Giving back to UgandaA native son's dream realized
By Cindy-Lou Dale
I stood in a British supermarket aisle, reading the blurbs on the back of numerous coffee labels. The understated packaging of Good African Coffee, which also shouted “Trade, Not Aid,” claimed its beans originated from the slopes of the Ruwenzori Mountains in Uganda.
“Splendid stuff that,” a Walrus-like voice barked beside me. “Wasn’t the author of that book. … What was it now, ah yes, Out of Africa. Wasn’t she from that neck of the woods? A Danish girl.”
“Karen Blixen? She had a coffee plantation in Kenya; this comes from Uganda,” I said, stabbing at the package with my index finger. “In fact, I am leaving for Uganda tonight to meet with these same growers.”
“Uganda! My dear girl, have you lost your mind? Do you know the perils that await you? Snakes, spiders, rabies,” he gasped, ending the sentence in a lung shaking cough. “… and the tropical diseases you’ll bring back with you.” He eyed me suspiciously then lapsed into silence.
My colleagues felt certain there was an infinitely greater danger of me being eaten by a lion. I recall someone mentioning crocodiles also. It only required a little light adventure book reading to confirm what they, and now the Walrus, had said.
This was why, I explained to airport security, I was carrying a Swiss Army knife: to defend myself from man-eating crocodiles and bandits.
Early the following morning, the vehicle sent by Rwenzori Coffee Company’s CEO, Andrew Rugasira, collected me from my hotel near Entebbe’s airport. My ride was an open, cut-down Land Rover with about as much reinforcement as a dinner plate. The eight-hour drive to the snow-capped Ruwenzori Mountains, on the Congo border, began with two lanes then quickly shrank into one, then half a lane and finally a rutted dirt track. My driver, an amiable giant aptly named Rambo, was fearless and evidently indestructible. I found this immensely reassuring, as his driving led me to believe that something more than a dust cloud was chasing us. I had another look just to be certain.
“It’s for our safety,” he said, as if reading my mind. “The deeper we go into the jungle the bigger the danger of us meeting with her wild animals.”
Visions of sharing our vehicle for a few confused and lively moments with any form of jungle beast flooded my mind. This was frankly not how I had envisioned this assignment. I had derived the impression that my journey would mostly take place on a thatched veranda somewhere, whilst turbaned servants brought me coffee.
“Wild animals?” I asked, in a restrained squeak.
“And the rain, she is coming. We must hurry,” he added.
Moments later, a loud thunderclap boomed overhead, and the heavens opened. With no protection from the elements, I endeavored to seek shelter under my kitten motif umbrella while continuing to bound down the dirt track. Rambo’s efforts to hide his amusement were betrayed by his side-view mirror.
I was nearly calm when we arrived at the mist-shrouded Ruwenzori Mountains, the home of my interview subject, who was also my host for the following 24 hours. Edgar Khuma, his wife, Mavis, with their four children, stood to ceremony as I stumbled out of the jeep.
Following an exchange of greetings and handing out of small gifts for the children, I was relieved of my backpack and sleeping bag, which Mavis took inside their two-room stone and mud hut.
Edgar walked me around his two-acre patch of land, taking great pride in showing me his crop, ready for harvesting. He told of his enthusiasm to raise his plantation’s coffee yields still further, which, he said, he would be discussing with his group of trainee farmers. We stood a while surveying the lush tropical landscape of the valley below. Edgar was a kindly and deferential fellow with a leathery complexion, exuding toughness. He tapped his pipe against a stone, then began repacking it with fresh tobacco.
“So, tell me about the boss, Andrew Rugasira,” I asked.
Edgar took a long hard pull on his pipe and considered the question carefully. “Only God could have sent us such a man,” he said, shooting a cloud of pipe smoke into the glue-like humidity. He nodded at his own thoughts, then added, “I always knew such a great man would one day come.”
Rwenzori Coffee Company was established in 2002 when Andrew Rugasira contracted a network of more than 10,000 small-scale Arabica coffee growers of the Ruwenzori Region.
Rugasira, an articulate 30-something businessman, states that his farmers, workforce, investors and the ecosystem are all principal stakeholders in the future. His farmers are ambitious, intelligent and driven to generate lucrative opportunities and self-sufficiency by trading their coffee. “We don’t just pay them a flat fee; they bargain and negotiate a premium price. They warrant the investment, and it makes fiscal sense to pay it. It’s part of addressing economic disparity at grassroots level.”
Rugasira does not see Africa as she is portrayed by politicians and rock stars. “Africa is a giant food basket, not a bottomless begging bowl. She is a place of tremendous opportunity. Our coffee growers are ready for business. All we want is the opportunity to fight poverty through trade.”
Within a few years, Rwenzori Coffee Company was selling to the biggest supermarket chain in Africa, Shoprite Checkers, and since 2005, Good African Coffee has been available in Waitrose, a high-end British supermarket chain.
