Sunday, March 25, 2018

Leopoldville 1952 – Message in a Pepsi Bottle

While walking around the American School (TASOK) campus on Mont Ngaliema a few months ago, I turned up a glass bottle embedded in the soil.  It was a Pepsi-Cola bottle, but Pepsi-Cola is no longer produced in Kinshasa. It definitely ended up there after purchase at the student store, but when and how it found its way into the woods, intact, rather than as part of the trash piles tossed into the forest at different times, was intriguing.

A couple years ago, I researched a piece on the breweries in Kinshasa (June 12, 2015) and this find seemed to suggest the soft drink scene could use a look. Who knows what threads this inquiry might weave into a story?
As early as 1913, a French company, Georges Fabre et Cie, produced soda water, ice and flavored syrups in Kinshasa. It also operated a cinema distribution network. 
Prior to World War II, the Brasserie de Leopoldville produced bottled water and soft drinks for the local market.  In 1933, when Regideso was just beginning to provide piped, treated water to the municipality, a Brasserie advertisement urged people to drink the brewery’s bottled water, sodas and limonades to protect against epidemics.
Advertisement in the Etoile de l'AEF, Feb. 2, 1933
Bottle labels from a selection of soft drinks
In 1947, a bottle factory, “Bouteillerie de Leopoldville” was established by the Brasserie de Leopoldville with support from Heineken. The factory opened on Ave. du Camp Militaire (Ave Sgt. Moke) in November 1949.  The new company contracted with A.W. Schmid of Pittsburgh, Pa. to oversee the installation and launching of the glass-making operation.

A view of the Boukin plant.
In the 1950s, two American firms looked at the Congo market and decided to invest bigtime.  One was the US giant, Coca-Cola, which franchised its brand and secret recipe to the Ste. Congolaise des Boissons in 1950. The primary investor was the Sucrière du Bas Congo, the sugar plantation established at Moerbeke-Kwilu. Other investors included companies which were also part of the ultimate colonial holding company, the Société Générale de Belgique (SGB), including Profrigo, Cie. du Kasai and Belgo-Katanga, as well as an American firm called Industrial Sales Corp, the arm of the Compagnie du Congo pour le Commerce et l’Industrie in the US, another SGB holding. Maurice Michaux, who operated a major grocery and food importing company in Leopoldville also subscribed to several shares. The plant opened in 1956 at 28 Ave. Olsen (Kabasele Tshamala), the road to Ndolo Airport, not far from where the US Consulate was located at the time (See Jan. 29, 2011).
Patrice Lumumba leaving a rally at a bar in Leopoldville in 1960 (possibly the OK Bar on Ave Itaga)
Rival US bottler, Pepsi Cola, conducted a prospecting survey in Congo in 1948 but opted initially to focus on East Africa.  It came to Congo in 1952 under the auspices of Maurice Alhadeff, a naturalized American citizen originally from Rhodes who moved to Leopoldville from Elisabethville (Lubumbashi) in 1949 where he ran a string of businesses.  In Leopoldville, he developed a number business interests, including ready-to-wear clothing affordable to the Congolese consumer (Aug. 5, 2011). Pepsi built its bottling plant on Ave. Charles De Gaulle (Ave du Commerce), in the main commercial district. Pepsi-Cola International launched a $75 million ad campaign in Africa at this time in which even local drums in Belgian Congo were tagged with the Pepsi logo.  In 1957, Pepsi’s CEO, Alfred Steele visited Africa, stopping in Leopoldville on the way to Johannesburg with his wife, the actress Joan Crawford. Alhadeff facilitated their visit and presented the couple with a wood carving from his extensive collection.  The following year, Alhadeff provided Pepsis for the kids at the Fourth of July party organized by American Men’s Club.
An order for bottle caps.
Alhadeff (r.) at the Pepsi plant
King Baudouin visits Leopoldville in 1955. 
The Pepsi-Cola and Martini neon signs were visible from Stanley Monument 10 kilometers away.
Another investor in the soft drink market was the Compagnie Coloniale Belge, also known as PEK, which operated a prestigious retail store on Ave Beernaert (See Nov. 9, 2011). This firm established a Canada Dry plant on Ave Olsen, just up the street from the Coca Cola bottler.  The Brasserie de Leopoldville, for its part, came out with a tangerine flavored drink called “Verigoud”.  The new Bracongo Brewery, established in 1954, came out with a line of soft drinks called “Bako” later “Djino” and now “World Cola”.
A body-builder at the Funa Club holding a Verigoud bottle. A Jean Depara photo.
In addition to his business ventures, Maurice Alhadeff was an important patron of Congolese artists.  He provided aspiring carvers and painters with tools and materials and then purchased their work.  He advocated for a national museum and art institute to house the voluminous collection of traditional artifacts collected by the Musée de Vie Indigene (Sep. 12, 2011).  He supported, among others, Nkusu Felelo, Francois Thango and Bela.  In 1957, when the future President of the post-independence Senate, Isaac Kalonji, was preparing for an exposure trip to the United States, Alhadeff presented him with a painting by Albert Mongita to offer to President Eisenhower. Just prior to Independence in June 1960, my father met Alhadeff when he purchased of checked shirts and denim jeans for an Independence event and we received a mask and a carving from his extensive collection.
Maurice Alhadeff in his office.
Shortly after Congo’s Independence, the U.S. State Department organized a good will cultural tour through West and Central Africa, headlining the jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong and his All Stars band.  In 1957, Armstrong cancelled a tour sponsored by the State Department to the Soviet Union, faulting the Federal Government’s lack of response to Governor Orval Faubus’ defiance of the Supreme Court’s desegregation order in Arkansas.  Now with the “winds of change” bringing Independence to most of the colonial possessions on the continent, Armstrong accepted a joint sponsorship by the State Department and Pepsi Cola International.  Louis arrived in Leopoldville by ferry from Brazzaville on October 28, 1960 with his spouse Lucille.

