Bringing new gravitas to the term, ‘purpose-driven,’ the team behind Colive is using their uniquely delicious olive oil to help end the civil unrest that has divided their native Cyprus since the 1970s — and exemplify the benefits of social entrepreneurship and peace through cooperation.
Brands have the power to shift mindsets. They can bring about social transformation. They can play a key role in tackling the climate crisis.
But can a brand bring about peace in regions of conflict? It’s a question Hasan Siber is hoping to answer via his extra virgin olive oil company, Colive.
Hasan is a native of Cyprus — a Mediterranean island said to be the birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Thanks to a turbulent last few decades, the country is divided, unsettled and tense. In 1974, neighbouring Turkey invaded the island in response to a military coup backed by the Greek government.
Ever since, ongoing civil unrest has created a north-south partition: The north section is run by a Turkish-Cypriot government and the southern two-thirds are run by the internationally recognised government led by Greek Cypriots. Today, the United Nations patrol a dividing line between the two regions; and there is no sign of any reunification.
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When Siber’s mother was 16, she, her mother and her five little sisters were removed from their home and forced to the northern side of the ceasefire line in Cyprus.
“You were only considered to be a ‘child’ if you were 14 or younger, so my mother and grandmother had to beg for my mother to get to safety. This story is with me, always,” he told Sustainable Brands™.
Look past the political tensions in Cyprus and you will find a beautiful, subtropical climate with a landscape dominated by two mountain ranges and lush and plentiful forest regions. It has the perfect conditions to grow olive trees that produce extraordinarily delicious olive oil — a fact Siber realized after spending many years visiting extended family in Nicosia, the last divided capital city in the world.
“I always knew that Cyprus has the best olive oil. There is no other olive oil that can match the unique Cypriot flavors,” he says. “I love to entertain friends with food, including the bottles of Cypriot olive oil I would bring home, and everybody started asking for a bottle for themselves. At the same time, I felt something was missing in my life. I had a career in finance and wanted a change, so I started traveling around the Mediterranean learning about olive oil.”
A self-described “startup addict,” Siber set up a social media company while studying programming for his undergraduate degree (“we shut it down to focus on school.”). While studying for a Masters in Technology Entrepreneurship, he kicked off his second startup, the Enterprise Hub — which he says helped thousands of student entrepreneurs start companies. Afterwards, Siber began a career in venture capital, working with a host of startups around the world – from hyper-local logistics in India to an electric vehicle network in Europe.
Fast-forward, and having reconnected with one of his best friends from school, Alexandros Philippides — a Greek Cypriot living on the other side of the ceasefire line from his own family — they decided to start Colive.
“We didn’t want it to be only Turkish-Cypriot or Greek-Cypriot olive oil. We wanted it to belong to the whole island and all of humanity,” Siber asserts.
Born out of a passion for quality and equality, the brand is the first company in more than 50 years to truly operate island-wide, owned and jointly run by Greek and Turkish Cypriots: “It’s an example of cooperation between communities in conflict, coming together to create something bigger than the sum of its parts,” he says.
Colive is currently the only Cypriot olive oil brand available in US retailers, with bottles for sale at Whole Foods stores nationwide. The olives that go into each bottle are collected from 15 family farms on both sides of the conflict zone in Cyprus and combined into one extra virgin olive oil. Siber himself drives the olives from the north across the border to the south for processing and bottling.
“By working with farmer communities on both sides of the conflict, we aim for a grassroots movement towards a political solution and long-lasting peace. This bottom-up approach to solving issues is the only way for the solution to become sustainable and repeatable,” he says.
The 15 family farmers in the Colive network joined its supply base because they care about climate-friendly farming practices, and having a positive social impact in their communities. Siber and his team educate them on sustainable farming practices such as regenerative farming and water conservation. They are also encouraged to hand-pick their olives at harvest to maintain healthy trees and avoid using large machinery, so as not to negatively impact wildlife.
Siber explains: “We also share the benefits of raising animals with olives, so that the manure can be used as a natural fertilizer. Our farmers also use natural sticky bonds or tape to catch flies and other pests, rather than using chemicals, to keep our trees safe and healthy.”
Such measures help to maximize yields and preserve the local environment — crucial in Cyprus, where climate change has led to prolonged droughts. And on principle, Colive provides its farmers with livable wages.
“By providing our farmers with a higher income, they are better able to afford and implement methods like rain collection and storage and irrigation systems.”
For each bottle of oil sold, 10 percent of profits are donated to organizations and NGOs dedicated to peace education and social entrepreneurship. CyprusInno — a non-profit that offers a bi-zonal, inter-communal entrepreneurial ecosystem in Cyprus to use entrepreneurship and technology as peace-building mechanisms and entrepreneurs as peacemakers — is one of the beneficiaries. It has more than 5,000 subscribers, hundreds of attendees at its events, and has helped dozens of social entrepreneurs to start and build their companies.
As Siber shares, living in — and building his company within — a live conflict zone with political tensions presents a number of unique challenges.
“There have been good and bad moments, but the good has outweighed the bad,” he says. “People can misrepresent our work and use it for their political agenda. And because of the ceasefire line, we are the only company in the world to cross a border with raw olives. Usually, olives are exported in processed form, either as oil or table olives, making it more than 80 percent easier to transport — because 12 lbs of olive will make 2 lbs of oil in the best-case scenario. For our quality standards, this is usually much higher.”
He remains unperturbed and is excited about the future. As well as expanding into more retail locations in 2022, the Colive team plans to work with and create more food products with ingredients sourced across the conflict zone in Cyprus, such as pomegranate and carob.
“We are also building projects to expand into other conflict zones. Our goal is to create products, like Colive, that help build a more peaceful world.”