Monday, February 4, 2013

A GOOD AFRICAN STORY: HOW A SMALL COMPANY BUILT A GLOBAL COFFEE BRAND


Africa is the most naturally endowed continent on the planet, but it is also the home of the most down trodden of the earth.

Why the contradiction?

In a nut shell, we sell our natural resources, be they cash crops, minerals or even labour for a pittance. These are then processed abroad and onsold at multiples of their original cost.

The logic is simple, to raise the continent out of poverty we need to capture more of this value for ourselves. But just because what is needed is simple to grasp does not mean it is easy to execute.

This thesis is at the center of businessman Andrew Rugasira’s book “A Good African Story: How a small company built a global coffee brand” that has only just hit the bookshops.

The book is an autobiographical account of the company, Good African Coffee, which has pooled farmers in the Kasese region, improved their coffee husbandry practices, processed the coffee for the pallets of western consumers and in the process not only won Uganda pride of place in South Africa, UK and the US but also raised incomes in the coffee growing hills of Kasese.

What you see is the finished product or at least a very far cry from the early days of trudging up hills in Bugisu and Kasese to win over skeptical farmers. Farmers who had seen many city types come talk a good game and once they got what they want either not live up to the bargain or leave them high and dry altogether.

The UK educated Rugasira is an unlikely champion of the rural farmer, born into privilege in Uganda’s post-independence middle class, he probably never spent a day with hoe and panga, but his studies in political economy and his father’s entrepreneurial experience, raised questions that demanded answers.

In a nutshell, why is Africa poor?

He took over his father’s chalk factory, made forays into the world of event management and media buying, but the question continued to nudge at his soul.

It is a tale of how, he gets his eureka moment, bets everything including his reputation, tries to sell coffee to the queen, hobnobs with the masters of the universe, battles his own self-doubt and fights to win the most cynical over to his cause.

It is an inspiring account  of what it means to dream big and pay the price.

And the price has been steep, from outright derision at his efforts, confidence sapping rejection, nauseating patronizing by the potential buyers of his coffee and the many days and nights when all the company had to keep it going was a hope and a prayer.

Thankfully there were also instances of divine providence, touching support and tear jerking saved-from-the-cliff moments when the vision almost died before it got started.

But all these things are embedded in a context.

Rugasira explores the Uganda’s colonial legacy to explain why things are the way they, describes the bureaucratic impediments to development, the sabotage of well-meaning actors and even has some thoughts on what has to be done to redress the situation so the continent can live up to its full potential.

Rugasira says the story is not nearly over, the ten-year old company still has many more mountains to surmount before it can be a true celebration of African resilience. The story needed to be told up to this point he says, if only to inspire others to make the journey.

The major shortcoming of the book is that it is a book about a company with little detail about what drives the man and sets him apart.

A potential academic yawner has been turned into an engaging read, the heavy theory peppered with jaw dropping, often times hilarious but always thought provoking, accounts of Rugasira’s struggle to get onto the supermarket shelves of the western world.

Written as a story it is a must read for anyone who wants to understand why Africa is the way it is, what it is going to take to pull us out of the morass, but it is also a simple book to inspire the soul and strengthen the spirit.

*The book is available in all major bookshops around Kampala

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