Author – Andrew Rugasira | “A Good African Story” How A Small Company Built A Global Coffee Brand
In 2003, I had an idea: to work with coffee farmers in the Kasese district in western Uganda, and to support them in producing quality coffees, which we would roast, pack and brand for both the local and international markets. Uganda produces over three million bags of coffee a year (approximately 200,000 tonnes) but most of this coffee is exported in its raw form – as green beans for processing in the consuming countries of the developed world.
What no Ugandan coffee company had done before was to place a branded coffee product on supermarket shelves in South Africa and the UK. This became my mission and has been my journey for the last eight years.
Under the ‘trade not aid’ banner and a profit-share commitment to our farmers, I developed the building blocks for my social enterprise based in Uganda. I introduced programmes that would invest in the areas of coffee agronomy support that would improve crop quality, post-harvest handling, productivity and environmental stewardship, and institutional capacity building through financial literacy training and the development of Savings and Credit Cooperatives (SACCOs) for the farmers. My challenge, though, was: could an African social enterprise that aspired to empower the rural community develop a profitable, global brand?
Good African Coffee has come a long way since 2003. When I began, I met significant resistance to our business model both at home and abroad. At home, it came not only from the bankers and private equity firms from whom I sought capital, but also from coffee farmers who were cynical after decades of exploitation by the industry.
Abroad, the supermarkets I approached about selling our coffees were hesitant about working directly with an African-based brand, simply because they hadn’t done it before and the risks looked too great. Underpinning all this were the many tough questions being asked: could we consistently deliver a product of high quality? Did we have the managerial competencies to drive the business forward? Were we actually credible? Despite this resistance, farmer by farmer, village by village, foreign trip after foreign trip, banker’s meeting after banker’s meeting, we gained credibility, acceptance and momentum.
When we started buying coffee from farmers in Kasese district in 2004, the average market price was $0.43 per kilogramme. We paid three times this price in that same year – $1.25 per kilogramme for quality Arabica coffees – and we purchased around 7 tonnes. Seven years later, in 2011, the average price that we paid was $4.25 per kilogramme, almost 25 per cent above the average market price, and we bought over 400 tonnes. Today, Good African Coffee has a network of more than 14,000 coffee farmers, organised in 280 producer groups, and we have partnered with these farmers to set up seventeen SACCOs.
The majority of the farmers we met in 2003 lived in mud-and-wattle huts with few assets and could be described as very economically insecure. Today, many have built more permanent structures; they own bicycles or motor bikes, are rearing goats or chickens as a business, and grow a variety of crops in addition to coffee. In a modest way, Good African Coffee spurred their entrepreneurial talents.
This story is a testimony to the potential impact social entrepreneurs can have on Africa’s agricultural economy. But it is also a story that speaks of the challenges that constrain many entrepreneurs on the continent, in the areas of logistics, market access and access to capital, as well as the pressure to surrender that constantly confronts many entrepreneurs. What is important to keep in mind is that, just as small businesses are critical to the growth of western economies, smallholder farmers can become a powerful engine for rapid economic growth in Africa. They just need to be encouraged, equipped and empowered.
Why I wrote down my experiences?
I decided to write this book because very few African entrepreneurs document their experiences. Like many other subjects on the continent, African enterprise remains largely unpublished. The result is that non-Africans continue to dominate the production and articulation of knowledge on Africa.
By default they are given privileged status, called ‘experts’, ‘analysts’ or even ‘specialists on Africa’; they are perceived as credible and institutional voices, who understand the continent even better than its inhabitants. Feeding into this architecture is the constant flow of negative narratives that define most of the news coverage and analysis of Africa. These narratives have been cemented into a widely accepted construct of a desperate, violent and hopeless continent. While this is a partial portrait of the continent, admittedly, Africa’s leaders have generously fed this perspective through prodigious misrule, greed and brutality. Many more complex and dynamic factors are simply ignored or purposely overlooked in the analysis.
Now, because most knowledge published on Africa comes from the West, intellectual capital and power invariably have been transferred to the West’s institutions. This has led to a debilitating asymmetry that can clearly be seen in the area of research. Africa’s contribution to independent research is pitiful: only 0.5 per cent of the world’s scientific publications are produced by Africans.