A spokesman for the U.K.’s Waitrose, which attracts a high percentage of fair-trade customers, says Rwenzori’s product is treated in exactly the same way as any other product they carry. Factors they consider include quality, price, availability, as well as ethical and responsible farming and production.
Rugasira is a business leader in a class of his own. He shares his company’s profits on an equal basis with his farmers and their communities, a philosophy he has filtered throughout the extended family that is part of the company.
The coffee company supports its network of farmers by giving them training in the best practices to enhance their crop superiority and by equipping them with technology such as washing baskets, drying trays and coffee pulpers. Rwenzori also promotes the well being of the community by supporting its orphanages, health care and education projects. But Andrew Rugasira’s social responsibility does not end there.
He is married with five children, and he claims to have lost count of how many other little ones he takes care of. He has links to numerous children that have come his way, either through his church, orphans he has supported or children of distant relatives. “It is the African way. When you see the poverty around you, you must help. I am grateful that God has given me the ability to do this.”
The sight of poverty and destitution used to anger him, but now Rugasira is more practical about what he can do. One such practical solution was adopting a day-old infant left on a garbage heap outside Kampala’s city limits. “Our whole family feels blessed to have him,” he said. “He is a very special son. He is a symbol of how lives can be transformed.”
Andrew Rugasira was born in Western Uganda, where his father owned a chalk factory. Uganda has suffered many years of political insecurity. Following a policy-maker power shift, soldiers came to the Rugasira home and arrested his father, imprisoning him for 18 months.
In the interim, Rugasira and his four sisters were sent to school in England, after which he took a degree in law and economics at London University. After graduating in 1992, he returned to his home country, having never considered it an option not to. He knew that whatever he studied would be practical knowledge to take back to Uganda.
Sadly, when Edgar returned to Uganda, his father become ill and died soon afterwards. “I have the advantage of being educated both in England and Uganda,” he said, “and I will never forget how fortunate I am to have this,” he paused for a moment, then added, “Nor will I forget the guidance my father gave me.”
Since its launch in 2002, Rwenzori Coffee has generated sales of $1.7 million. The U.K. supermarket partnership has boosted this number by $1.4 million in its first year. Rugasira pays his growers up to twice the average market price for their coffee ($1.50 per kilo, compared with a market price of $.78). He keeps strict records of the amount of coffee farmers have supplied, and twice a year he redistributes half the profits into local projects. Thus far, donations in excess of $250,000 have gone to community programs such as orphanages and education projects.
Rwenzori is a successful company based on the moral ethic of promoting self-reliance. “This is why half of the company’s profits are reinvested into community programs or assigned directly to our growers,” he says.
Rugasira’s candid view on growth through trade has made him somewhat of a champion of fair-trade pressure groups. However, he feels that lobbyists should not pressure governments to boost aid budgets, as this in turn ensnares yet another African generation into unending dependency. He argues for lobbying big-name supermarket chains to make two percent of their shelf space available for superior African produce.
A good cup of coffee or espresso requires only five grams of roasted coffee and sells for around $3 at your local coffeehouse. One kilogram of coffee produces on average 200 cups of coffee, retailing at around $600. Yet the African coffee grower receives less than half a percent of this, as his green coffee beans are sold for an average price of $.78 cents per kilogram.
Rugasira does some straight talking about the fair-trade movement raising shoppers’ consciousness and the need for emphasis to change to supporting African products and companies. “Africans are not inferior. We might not have the same opportunities as Westerners, but we are capable and motivated, and as such, define our own opportunities. Western governments should be pressured for greater commitment to do business with Africa.”
In truth, if African exports were to grow by one percent, revenue flows would increase by more than $70 billion a year. Relying on the broken promises of the G8 leaders is clearly not going to win the war against poverty; income through trade will achieve this goal much sooner.
When asked about exporting to North America, Rugasira indicated that although the U.S. market is vast and interest is great, especially from faith-based organizations, a decision has been made to wait until Rwenzori can roast in Uganda and ship out finished product directly.
One by one, Edgar welcomed members of the group into his home. Well after nightfall he lit his pipe, indicating that the meeting was about to commence. Thick pipe fog hung close to the corrugated iron ceiling, and the room fell silent in anticipation. Edgar regarded 50 pairs of bright, eager eyes shining back at him in the candlelight.
“Not so long ago, we went to bed at dusk because we had no candles. Recall how our children went to school in rags? And when we felt the future’s only promise was that of hopelessness, poverty and disease? Do you recall how hard our parents prayed and how we prayed too?” His audience considered his statement solemnly.
“God heard our prayers and sent us a man who did not take pity on us, a man that did not drop a few coins into our begging bowls; instead, this man gave us an opportunity; he had faith in us where we once had none. This man gave us knowledge and taught us how to do good business.” He paused for effect.
“And look, now we can buy candles for when it grows dark. We now send our children to school dressed in smart uniforms, and our wives have new clothes for church on Sunday.” There was much reflective nodding and agreeable whispers.
The meeting progressed to discussions of new harvesting methods. Edgar urged his team of growers to take more responsibility for wider areas, to work on Sundays. Then lengthy talks ensued when Edgar’s inspirational ideas about soil conservation were tabled.
“We all know of the farmer who would rather sit in the sunshine and get drunk with his friend Apricot Brandy. He will call to us to join him and say we must stop wasting time with the work,” Edgar paused, studying the intent faces before him. “But he sees that through our hard work, our children will finish school; he sees too that our women are happy and that some of us now have bicycles, and he will wonder what it is that we do.”
Before daybreak, I became aware of movement; Mavis was preparing breakfast. There was whispering in her wake after she woke the children for school.
Still in my sleeping bag, I shuffled across to the fire and sat in line, ready to receive sustenance. When Edgar returned from milking his goat, we sat in comfortable silence, eating thick sweet maize porridge with fresh, warm milk.
After watching the parents see their children off on their long hike to school, I asked Edgar what his dreams were for the future. “When the war and the rebels came and we had to leave our home to sleep in the jungle, I knew I must put my faith in God. I knew that one day He would hear our prayers. That day came when Andrew Rugasira spoke to the farmers and asked us to produce for Rwenzori. Then I saw the opportunity that God had put before us.”
He gazed toward the horizon. “You see all this?” Edgar inquired, making a sweeping gesture across a setting of incomparable splendor. “This is our future.”
Standing next to Edgar, still encased in my sleeping bag, I looked up at the imposing mountain, then down at the mist-covered valley floor. A profound thought occurred to me: The collective futures of these gentle Ugandan farmers depend on which coffee brand we select from our favorite coffeehouse and supermarkets.
My melancholy thoughts were disturbed by the insistent hooting of Rwenzori’s Land Rover rounding the bend and coming to a stop outside Edgar’s home. Mavis gesticulated wildly at Rambo.
Rambo leaned out the window: “We must hurry. The rain, she is coming.”
And she did. I bounced along the corrugated track under my now somewhat buckled kitty umbrella, keeping a beady eye out for bandits and carnivores. An unexpected gust of wind swept the umbrella from my hand and carried it over the slope’s edge. Within minutes, I was as soaked as Rambo.
We grinned foolishly at one another, which brought to mind Andrew Rugasira’s words when I asked him if he had any regrets: “Only that my father could not see the man I have become.”
There is some truth about the feeling that overcomes you when you find yourself in the presence of greatness.
UGANDA FAST FACTS
Uganda has two mountainous regions where premium Arabica coffee is grown (ranging from 4,300 feet to 7,500 feet): one in the east on the slopes of Mt. Elgon, bordering Kenya, and to the west in several areas in the Mountains of the Moon along the Zaire border. Both regions have a long tradition of producing washed Arabicas, which are called “WUGAR” for “Washed Uganda Arabica.”
Most of Uganda’s Arabica coffee is washed in a process similar to those used in Latin America and produced by family farms on smallholdings. In traditional Ugandan households, women take responsibility for coffee cultivation, picking and marketing. The majority of household income is commonly from coffee farming. Coffee makes up more than 60 percent of Uganda’s foreign exchange and involves nearly 30 percent of its total population. The health of Uganda’s coffee industry affects the well being of its families more directly than any other crop or industry.
LOCATION: Uganda (92,000 square miles) is in eastern Africa, surrounded by Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya
OFFICIAL LANGUAGE: English
POPULATION: Approximately 27 million
CURRENCY: Ugandan shilling (UGX)
SEASONS: Avoid visiting Ruwenzori in the rainy seasons at all costs. It is one of the main watersheds of the Nile, receiving rain throughout the year, and exceptional amounts from March until June and September to December.
MEDICAL: Malaria is prevalent in this area. Take the necessary medications. Minimize mosquito bites by wearing light, long-sleeved clothing and using effective insect repellents on exposed skin. Sleep under treated mosquito netting.
DOMESTIC CONSUMPTION: 55,000 bags of about 130 pounds
COFFEE EXPORT: 3.5 million bags of 130 pounds
CULTIVATED AREA: 177,912 acres of Arabica
HARVEST: October through January
ARABICA INTRODUCED: From Ethiopia and Malawi at the beginning of the 20th century
FARMS: 500,000 farms (of which 94 percent are smallholders)
SPECIALTY PREPARATIONS: Bugisu AA and A (washed), Wugar A (washed), Drugar (natural, unwashed)
BOTANICAL VARIETIES: Bourbon and Kent
Rwenzori Coffee Company (Pty.) Ltd.
web site: rwenzoricoffee.com
P.O. Box 1718, Kampala, Uganda
Phone: + 256 41 335102
Fax: + 256 41 344126
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