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Book review – A Good African Story

Andrew Rugasira was a man with a dream, and he fulfilled it. A Good African Story is the account of how this Ugandan coffee entrepreneur managed to turn a small African-based company into an international brand with a promising vision, in less than ten years. Rugasira.s project, as his book does, started with a figure: 200,000 tonnes, or three million bags. That is the amount of coffee produced by Uganda in one year, almost entirely exported in its raw form, processed outside the country and then sold worldwide as a finished product: a cycle that the Uganda-born Andrew tried to reverse by establishing his own business, named ‘Good African’. In his vision Africa does not lack the skills to complete the whole process and to sell its products directly on the world markets, but has been so far impeded in doing this by a wide range of factors, including the distortions of aid, the structural inequalities inherited from colonialism and the tariff and non-tariff barriers still influencing trade between Africa and the rest of the world.

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‘Good African’, in its founder’s view, is an answer to all those challenges, a ‘social enterprise’ aspiring both to empower the local rural communities and to develop ‘a global profitable brand’. In many ways, Rugasira’s approach can be deemed successful: the quantity of coffee purchased by his company rose from 7 tonnes in 2004 to over 400 in 2011, and today ‘Good African’ has a network of more than 14,000 coffee farmers, organized in 280 producer groups. Its products managed to enter the South African market (in 2004, through the Shoprite chain) and the UK.s the following year, being sold also by the well-known Sainsbury’s stores.

Inspired by the popular slogan ‘trade, not aid’ and setting a critical eye on experiences that at a first glance may appear similar to his own (such as Fairtrade.s), Rugasira makes a lively account of his road to success. Starting from the initial difficulties to find farmers willing to embark in the project and to hire staff for the newly established company, and ending with a reception to Buckingham Palace, the author reviews all the major steps of his attempt to put his project into effect. In this 10 year-long ‘trial-and-error-process., ‘Good African’ both suffered setbacks and achieved notable goals (such as being listed in UK supermarkets, becoming the first-ever African-owned coffee brand to be sold in Britain), and one of the most evident merits of the book is to deal with both types of events in the same way: trying to make the most of them, learning something from victory as well as from defeat.

Rugasira sees this feature of his book as an exception in business leadership literature which, he writes in the conclusion, often celebrates ‘the factors that lead to success’, placing at the same time ‘less emphasis on those that can lead to failure’. The reason why the founder of ‘Good African’ does not abide by this model, in his own words, is straightforward: ‘We can learn as much from our mistakes as we can from our success. In fact, it is the lessons we take away from failure that offer us the insights and encouragement to improve and become better people’. So, despite the care in stating that these experiences are not shared as ‘timeless truths’ or ‘as coming from some wise sage’, Rugasira’s book has also the ambition of being a sort of tutorial for future African businessmen willing to follow the author.s steps.

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Extending its content far beyond the entrepreneurial biography of the founder of ‘Good African’, however, the book loses something in coherence and, perhaps, in quality. If one can easily understand, for instance, the need for giving some insights into Uganda’s history, and by this means into the many challenges facing company owners-to-be, the first two chapters of the book appear quite incoherent with the rest. The causes of state failure in sub-Saharan countries (the subject of the first chapter, What.s wrong with Africa) and the possible reasons for the preponderance of expatriate or non-indigenous capital in Uganda (detailed in chapter 2, In search of an African capitalist class) are certainly matters worth investigating. Nevertheless, the style of this 55-pages long dissertation (covering, in all, about a quarter of the book), slightly contrasts with that of the rest of the book and one wonders whether the entire first part is actually a totally unnecessary ‘foreign body. to the whole story.

No one doubts, in the end, that Rugasira.s example is a good one, and his story worth telling, but a doubt can be cast on the priorities he has shown in putting to paper his experience. If an academic would be more interested by the analyses included in the first part, a common reader, or even a creative scholar, would find Rugasira.s direct account of his successes and failures more useful.

(D.M.)

Andrew Rugasira, A Good African Story, Vintage book, 2014, 254 pp.

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