A Good African Story. How a small company built a global coffee brand. Andrew Rugasira. Bodley Head, 2013.
I bought this book in Nairobi in April 2013. I think that I have read it at least 3 times and I have recommended it to many friends and colleagues in the past year.
Good African was the first African-owned coffee brand to be listed in UK supermarkets. The company began operating in 2003, but the story began publicly in June 2005 with Andrew Rugasira’s article “Beyond kleptocracy and Kalashnikovs”, in which he made a cogent argument for substituting trade for aid through the opening of rich-country markets and ensuring equal opportunities to compete in them for African businesses, and the story has been recently updated in February 2013.
The books has three parts: the first provides some background, the second the experiences of the company, and the third, the wider lessons. The chapter “What’s wrong with Africa” is perhaps the best concise introduction to the current development debate and the next chapter “In search of an African capitalist class” focuses more on Ugandan experiences. One reviewer has commented that the book is perhaps too scholarly, whereas I think that this context is the key to understanding Andrew Rugasira’s approach and the philosophy of the company.
Perhaps two aspects stand out for me. First, in contrast to the more typical high testosterone CEO style of business book, this is an honest tale of social or collective entrepreneurship, the company’s ups and downs, the more painstaking approach to team building especially with coffee farmers and their families, extension staff, SACCOs, business partners and shareholders. Andrew Rugasira provides a concrete example to Ha-Joon Chang, who writes in his book 23 Things They Didn’t Tell You About Capitalism (Allen Lane, 2010):
If effective entrepreneurship ever was a purely individual thing, it has stopped being so at least for the last century. The collective ability to build and manage effective organisations and institutions is now far more important … Unless we reject the myth of heroic individual entrepreneurs and help them build organisations of collective entrepreneurship, we will never see poor countries grow out of poverty on a sustainable basis [“No more heroes any more” (in the essay Thing 15)].
The second, is the theme of dignity. Beyond profit-sharing, its commitment to community and “empowerment through ownership” is a core element in the company’s “bottom line”, and the approach to building the company’s value chain. Dignity is also a value emphasised in terms of the transformation of institutions and creation of organisations:
A critical pillar of the Good African model became the advocacy that we Africans had to become the solution to our own problems … I believe that a key value that needs to be restored if we are to have a fighting chance at developing our communities is a belief that together we Africans are actually a large part of the solution.
It’s a shame that Good African is not sold in our local supermarkets in Nairobi.