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.


Davids and Goliaths

The UK Guardian newspaper reports today that the World Bank’s own internal investigation has shown serious shortcomings in its forest policy advice and lending in the Congo, which has endangered the lives of Pygmy forest communities. The bank apparently overestimated the value of timber export revenues, and pushed commercial logging at the expense of paying sufficient to alternative forest use strategies when introducing forest policy reforms.

First, I should say that I have been working as a consultant for the World Bank in Liberia since 2005, and initially my task was to help redesign the forest taxation system. So I know how difficult it can be ‘getting the numbers right’. Also, both the Congo (better known to some of us as Zaire) and Liberia are barely recovering from simply horrifying civil wars, so even basic institutions (in both senses of the word) are at best weak. Second, the good news is that the bank responded to NGOs’ concerns and the bank’s own watchdogs have admitted that there are shortcomings, which can now presumably be corrected.

In Liberia the bank is working within a coalition known as the Liberia Forest Initiative. The overall forest strategy and reform programme is continually discussed within the LFI. During 2005 I worked on forest taxation proposals. Under the Taylor regime revenues from logging were diverted to funding arms which fuelled both regional wars and the civil war, and prompted a UN log export ban. In 2006 the new government established a Forest Reform Monitoring Committee (I represented the bank) to assess all the proposed reforms for commercial, community and conservation forestry (the so-called 3Cs), and to get a new national forest reform law passed. This was completed in that year, and the accompanying regulations have been through a period of public consultation in early 2007. Continue reading “Davids and Goliaths”

Ghana timber deal with EU

Ghana is getting closer to finalising a deal to export timber to the EU market reports the BBC. I worked with Chris Beeko in the Forestry Commission on the original voluntary partnership proposal in 2003-04, so its great to see that coming to fruition. But the main damage to Ghana’s forest reserves has been caused by logging companies not chainsaw operators, That’s not to deny that they are not a problem, but it has been the concession holders who have blithely disregarded the forest law and regulations and run roughshod over forest communities.