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

He made good his promise to establish a coffee-roasting plant to serve Rwenzori, proof that value could be added to the product where it was produced. He talked of expansion to the US, of plans to grow the model into tea and chocolate, and he reported back on the small anecdotal changes in the lives of the farmers I had met — how this man had bought a bicycle, that one had now saved to send his daughters to a good school.

A couple of years ago, after six years of struggling to expand the business, Rugasira took the surprising step of enrolling in a masters course in African studies at Oxford University.

Partly it was the fulfilment of an old promise he had made to himself and to his mother.

Having studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London after school, he had been forced home immediately after graduation by news of the death of his father, aged 51. He laid aside plans for postgraduate work and was cast prematurely in the role of man of the house in a country still unhinged by the brutal regimes of former Ugandan presidents Idi Amin and Milton Obote. Oxford was put on hold for 20 years.

When he did take up his place, he left behind in Uganda his wife, Jackie, and five children, as well as his business.

I saw him a couple of times while he was pursuing a spartan regime of gym and study, trying to run Good African and be a father and husband from afar. One result of that period of reflection was his book.

In a piece for the Times last week, a reviewer suggested that the memoir was a piece of “premature triumphalism,” that the story of Good African was not only incomplete, but the model as yet unproved. Rugasira accepts that his timing might look odd in a landscape of business literature that tends to deal in unqualified success.

Even so, he told me, when we met last week: “I thought it was time to try to force a conversation. Everyone is suddenly talking about Africa being ‘open for business.’ But nobody seems to want to define what that might mean.”

The book is full of Rugasira’s vivid character, both learned, argumentative and big-hearted, dismantling the agendas of non-governmental organizations, dwelling on the historical context of poor governance and corruption, detailing the ways in which change is still an ambition rather than a reality. Its theme is not one of triumph, but of ongoing frustration and struggle.

The context has changed since 2003, when Africa was still seen primarily as a place for charity rather than investment, but not always in useful ways.

“I think there are always two conversations taking place now,” Rugasira says. “One is among the observers of Africa, the investing class. They point to the McKinsey report, which says that African economic growth is running at 6 percent or 7 percent, to the oil and gas finds ... But there is also another conversation going on, this time on the continent, among the increasingly young population, who are still looking for work, looking for capital. It doesn’t matter how many times young African entrepreneurs are told Africa is open for business. It is still business on somebody else’s terms.”

Much of Rugasira’s anger remains directed at the good intentions of foreign aid and ring-fenced investment, which focuses on nebulous “capacity building” without ever targeting support directly at small businesses or wealth creation.

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