Travel Writing Awards Entry
By Cindy-Lou Dale
I stood in a Waitrose supermarket isle, reading the blurb on the back of numerous coffee labels. The understated packaging of ‘Good African Coffee’, which also shouted ‘Trade not Aid’, claimed their beans originated from the slopes of the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda.
“Splendid stuff that,” a Walrus-type 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 in my hand 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 be 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 mentioned crocodile too. 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 Rwenzori 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 lead me to believe that something more than a dust cloud was chasing us. I had another look behind us, 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 beasts flooded my mind. This was frankly not how I had envisaged this assignment. I had derived the impression that my journey would mostly take place on a thatched veranda somewhere, whilst turbaned servant 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 endeavoured to seek shelter under my kitten motif umbrella whilst continuing to bound down the dirt track. Rambo’s efforts to hide his amusement were betrayed by his side-view mirror.
When we eventually arrived at the home of my interview subject, who would also be my host for the following 24-hours, I was nearly calm. Edgar Khuma, his wife, Mavis and their four children stood to ceremony as I stumbled out of the 4×4.
Following an exchange of greetings and handing out of small gifts for the children, I was relieved of my back-pack and sleeping bag which Mavis took inside their two roomed 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 and his enthusiasm to raise his plantation’s coffee yields still further. 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 Rwenzori Region.
“Our farmers, workforce, investors and the ecosystem are all principal stakeholders,” Rugasira confirmed in a telephonic interview.
“Our farmers are ambitious, intelligent and driven to generate lucrative opportunities and self-sufficiency by trading their coffee,” he continued.
“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. Its part of addressing economic disparity at grass roots level.”
Rugasira does not see Africa as she’s portrayed by politicians and rock stars.
“Africa is a giant food basket, not a bottomless begging bowl. She is place of tremendous opportunity. Our coffee growers are ready for business,” he said. “All we want is the opportunity to fight poverty through trade.”
Within a few short years Rwenzori Coffee Company were selling to the biggest supermarket chain in African, Shoprite Checkers, and since 2005 Good African Coffee has been available in Waitrose, a high-end British supermarket chain.
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 which is part of the company.
The coffee company supports its network of farmers by giving them training in 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 wellbeing of the community by supporting its orphanages, healthcare and education projects. But Andrew Rugasira’s social responsibility does not end there.
“I’m married with five children,” he boasts. “But I’ve lost count of how many other little ones I look after.” He has links to numerous children that have come to him either through his church, or 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 rubbish heap outside the city limits.
“Jonathan is two now. Our whole family feels blessed to have him. 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 suffered many years of political insecurity, and when there was a policy-maker power shift soldiers came to the Rugasira home and imprisoned his father for 18-months.
In the interim, Rugasira and his four sisters were sent away to attend school in England, following which he took a degree in law and economics at London University. After graduating in 1992 he returned to his home country. He had never considered it an option not to.
“I knew that whatever I studied would be practical knowledge to take back to Uganda,” said the articulate 30-something businessman.
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.”
“We have built 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 or assigned directly to our growers.”
Rugasira’s candid views on growth through trade has made him somewhat of a champion of Fair-Trade pressure groups. However, he feels that lobbyists should not be pressuring governments to boost aid budgets (which in turn ensnares yet another African generation into unending dependency), but should rather be lobbying big-name supermarket chains to make two per cent of there shelf space available for superior African produce.
We spoke at length about the Fair-Trade movement in 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,” he said.
“If African exports were to grow by 1% this would translate into revenue flows of more than £40bn 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.”
One by one, Edgar welcomes members of the group into his home. Well after nightfall he lights his pipe, indicative 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 fifty pairs of bright eager eyes shining back at him in the candle light.
“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, but instead gave us an opportunity, a man that has faith in us when 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, even working 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 Banana Gin. 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 the receive sustenance. When Edgar returned from milking his goat, we sat in comfortable silence, eating thick sweet maze porridge with fresh, warm milk.
After seeing 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 enquired, making a sweeping gesture across a setting of incomparable splendour, “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 favourite coffee shop and supermarkets.
My melancholy thoughts were disturbed by the insistent hooting of Rwenzori’s Land Rover rounding the bend, and broad-siding to a stop outside Edgar’s home. Mavis gesticulated wildly at Rambo.
Rambo lent 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 my 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.