The commissioning of the Good African Coffee roasting plant in Bugolobi yesterday was a major mile stone in a project that started seven years ago with little more than a hope and a prayer.
The commissioning of the plant is significant because Andrew Rugasira, proprietor of Good African Coffee, is leveraging a value chain that extends from the coffee farms at the foot of the Rwenzori mountains to the aseptic shelves of super market chains in South Africa and the UK.
A first for a Ugandan brand of any description.
Since before independence Uganda’s coffee and raw materials have been lugged out of the country to sustain foreign factories, with more than 90 percent of the value being distributed abroad.
It is estimated that for every $3 cup of coffee sold in the west the Ugandan part of the value chain – farmers, middleman and transporters, only get $0.03.
This could change dramatically with the entrance of Good African Coffee.
Assuming its continued success Good African Coffee will serve as a useful prototype for any enterprise trying to break its brands into the western markets.
To begin with Rugasira and company have invested heavily in educating farmers in better husbandry and post harvest treatment of the coffee bean. Through a procedure called wet processing, Kasese Arabic coffee farmers can now attract a premium for their crop.
In addition Good African Coffee has organized them into farmers groups, introduced financial services to the area and pledging to match the communities’ contribution in building schools, health centers and boreholes.
With some help from NGOs and concessionary loans from the Uganda Development Bank, Good African Coffee now lays claim to the output of a 14,000 farmer network.
Simultaneously Rugasira was often on a plane to South Africa and the UK to market to and negotiate with, potential roasters and clients of his coffee.
Shelf space does not come easy on the floors of Tesco, Waitrose or Sainsbury but by pegging his product to the growing market for organic products and the budding “Trade not Aid” campaign, Good African Coffee maybe onto a good thing.
In addition unlike other branded coffees, which are a blend of any number of coffees for any number of countries, Good African Coffee will be a single coffee from a single location with unvarying taste and quality.
And capturing more of the value chain for any product out of Uganda – especially our agricultural produce, is what will determine whether we will lift our people out of poverty or not.
Challenges still abound for Rugasira and co. Primarily, the marketing challenge of creating greater awareness and acceptance of Good African Coffee in its target market.
It has been done before. The National Federation of Coffee Farmers of Colombia embarked on a similar journey 50 years ago. The result is the world famous Café de Colombia and personified by the fictional character Juan Valdez and his donkey Conchita.
Through a systematic and sustained advertising campaign in the later half of the last century Juan Valdez is now synonymous with the 100 percent-Colombian coffee brand but has also become a Colombian icon.
Tens of millions of dollars in marketing budgets will have to be committed in order for Good African Coffee to make inroads in western markets.
And this is where government intervention becomes decisive – cheaper finance, tax concessions and marketing support is critical to break into the lucrative international instant coffee market.
This is not rocket science. More than 80 percent of the population live off the land. In order to raise income levels the rural masses need to produce more. But production will only be stimulated by greater demand, which demand can come from local agro processors that target regional and international markets.
Support for concerns such as Good African Coffee needs to be institutionalized and systematized in order to reap the maximum benefit for tax payers’ shilling.
It maybe premature to tag Rugasira as “Uganda’s Coffee King” as the UK’s Observer Food Monthly did in November 2005, but Good African Coffee can represent a seismic change in the way this country handles poverty.
There is light at the end of the tunnel and the means to haul ourselves towards the light are within reach.
Published July 2009, New Vision