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

At the same time, he helped to establish microfinance initiatives, particularly among women, promising a model of business in which his Good African Coffee company would guarantee a consistent, fair market price and would share profits 50-50 with the farming community. In addition, Rugasira would go out into the world and sell their product and tell their story.

I first saw Rugasira recounting the opening chapters of that story in 2005 in the unlikely setting of the terrace of the UK’s House of Lords, where he had been invited to speak about his initiative beside a banner that read: “Trade not Aid.”

Rugasira is a committed Christian, and a compelling orator, but he reserves much of his evangelism for the lessons of self-help, the wisdom of entrepreneurs, quoting as freely from business leaders he admires — Jack Welch of General Motors, Lee Kun-hee of Samsung — as from the Gospels. And that day, at the House of Lords, he could point to the minor miracle of his coffee on the shelves of UK supermarket Waitrose as evidence of the reality of his faith for those who doubted.

Inspired by some of this message, a few weeks later I went out to the Mountains of the Moon to hear the tales of the farmers first hand.

In Kasese, Rugasira introduced me to some of the stars of his 14,000-strong “team.” In turn, they proudly showed me the processing methods they had mastered, they talked of advances in yield and quality, the incremental improvements they had made to their one-room huts, and their eyes shone with possibility.

Some stories stayed with me, like parables. There was the story of Kahitson himself, who as a sideline from coffee growing was experimenting with beekeeping, spreading the word about homemade hives and honey, and imagining the Rwenzori valleys buzzing with life. (The only book Kahitson owned was on the technicalities of apiology and so enthralled was he by it that he had named his son Macmillan, after its publisher.)

There was the tale, too, of Milenyi Muheni, who talked quietly in simple declarative sentences of the way, soon after her husband had died, she had seen her three grown-up sons killed in front of her by a militia group from the DR Congo, who also burned her home to the ground. With the coming of the coffee company, though, she had still found some place in her life, as a single mother and farmer, for hope. She had started a microfinance group among the local women; she showed me the little ledger of how their savings were growing week by week.

There were many other stories like these and by the time I ended that visit, I felt I had a sense of what even the tiniest change might mean for these people and how it was beginning to be effected.

In the years since then, I have seen Rugasira from time to time when he has been over in Britain, on his never-ending storytelling mission for contracts and capital.

Those one-man trade delegations have sometimes appeared hopeful — as he secured further contracts with supermarkets Sainsbury’s and Tesco — and sometimes more desperate, as he sought to protect those hard-won agreements, beset by problems of financing and managing growth.

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