Richard Branson never quite cracked it, but Miranda Walker wasn’t going to let that put her off. Three years after launch, her Ubuntu Cola is going into Waitrose. Nick Hughes report

As a first-time entrepreneur with limited venture capital, Miranda Walker bravely decided to launch her own cola brand a move verging on the masochistic, when you consider that not even Richard Branson could break the duopoly of Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

So it seems reasonable to ask on what basis she thinks her Ubuntu Cola the UK's first Fairtrade cola can succeed in mainstream retail where Virgin Cola failed.

"What we wanted to do with Ubuntu was not purely rely on the Fairtrade label for our success," she says. "What people are looking for from brands is first and foremost product excellence, secondly a brand that has real meaning and, thirdly, something that looks good. With Ubuntu we were committed to creating something that could stand shoulder to shoulder with the market leaders."

A cola was not top of Walker's list when she set out to create a new Fairtrade brand. It was business partner Sandy Muir who came up with the idea after visiting a decaffeination plant in Spain.

"He'd seen mounds of Fairtrade caffeine extracted from coffee being sold on to the soft drinks market," says Walker. "He said 'I think we should launch a cola', at which point I thought 'don't be daft, nobody goes into the cola market and comes out alive'."

Yet a little over three years after launch, Ubuntu is poised to kick through the doors of the multiples. Waitrose has just agreed to trial the product in 85 stores with a view to a national rollout if it hits sales targets.

Along with fellow directors, who include former Cafédirect finance chief Phil King and commodity trader Philippe Sibaud, Walker has worked hard to ensure Ubuntu is not too expensive for the multiples.

When production began in Belgium, the pound was relatively strong against the euro, but the currency crash sent the unit cost soaring to an unsustainable level. A shift to UK production has allowed her to whittle down the cost so the cola now costs just 5% more than the market leaders, with a guaranteed minimum 15% of the profits going back to support sugar cane producers in Malawi and Zambia.

Ubuntu has already built a loyal following in the student community, which Walker identified as a core demographic from the outset. "Students are heavy consumers of cola and very open-minded, and there are strong Fairtrade movements within the universities," she says.

By getting people to buy into the Ubuntu proposition the word means "I am what I am because of what we all are" in Zulu and other Bantu languages Walker hopes to use it as an umbrella brand for a raft of Fairtrade products, beginning with carbonated drinks. "That's the obvious place to start, but the great thing is it's not a category-specific brand idea and therefore it could be applied to a wide range of markets."

First, however, she will focus on establishing Ubuntu Cola. Sales are set to hit £500,000 this year, with Walker predicting 200% to 300% growth in 2011. Figures that, if achieved, will surely garner respect from a British tycoon who knows all too well the perils of taking on the cola giants.