“IT USED to be a badge of pride that we were the only African coffee brand in British supermarkets. Now I see it as shameful,” says Andrew Rugasira, the founder of Good African. He is bemoaning the fact that other African firms—in coffee and many other lines of business—have struggled to follow the trail blazed by Good African since it was founded in 2003.
Mr Rugasira created the firm with the goal of creating a distinctly African coffee brand, by carrying out some of the value-added parts of the supply chain, such as roasting and packaging, in Africa, instead of just shipping raw coffee berries abroad to be processed—rather like Jamaica has done with its Blue Mountain coffee. Since persuading Waitrose, an upmarket British supermarket chain, to stock his coffee in 2005, Mr Rugasira has won round its rivals. Last month Sainsbury’s became the latest to place an order. Good African coffee will soon be available in America, too, though initially only online, not in shops. The firm also has ambitious plans to start marketing Good African tea and Good African chocolate.
Although Mr Rugasira pins part of the blame for his struggles on trade barriers against African products, he reserves much of his criticism for outdated attitudes to Africa in the West. When he first started pitching Good African coffee in Britain he ran into “50 years of prejudice”. His firm was founded in Uganda, which meant that when Mr Rugasira turned up at meetings “people were expecting Idi Amin”. People also “assumed we were trying a scam; assumed I was looking for handout; couldn’t believe there could be value added in Africa,” he recalls. “No one makes any distinction between older generations of African businessmen and the new generation.”
Mr Rugasira says he made 14 trips to Britain before he could persuade any retailer to stock his coffee. But finding outlets for the product wasn’t the only problem: he also struggled to secure the venture capital the firm needed to grow. In recent years, as the failure of traditional aid mechanisms to spur economic development has become clearer, there has been much talk about the need to foster entrepreneurship in Africa, to create the jobs the continent so badly needs. There are now even some venture-capital funds focused on Africa, including one backed by Mo Ibrahim, an African mobile-phone billionaire.
The rapid spread of mobile phones is one of the factors helping African entrepreneurs. Phones dramatically reduce their communication costs, which were typically far higher than in other parts of the world. But entrepreneurs often still need to build other elements of the market “ecosystem” needed to sell their products at the same time as they are building their own firms. That is why getting access to established markets abroad is so important.
Happily, Mr Rugasira’s words are starting to be heard in the right places, despite his firm’s small size. He addressed international business leaders at the World Economic Forum’s African Summit in Tanzania on May 5th. Good African coffee was nominated this year for the FT ArcelorMittal Boldness in Business Award, despite the fact that, as Mr Rugasira put it, “our annual turnover most likely is less than a month’s salary of some of the CEOs present.”
For those who criticise the dependency culture often associated with aid, and want to give Africans “a hand up, not a handout”, the place to start offering that hand up may be at home—not by granting African businesses any special privileges but simply giving them a fair crack of the whip in developed markets. As Mr Rugasira puts it, “Africa has plenty of entrepreneurs. They just need you to take your dollars out of your pockets and spend them on their products.”