Coffee entrepreneur meets challenges in Africa

08coffee2-popup-v2

[Reprinted from the New York Times Magazine, April 8, 2012]

By DANIEL BERGNER

When he set out to wedge his coffee onto supermarket shelves in England and America, Andrew Rugasira didn’t start by making phone calls from his home in Kampala, Uganda. He didn’t begin by sending e-mails. The distance seemed too great for that. At one end of his business were farmers who, until he came along, thought their beans were purchased and carried off to make gunpowder. At the other were buyers at the corporate headquarters of chains like Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, Whole Foods and Wal-Mart. If he was going to succeed, he felt he would have to do it physically; it was as if he believed he could stretch himself to span the divide between the two worlds. So he got on a plane to London, without trying any advance contact.

He checked into a London hotel, and from there he called and sent e-mails to the companies. Rugasira is a tall, tireless 43-year-old with an angular face and slightly prominent ears and a smile that rearranges everything. Armed with a laptop that held a PowerPoint presentation about his coffee, he intended to pull off a kind of revolution. No longer would his country merely sell its unroasted beans to exporters who supplied the European and American coffee kings, from Nestlé to Starbucks; no longer would his nation just provide the raw material for someone else’s riches. In the stores, his roasts would take their place beside the high-end brands.

He was bursting with the pitch he would deliver as soon as he met his first British buyer. “We as a new generation of African entrepreneurs believe that we can bring quality products to the global market. We believe we have what the consumer in the North Atlantic market is looking for in coffee; we believe we have the capacity to design the packaging to make it attractive; we believe. . . .” As he recalled the speech he prepared — while we sat in December outside his little purchasing office in Kasese, a town not far from the Democratic Republic of Congo — he sounded like the most moving of preachers. And he felt poised, he said, on that trip to London in 2004, to convert the Western world to his product. In his hotel room, he sat dressed in beige slacks and a gray turtleneck, with a blue blazer pressed and waiting. He watched for replies to animate his in-box. None came. On the phone, the receptionists wouldn’t put him through. The 4,000 miles he traveled didn’t seem to soften them. “Did you send a message?” they asked. “Well, then he’ll get back to you.” No one did. Day after day, his sermon went unspoken. And at last, there was nothing to do but go home.

Yet Rugasira has a resilience that may have been forged in childhood. He grew up in Kampala during the terrors of Idi Amin’s reign in the ’70s. When he was around 11, with Amin just driven out, soldiers climbed over the gate in front of his family’s house and carried away the TV, the refrigerator, the furniture, while Rugasira and two of his sisters, who were 7 and 5, huddled on their knees and prayed in a bedroom. He could hear the soldiers threatening and his parents pleading out front. The gunmen left, but one evening, his father, who owned a factory that made chalk for Ugandan schoolchildren, didn’t return home.

Imprisonment and exile in Kenya — this was his father’s life for the next two and a half years, yet when I asked Rugasira how that period of his boyhood affected him, he said flatly that it hadn’t. “Context is so important,” he said. “Friends were losing their parents. If you were successful, you were accused of being Amin’s agent. It wasn’t difficult to figure out that I was fortunate to be alive, to have my parents alive.” He didn’t want to dwell on that time. He was far happier talking about the “value addition” achieved by the growers on the rugged hills above Kasese, through a technique of processing beans that his staff taught them. Or talking about “capturing the entire value chain” through his quest to build a roasting factory in Kampala, offering perhaps the first African-roasted coffee sold in British and American stores and creating a thriving industry in sub-Saharan Africa, where factories of any kind are scarce and where the export of finished products to the West is nearly nonexistent.

Three months after his failed trip to England, he got back on a plane with the identical plan in mind: land in London; dial the numbers and send the e-mails and compel the buyers to respond by means of proximity and pure will. “I thought, I can do this,” he remembered. He didn’t score a single meeting.

 Rugasira’s company is called Good African Coffee. The Kasese office, about 200 miles west of Kampala toward the center of the continent, is a squat, white-and-blue building surrounded by a dilapidated town that once served a copper mine, now defunct. The town is framed by the Rwenzori Mountains, a glacial chain that the ancient Greek geographer Ptolemy labeled the Mountains of the Moon, borrowing from the name the locals gave to the glowing, snowcapped peaks. Under a tree near the office was a waiting cluster ofboda-boda boys, the young men who taxi people around on their motorbikes, their heedless speeds and buzzing engines speaking of the constant motion and ambition that somehow exist side by side with a profound inertia in Africa.

One morning in the Rwenzori foothills, I joined Rugasira as he checked in with some of the growers who sell beans to Good African. In a hovel below a harsh incline, I sat with a group of farmers who had put on their best for our visit. Two of the men wore battered wingtips; a woman was wrapped in a lime green caftan rimmed with pompoms. The building is home to the village-run savings and loan which Rugasira set up, with blue exam booklets for passbooks. He hoped to guide the farmers to invest in educating their children, upgrading their mud-and-thatch homes and generally elevating their standard of living. But he brought things much more rudimentary than banking. The farmers told me that until Rugasira and his staff appeared, they hadn’t terraced their fields; somehow this fundamental, millennia-old method of enhancing yields on steep terrain had eluded them.

Rugasira also generated a miniature industrial revolution. He brought simple pulping machines, knee-high metal contraptions, turned by hand crank, that free the bean from its thick red skin. Over time, he gave out 200 of these, which the farmers carry on their backs from hamlet to hamlet and share across the area. His staff taught the farmers to soak the skinned beans as a way of culling those that are damaged or unripe, while also removing an inner sheath. And Rugasira impressed upon them the benefit of drying the beans in the shade and off the ground, on platforms of wire mesh that the company hired carpenters to construct. These methods would enrich the taste of the coffee down the line, he explained, and in turn enrich the price he could pay them for their beans. The new equipment and methods allowed the growers to liberate themselves from the prevailing local system of selling their raw commodity cheaply to traders. Instead, Rugasira paid 70 percent more — about 60 cents a pound, as his company got under way — for a product that could go on to satisfy elite markets and that he planned to roast and sell in a sector, he pointed out to me repeatedly, worth billions.

For the complete article, go to The New York Times.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *