Tue, Feb 19, 2013 - Page 9 News List

The struggle to transform lives through coffee

In 2005, Andrew Rugasira had a vision of empowering farmers in his native Uganda by enabling them to produce and sell coffee direct to British supermarkets. Despite financial difficulties, he says he is still hopeful.

By Tim Adams  /  The Observer

Illustration: Yusha

How can you tell when a story has ended? If it is an African story, such as the one Andrew Rugasira has to tell, closure is never likely to be satisfying or clear cut. Beginnings are more straightforward.

Rugasira’s once-upon-a-time moment came nearly a decade ago, when he had a vision to start a coffee company in his native Uganda. He would, he determined, become the first African to collect and roast and market and sell quality coffee direct to British supermarkets. And, by that example, he would demonstrate his certain beliefs: that it was trade, not aid, that transformed communities and that change was never an imposed solution, but a positive choice made by those whose lives would be most affected by it.

The place Rugasira chose to base his coffee company, to start that story, the Rwenzori Mountains — the Mountains of the Moon — looked a lot like a blank page.

The lives of the 14,000 subsistence farmers who lived high above the town of Kasese, right on the war-torn border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo), had never been the stuff of written record. Their narratives were of survival rather than progress. Ambition meant getting through the next day and the next week, in thrall as they were to the suddenly shifting front lines of brutal cross-border conflict and the vagaries of farming a little scrap of land without decent tools or any technology, without transport or access to markets, barely growing enough to feed themselves and their children, waiting for agents or middlemen to pass through and buy some coffee beans, maybe soon, maybe not, and never for a price that seemed fair.

Rugasira believed he could help to give the lives of those 14,000 farmers and their families a different shape. One that could take in measurable progress; that could see skills learned and retained in the community; that could reward consistent effort, introduce saving and planning and time horizons that included the real prospect of better lives for children and for grandchildren.

The first step in rewriting those life stories would be to communicate an idea, Rugasira believed.

So, aged 34, and after a career that had taken in event planning and business consultancy in Kampala, he went up into the mountains and started telling the farmers what he had in mind.

He recalls the first of those meetings, with a group of community leaders, in his book, A Good African Story, which details the progress of his vision and his company, the ways in which it has succeeded and the ways in which it has failed.

“In Kasese, I shared my frustrations,” he says, “at Africans always being seen [in the West and sometimes at home] as nothing more than beggars: incapable, deprived, poor and helpless. With their help, I told them, I was determined to make a change, however small, to alter this outlook. But the project could only work if we did this together.”

At this point in Rugasira’s speech, a young man who had been sitting quietly at the back of the room put up his hand to speak.

“My name is Charles Kahitson and I am from Nyakabingo in Rukoki sub-county,” he said. “I want to tell you, Mr Andrew, that I am in fact a model farmer. If you come to Kasese to work with model farmers, then I am one and I am willing to work with you.”

And so it started. Over the next year, Rugasira, with the help of Kahitson and others, began to build up his network of farmers in the mountains who might share best farming practice, “wet-processing” coffee, rotating their crop, harvesting efficiently.

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