Andrew Rugasira: can coffee transform lives in Africa?

From Global development | The Guardian Sat Feb 16 2013, 19:04:05

In 2003, Andrew Rugasira had a vision of empowering farmers in his native Uganda by enabling them to produce and sell coffee direct to British supermarkets. So has his idea worked?

How can you tell when a story has ended? If it is an African story, such as the one Andrew Rugasira has to tell, closure is never likely to be satisfying or clear cut. Beginnings are more straightforward.

Rugasira's once-upon-a-time moment came nearly a decade ago, when he had a vision to start a coffee company in his native Uganda. He would, he determined, become the first African to collect and roast and market and sell quality coffee direct to British supermarkets. And, by that example, he would demonstrate his certain beliefs: that it was trade, not aid, that transformed communities and that change was never an imposed solution, but a positive choice made by those whose lives would be most affected by it.

The place Rugasira chose to base his coffee company, to start that story, the Rwenzori mountains - the Mountains of the Moon - looked a lot like a blank page. The lives of the 14,000 subsistence farmers who lived high above the town of Kasese, right on the war-torn border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, had never been the stuff of written record. Their narratives were of survival rather than progress. Ambition meant getting through the next day and the next week, in thrall as they were to the suddenly shifting front lines of brutal cross-border conflict and the vagaries of farming a little scrap of land without decent tools or any technology, without transport or access to market, barely growing enough to feed themselves and their children, waiting for agents or middlemen to pass through and buy some coffee beans, maybe soon, maybe not, and never for a price that seemed fair.

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