Albert Mongita, now Director of Cultural Affairs for the Congolese government, met the Armstrongs in traditional costume at the ferry landing. Things were tense.  The country was in the midst of a constitutional crisis; President Kasavubu and Prime Minister Lumumba had sacked each in September and Joseph Mobutu had staged his first coup to neutralize the two.  The United Nations peace-keeping mission was trying to find its footing and a rash of strikes were crippling both the public and private sector. There were food shortages in the city and across the country, as well. Armstrong and his band claimed to have stopped the war for 24 hours – hyperbole perhaps -- but the concert in Stade Baudouin certainly did bring out the crowds from the city.
Albert Mongita greets Armstrong at the FIMA beach. Lucille is behind Armstrong on the right.
The FIMA ferry in July 1960 during the mass exodus of expatriates after Independence.
Armstrong carried into Stade Baudouin on a modernized Tipoy.
At the end of June 1961, Congo’s first anniversary of Independence, the Miss Leo 1961 pageant was organized in Parc De Bock across from the Zoo (Feb. 6, 2011). Bracongo Breweries (Polar) sponsored the Negro Success band, Pepsi sponsored the Jecokat orchestra while Canada Dry paid for the announcement in the Courier d’Afrique newspaper.
Advertisement for the Miss Leo 1961 pageant in the Courier d'Afrique newspaper.
Mlle. Sophie Mbata, Miss Leopoldville 1961 - Her card says "La nouvelle bouteille hostesse"

The following September, Pepsi Cola sponsored an exhibit of Congolese artists at its headquarters in New York City, which featured some of Alhadeff’s protégés, including six pieces by Francois Thango. Some critics charged that Alhadeff was only generating more knock-offs for the tourist trade, but international recognition of some of his artists demonstrated that finding talent required a large net.
Market scene by Thango
The Ivory Market at Place Braconnier.
The Ivory Market in the early 1960s - note several UN soldiers looking for bargains.
After Independence, the soda bottlers continued to expand their production in response to the burgeoning Kinshasa market.  By 1970, the Coca Cola bottler recorded sales up 59% from the previous year.  The Pepsi plant, Boissons Nationales, had a daily production of 3,600 cases.  The Zairianization in November 1973 presented a problem for Pepsi.  Ostensibly an international corporation and exempt from the nationalization measures, it was a franchise of the Alhadeff interests. Alhadeff had died in 1972, but the family incorporated American Alhadeff in Delaware in an attempt to protect the family investments.
A sidewalk cafe outside the Diacomichalis building on Boulevard Albert.
Another Jean Depara photo taken outside the Afro Negro Night Club on Ave De Gaulle.
The independent bottlers were in the crux of market forces.  Canada Dry (Mineral Kin) does not appear to have survived the Zairianization in 1974. Coca-Cola, now Indus Boissons, was acquired by Bralima in 1992 and Pepsi’s Bonal in 1998.  The Coca-Cola brand is everywhere in Kinshasa, but Pepsi disappeared from the market (except for imported canned drinks). New players include Industrie des Boissons au Congo, operating out of the former Bata shoe factory on Ave. des Poids Lourds (the fate of that company another story in itself). In addition to producing the new Coke Zero on the local market, Bralima’s primary innovation is upscale marketing of the Vital’O grenadine soda.
Bralima's Vital'O on Ave. Lukusa.
Entrance to the old Pepsi plant on Ave. du Commerce. The detail in the guardhouse on the right attests to its former glory.
Pepsi crate as a TV stand for a sentinelle's post.
I took my bottle to Boukin, the successor to the Bouteillerie de Leopoldville, to see if they could identify my bottle. The people I talked to were skeptical.  We only produce bottles for Bralima and each one should have the Heineken star on it, they said.  The most senior guy had worked for the company 20 years. Returning home, I found a diamond shape with a five-pointed star on the bottom of the bottle. Not discouraged, I found someone who could connect me with a former manager of the factory.  He explained that Boukin has operated uninterrupted since its founding and was purchased by Heineken in 1988.  During its 70-year history, Bouleo-Boukin produced all the glass beverage bottles in Kinshasa, including Pepsi and other competitors, as well as for the pharmaceutical industry.  My bottle would have been produced at Boukin and judging from the style of the logo, probably made in the 1960s. 

A selection of Boukin's production on display.

Today, plastic competes with glass on the Kinshasa soft drink market and one can even buy Bralima beverages in glass bottles retail without a deposit. Sing the praises of returnables. Kinshasa’s storm drains and water channels choke with plastic detritus.


  1. TASOK students were known to roam the forest on campus. By 1972 I only remember the student store selling Coca Cola, but my memory could be faulty.

  2. Mwana Mboka, Thanks for this blog!! It's great!

    I need to contact you regarding a documentary film about Congolese Rumba I am making. Please give an email to contact you, or write to me at



  3. I just read the very interesting and informative piece on Pepsi, Maurice Alhadeff, and the arts. In 1968, when my wife and I lived in Kinshasa, we purchased several paintings by Samba Phillipe. Three we got at the Union Mission House, one in a gallery downtown. From what I was told, Samba's works were displayed in the Congo exhibit at the Montreal World's Fair in 9167, On one occasion, we visited Samba in his house and studio. What I most remember is that in addition to his paintings, he also had a piano. I have since tried to find more information about him but can find nothing. I'm quite sure he is from Bas Congo but I'm don't think there is any connection to Cheri Samba.

    I would welcome any information.