Good African Story

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 Story

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)].

good-african-coffee-rukoki-goldThe 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.

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No easy matches

Leadership is in vogue after the debacle of England failing to qualify for the European cup followed by the instant sacking of the team manager (for which he received 2.5 million quid compensation after just 12 games, thank-you very much) and ‘Not flash, just Gordon’ Brown’s recent miserable weeks as Prime Minister, in which he has learnt there is no place to hide when news is bad: namely, when the government has admitted it has no real idea about the number of immigrants in the country or exactly what they are doing (except the guy who was guarding the PM’s car), has committed the equivalent of 30 Millennium Domes’ worth of tax money to a small failing private bank, and mislaid confidential financial data on half the households in the land.

Now football and political leadership success may be exceptional in that they are driven acutely by results, either in terms of cups or elections, but arguably they share also a number of characteristics. First, the truism that in politics, as in football, success is usually held to breed success. The more a party or team looks like a winner, the more likely it is to be a winner. Second, success comes from results and leadership is a key ingredient – and perhaps to a greater extent than found in a say a soap company or supermarket chain – or for that matter a public forestry institution. Second, a football team or political party is identified to a large extent by the authority of its leader – who has to establish his/her authority, set standards, determine tactics, and organising the team/cabinet. Above all to get the team to perform depends on getting the right personnel, and through conviction to show that their methods are right.

And – as an aside – the old adage which seems true in football, but perhaps less so in politics: don’t promote the #2 (remember: they were chosen to be the #2…).

Leadership is about authority, confidence and competence. McLaren never demonstrated these characteristics; Brown is in danger of losing them irrevocably. It was on competence that Brown planned to fight the election that he bottled. Continue reading “No easy matches”

African prizes

It would be difficult to conceive a more ludicrous idea (and luminaries such as Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and Mary Robinson really should know better). The “self-made” cellphone billionaire Mo Ibrahim has started to hand out his eponymous self-congratulatory award (the “Mo Ibrahim Award for Achievement in African Leadership”). He should know: Celtel made him a fortune in 15 African countries not renowned for regulatory oversight, in an industry characterised by high initial capital and thereafter low marginal costs. Now Former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano, the first winner, is probably a good guy, but he and any other winners could reflect on the words of Chinua Achebe:

A leader’s no-nonsense reputation might induce a favorable climate but in order to effect lasting change, it must be followed up with a radical program of social and economic reorganization” [The Trouble with Nigeria (1984)].

Development agencies regularly make the mistake of relying on ‘agents of change’ and then wonder why nothing really changed. African voters hope for the best – and often accept that there limits on social change imposed by democratic politics and institutions – but nonetheless and in plain words, good leaders are good, but strong institutions are even better. These include viable tax systems – not least in forestry – to pay for essential social services and tax justice in a globalised world.