Worse still, women constitute only 6 per cent of the professoriate of African universities. The Forbes list of ‘African Billionaires’ in 2012 celebrated 16 of the continent’s business titans – not one of them has published a memoir about their incredible success. The result is that future generations of African entrepreneurs are denied the pride and inspiration that would come from these highly motivating stories. We must change this.
According to the African Development Bank (in their 2012 African Economic Outlook report), by 2015 Africa’s young population (those between fifteen and twenty-five) will represent 75 per cent of the continent’s total population. With over one in five of those in this age bracket at present out of work, both the public and private sectors must intensify efforts to stimulate them – not just to seek jobs, but to become tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and job creators in their communities. This requires inspiring them to engage and participate.
In September 1992, after graduating from the University of London with a bachelor’s degree in law and economics, I immediately returned home and took up a research position at the Centre for Basic Research in Kampala, with specific focus on the impact of World Bank policies on the industrial sector in Uganda.
Less than a year later, my father, who ran a school chalk manufacturing plant, died; he was fifty-one. Overnight, I started running the family business and went from researcher to entrepreneur, from theory to practice. I began to live many experiences I had only read about in books.
Getting hands on
In 1994, I started my first business, VR Promotions Ltd, a promotions, logistics and events management company. VR designed and managed an array of events, ranging from large international concerts to public awareness initiatives, from small rural health promotion campaigns to large World Bank and UN project launches to logistical and transport support for public sector clients. VR also provided extensive event support for the White House during President Bill Clinton’s 1998 visit to Uganda.
In 2000, I expanded the company to a full communications agency offering a wide range of services that included advertising and communication support before later divesting my interests to focus on the coffee project.
But even after my shift from research to business, I remained interested in the debates around models for transformation of the African rural economy. I can trace this interest back to my under-graduate years, when my economics professors and the course reading material lit a spark in me. However, as much as I wanted to write about these issues then, I really didn’t have anything new to add. But now, after close to a decade spent building a social enterprise that has developed into a prototype for community transformation from the bottom up, and gained valuable experience navigating the perilous corridors of capital and the difficult-to-access export markets, I can confidently put pen to paper.
A faith journey too
Good African has also been a faith journey. When I started the business it coincided with a season of self-evaluation in which I was searching for a deeper meaning in my life. I recognised a lack of fulfilment and inner peace and I was increasingly dissatisfied with a hectic work life that often took me away from my family, creating tension in my relationship with my wife Jackie.
To her, putting business before family was inconsiderate. Work was firmly subordinate to family and she insisted that I embrace that reality. To me, she was being unfair and unappreciative, not fully recognising what it took to build a comfortable life for our family. But in all this, something in me just didn’t seem right. The pursuit of prosperity was not equating to inner happiness and peace. Making money wasn’t living up to the promise of contentment; and as much as I didn’t want to admit it, I was feeling restless and unfulfilled.
I grew up in a Christian home and went to missionary boarding school when I was eight but I abandoned my faith at university. Nevertheless, I couldn’t ignore the nagging within, and as it grew more intense, I could no longer rationalise it away. People have different reasons for their faith – or lack of faith. I believe that the most important day of one’s life isn’t just the day you were born, but also the day you discover why you were born. In my heart, I began to sense that I wasn’t put on this earth just for the pursuit of my personal, selfish needs but for a bigger and meaningful purpose that included contributing to the lives of others in my community. This self-evaluation led to my reconnection with my Christian faith and community.
I discovered that after all those years, my renewed faith was not only refreshing but also experientially fulfilling. And so I developed a firm anchor for my commitment to community transformation through the biblical teachings and the person of Jesus Christ. I found the principles of love, sacrifice, respect, humility and generosity to be a radical counterbalance to what was manifestly a cold, selfish, damaged and disjointed world. I truly believe that if we conduct our business according to these principles, we can create genuine and sustainable community transformation. If we sow kindness, love and respect, we shall reap the rewards: a kinder, more gentle and respectful world.
Source — The Daily Monitor