High spirits: Equiano’s Aaisha Dadral and Amanda Kakembo

The co-founders of premium rum, Equiano, talk to Brummell about being the first African and Caribbean rum and why giving back is built into their business plan

Food and Drink 9 Nov 2020

Amanda Kakembo, left, and Aaisha Dadral, founders of Equiano

What made you start making rum?

Amanda Kakembo: I’ve always loved rum, it’s my spirit of choice. I previously invested in another spirit brand and worked within the business and learned so much. It made me want to do something myself, so I came up with an idea that evolved into Equiano. I knew the team would be imperative to the success of the concept so I turned to good friend and previous business partner, Oli Bartlam. Together, we convinced Aaisha Dadral, who founded brand studio crave., to come on board. A friend said we needed to meet Ian Burrell, a global rum ambassador – we were introduced and the dream team was created. That was two years ago and in that time, we’ve brought a handful more brilliant people into the team. Having leading rum producer Foursquare and its master distiller Richard Seale involved – each multi-award winning in their own right – means I believe we are producing some of the best rum in the world.

And can you describe how the rum is inspired by Olaudah Equiano?

AK: During an early workshop, we had fallen on this incredible USP of being the world’s first African and Caribbean rum. But we needed to find a name that resonated with the product and our beliefs. We’re a truly diverse team and we knew we wanted to give back through the brand.

Aaisha Dadral: Someone mentioned the Equiano name to Amanda. When she shared it with me, Oli and Ian and we each read about Equiano, we couldn’t quite believe that we didn’t all know his story already. It’s a rich and layered connection between our brand and Equiano the man. Our liquid takes the same journey he took in the mid-1700s when he was enslaved in Africa at just 11 years old. He was taken to the Caribbean and, spending much of his time working on Naval ships, he taught himself to read, write and count. Through selling puncheons of rum, Equiano bought his freedom for £40. He settled in the UK and wrote his autobiography – The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano – a best-seller and one of the first books authored by an enslaved African. The book was the first of its kind in exposing the lived experience of slavery. Equiano became a key figure in abolishment and travelled the world fighting for the freedom of people. To say he was impactful would be an understatement: his work inspired the Slave Trade Act 1807 which abolished slavery in the UK and influenced the same in the US. Equiano inspired many of the celebrated names that are more frequently connected with the fight for freedom and equality: William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou.

AK: As the world’s first African and Caribbean rum, our liquid takes the same journey, from Africa to the Caribbean and eventually settling in the UK. More importantly, Equiano’s beliefs and values mirror our own as founders. We’re passionate about the freedoms and equalities of people.

Equiano is a unique blend of African and Caribbean rum expertise
Equiano is a unique blend of African and Caribbean rum expertise

In its nature, your rum is a celebration of diversity but can you explain some of the other ways the brand is supporting equality and diversity?

AD: Diversity, freedom and equality are in the lifeblood of every part of both the brand and the Equiano business. Our name and brand is the celebration of an incredible man who changed the world through his fight for equality, freedom, democracy and education for all. We safeguard these ideas within the business; as founders we are from various backgrounds and bring very different life and cultural experiences to the table. We celebrate those differences on a daily basis, they impact every big decision we take as we each have a slightly different view of things. We also weave the ideals into how the brand behaves and grows; when commissioning content, for example, we seek out creatives that are less supported in the creative industries or have fewer accesses to opportunities to work with brands like Equiano. We’re happy to take on the responsibilities that Equiano shouldered in levelling the playing field wherever we can.

AK: And then, of course, we pledge 5 per cent of global company profits and £2 of every bottle sold through our website to ground-level freedom and equality organisations annually, through the grant-giving Equiano Rum Co Foundation. Every year we’ll pick a different organisation to support and as we grow, that impact will grow. For the year ahead, we’re very proud to be supporting Anti-Slavery International who work tirelessly to end modern-day slavery all over the world.

Can you describe how Equiano is a blend of African and Caribbean flavours?

AK: To realise that an African rum had never been blended with a Caribbean rum before was amazing to us. Ian knew there are some great quality rums coming out of Mauritius and that he wanted us to do something different. We became excited about marrying Mauritian rum with the award-winning and incredible rums coming out of Foursquare in Barbados. The idea of blending two continents and two distilleries was also interesting for us. Most blends of rum are from one single distillery or from one region, no one before now has gone nearly as far as blending rum from Africa with rums from the epicentre of the rum world, the Caribbean.

The uniqueness in the flavours of Equiano is also down to the casks that each of our distillers uses. Our natural rich and deep flavours come from the bourbon and cognac casks that Equiano uses to mature the rum in the tropics.

How did you get rum ambassador Ian Burrell involved? And how did you work with him to create Equiano?

AK: When we were introduced to Ian through a friend we managed to convince him to become a partner and founder. I think it was good timing for Ian, he had been invited by many brands to create a rum but the timing or opportunity were maybe never quite right. I think Ian was intrigued by our backgrounds and that we are not all strictly spirits industry people, too. Three of us are entrepreneurs and previously had all been in the entertainment space rather than in drinks – that was where Ian had started his career too.

We gelled as a team very early on, each bringing different experience and knowledge to the table. We’re in a very unique position in that sense, we each have an area of expertise and we can lean on each other to lead in each of our spaces.

Is it still unusual to be a woman in the drinks business and how has this affected your journey?

AK: To be a female founder in the industry is certainly unusual. It’s a new and interesting journey for us, ask us again in a few years’ time! Of everyone that’s invested in the business, only Aaisha and a very good friend of mine, and co-president of Capitol Records, Jo Charrington, are women. With Jo being in the record industry, she has a similar experience, it’s a very male-dominated industry.

AD: Exactly. Amanda and I have both inhabited male dominated industries throughout our careers. I’ve no doubt it will impact the journey, hopefully we can play a part in changing the ratios along the way.

You’ve managed to launch a drinks business and keep it going through a global pandemic, how have you done it?

AK: Like many businesses and industries Equiano has certainly been affected by the pandemic. As a new brand coming into a complex and highly competitive market, launching during a pandemic (or the month before, as we did) has meant that all of our traditional sales channels in bars, restaurants and hotels closed over night. For a start-up spirits brand, we were certainly at risk of stumbling at the first hurdle as our opportunities to sell diminished, along with our investment conversations at the start of the pandemic.

But we’ve been overwhelmed at the response we’ve had directly from consumers. We swiftly learned how to adapt and pivot, refocusing our attention on new ways to make a difference, selling more through our e-commerce website and taking the steely decision to launch in the US, while looking to open up our export market so that we are ready to move once the world starts to come back out of lockdown.

AD: It’s definitely been a challenge but we’re fortunate to have a genuinely good product. And we have a story that resonates so far and wide that while people have been indoors, they’ve had more time to learn about who we are, who Equiano was and really buy into the whole picture. So while it’s been difficult, one of the upsides has been seeing who orders time and time again and identifying what connects with our customers. That insight will outlive the pandemic, we hope.

What is your favourite way to drink Equiano?

Both: Our signature serve: 50ml of Equiano, 200ml ginger ale, two wedges of lime and a twist of orange peel.

What’s next for Equiano as a brand?

AK: To build out the key markets and be a globally recognised brand.

AD: Of course, that means more expressions. We’re working on the second expression as we speak – it’ll be as unique and exceptional as the first.