the building of their relationship with Somalia, something is changing there.” Malaika informs me, highlighting the significance of khat growing, export and trade towards Kenya’s economy and diplomatic ties.
The Covid-19 pandemic and diplomatic tensions between Kenya and Somalia saw an embargo on khat trade which took effect in March 2020. The trade ban was lifted in July 2022 as one of the last acts of governance by the Uhuru Kenyatta regime, before the August 9th elections saw a change in guard to Kenya Kwanza- with the first khat exports generating around KES 221 million within the first four days of export.
“And you know how the West works is that they want to be the ones controlling change in all these countries,” Zion muses.
“Muguka grows naturally on our soil. That’s why they made it illegal in certain countries. In the UK, khat was banned. In the States, khat was banned. When you actually think about it, you have to ask ‘what does this stuff actually do for it to be banned?’
“It’s literally just chewing a plant,” says Malaika.
“Yaani?” Zion agrees.
“How bad is this thing such that we need to ban it when stuff like alcohol is legal and it kills so many people? Like what are you really saying?”
Miraa is more illegal than legal in a global context, with the UK being the last to ban it in 2014 despite having been Kenya’s biggest European miraa export market with more than 20,000 khat users based in the UK.
Malaika believes that if Western governments legalized miraa, it has the potential to replace big pharma dependency on ADHD medications like adderall, and prescription anti-depressants.