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

“It is easier to plant a bore hole in some remote place and bring some media in to photograph it and say, look, these people have water. They are the same vulnerable, impoverished people, but now they have a bore hole. The question still has to be: How do you enable these people to build their own bore holes?” he says.

He points to the transformations achieved in Singapore and South Korea.

“There was no aid, just financial institutions geared by government not only to lend, but to lend technical support, who would fund their trade shows and exhibitions and marketing,” he says.

And he references the Cambridge economist Chang Ha-joon’s book Kicking Away the Ladder, the story of how all major developed countries used interventionist and protectionist policies to get rich and now work to prevent underdeveloped countries doing the same.

Rugasira has close knowledge of that reality. Despite his indefatigable commitment, he has been beset with the African entrepreneur’s catch-22.

“In order to grow you have to have a long-term market expectation, but you have no access to long-term capital. I had African banks asking me for letters of credit from Tesco. I had to explain that is not really how it works,” he says.

As a result of this mismatch of finance and culture, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s ended up delisting Good African last year.

“With Waitrose, we were just unable to meet its rate of sales; we didn’t have the resources to do the promotion and marketing needed to expand,” he says.

He has not given up hope of a return and in the meantime, as well as an expanding market in Africa, “Tesco has said we will go from 118 stores to 630,” he says.

As he has negotiated this journey, Rugasira has come close to defeat; he sold his house in Kampala and was forced to downshift with his family. There have been times when he has been unable to pay for the coffee brought to Kasese. However, that in itself proved a lesson.

“It’s funny,” he says, “but it was only when it became clear that we as a company were also vulnerable financially that the farmers could see that we were serious. We became real. When we said, ‘Look, we can’t pay you this week,’ they didn’t walk away, as I feared. They said, ‘OK, keep the coffee and pay me next week.’”

Transformation, in this sense, he suggests, is full of unintended consequences. Having raised the quality and reliability of coffee production exponentially in Rwenzori, other bigger buyers have come in to compete.

It gives him cause for hope, not despair.

“I said to my wife, Jackie, ‘the things we have learned in the past eight years, where else on Earth could we have learned them?’ She agreed with me,” he says and laughs. “But she also wants it fixed this year. Otherwise she will be looking to see how many places I have sent my CV.”

Given his commitment to change, Rugasira is often asked about political ambitions. He doesn’t quite rule out the possibility, but he is wary.

“I just want to be a good president of Good African Coffee. Politics has too many takers,” he says.

He is, if anything, a slightly more humble, perhaps wiser figure than he was when I first met him.

“I have learned that I’m not as important as I thought I was in this,” he says. “You begin to effect a change, but in a place like this the change is bigger than you. There are successes, but you are never going to say you have completely succeeded.”

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