In other countries, a public lecture by Andrew Rugasira could attract attendance fees as high as, if not justifiably more than, a Babyface concert in Uganda.
“Andrew is the proverbial prophet who feels unwelcome at home.”
Most Ugandans will not understand or appreciate Andrew Rugasira.
At one point, he was one of our ‘tycoons’ both in the sense that we use the word to mean anyone with a flashy car and the ability to buy many drinks in a nightclub, and in the sense that he had successful entrepreneurial ventures.
We hahad him (*this term is Ugandan pidgin and means something like, “held him in awe and reverence” and at the same time, “couldn’t believe he actually did this”) when he organised Lucky Dube concerts and filled up Namboole. First of all, he was talking to Lucky Dube himself – not just the Congolese musicians we had become used to under the promoter reign of the Tamukati Ndongolas. Secondly, he actually filled up the biggest stadium we knew possible – the whole of Namboole!
Eventually, we heard that Andrew was even running airline excursions into the Congo on behalf of the government and doing God-knows what other businesses. We knew he was rich and going to get richer.
But there was always a thread of consistency to the man, that is revealed as you read through his book, and that came to the fore on Thursday night.
The story of Good African Coffee and Andrew Rugasira is only mid-way but it is already in writing – which is GREAT!
I am happy that we can refer to this rather than, or alongside, the likes of Jim Collins (Built To Last, Good to Great) because this presents situations that we can relate directly to.
“We need to move away from a culture of celebrating the arrival of someone and their wealth, and instead mentor the youth…,” he told us Thursday.
I remembered how photos of his turquoise E-class Mercedes Benz ran in the newspapers when he’d just bought it (he offered me the car to use as part of my wedding convoy – which totally threw me!) and compared that to his current vehicle, which has been on the road for a really long, long time (Ugandan standards) and was just in front of me as I drove into the Sheraton Hotel for the book launch.
I also chuckled to myself at the number of people who made comments about his ‘not buying a new car’ and how it was evidence that he was doing badly at some point.
But therein lay some features of his story that Ugandans must learn from: 1. There will be bad times, but stay focussed and persevere right through them so that you can get to the good times 2. Don’t spend too much time or money on luxury material possessions now – all that should come much, much later 3. Ignore the lugambo (*Ugandan pidgin = rumours, loose talk, slander) because it doesn’t mean anything. Andrew mastered this last lesson, and stuck to his mission in spite of lots of useless idle talk by people who were honestly on the far periphery of an achievement that is being lauded globally 4. Learn loyalty and pay loyalty with loyalty – to get this you had to be in the room, watch him with his people, and read the book. The last person I said bye to as I left was Alex, his driver, an old man who was driver to Henry Rugasira, and drove the child Andrew Rugasira to school back in the seventies.
At the book launch, we were treated again to Andrew’s strict attention to detail, presentation, image and excellence as we walked in and got served coffee, tea, juice and really tasty bites.
More importantly, his intellectual self came to the fore during the discussion led by the brainy panel of Mahmoud Mamdani, Samuel Sejjaaka, Dr. Louis Kasekende, all moderated by William Kalema.
The discussants disposed of the book well and elicited viewpoints that might have been missed by an ordinary casual reader, and some of the views ignited fires in the plenary – Dr. Kasekende’s assertions about the government’s role in growing business, Prof. Sejjaaka’s statements about the politics not being right and the need to take off our colonial spectacles, and Prof. Mamdani’s fear that Andrew represented an entrepreneurial generation that felt entitled to government support.
Prof. Sejjaaka made a comment that tickled me for being correct but not in its full extent:
“You expect public servants who have never even managed a kiosk to make meaningful economic decisions?” he posited.
We laughed, though my view is that the problem with our public servants is that many of them are actually running only small kiosks in their private lives and use those little experiences to run entire sectors of the economy.
Their kiosks don’t even have names in many instances, so they can’t appreciate the power of branding; are not bothered with market access because they are mostly neighbourhood enterprises whose main customer is the civil servant’s family and relatives; access to capital is the petty cash voucher book; and human resourcing is the spouse’s village.
Their expectations are low because they are quite content to operate the way they do, subsidising mediocre lives with a couple of million shillings use to buy second hand cars or diversify into boda-boda as a ‘business’.
Then, enter an entrepreneur a la Andrew Rugasira talking about packaging coffee to rival, nay, beat Nestle and hopes of selling it on supermarket shelves in London, Philadelphia and Cape Town and asking for government support.
The discussion can’t go very far.
The idea that a fellow Ugandan can want to do big business of this nature and is seeking support in millions of US dollars at one go when you, the man who signs documents recommending payment, are engaged in a business that started with less than that in Uganda shillings…
Which is why, I argued, Andrew’s call for more entrepreneurial mentorship should be heeded.
His book is a manifesto for this the government to provide mentorship to enterprises such as Good African Coffee – and when we find Good African Coffees with Andrew Rugasira’s, we should put them into positions of public management so that a multiplier effect is achieved quickly and effectively!
Back to Prof. Mamdani’s argument, quite critical as it was, many didn’t agree with it in entirety – which is a healthy part of intellectualism. You provoke thought and allow the opposing view to emerge.
Governments, Mamdani argued, should not engage in business or the promotion of individual businesses because the line between that support and corruption is very thin. They should instead seek to promote entire sectors and entrepreneurial segments or classes.
This generated lots of debate, and a heated response from Andrew himself that made me think of that Kung Fu movie scene where the student takes on the Master and ends the fight with his foot on the old man’s chest.
In his response, Andrew cited the theories put forward by German Economist Friedrich List’s economic theories of economic nationalism and the protection of infant industries to achieve national development
“The US economy built itself on protecting its infant industries, Britain, Holland, Germany all did the same,” Andrew argued.
“After the first and second World Wars, it stopped being fashionable. Those who had benefitted from protecting their infant industries came out and said actually it’s classical economics to allow the free market to operate. Markets are the most effective allocators of resources, so all of you others emerging and evolving should not have state interference. This came up right to the time that Professor Berg wrote the Berg Report which became the foundational framework for the Structural Adjustment Programmes,” he said.
“What worked for one group of nations one generation or two before was not good for us. So today I say how can the EU spend 40% of its budget on agriculture? That 40% they spend contributes 2% of their GDP and employs 5% of their population – a structural distortion. When we argue against that and we say that needs to be reversed, it is not because we want to be entitled. It is to say something is fundamentally wrong with the structure of the global economy. As Africans we have had enough of accepting status quo as status quo. It is time to stand up and say something is wrong,” he went on.
“Will we have the power to change it in this generation? Maybe not. But for one thing, my son is going to grow up knowing that something was wrong, he is going to argue against it and he is going to have the practice of his generation to address that and transform the generations that come after him.
“We cannot take these distortions and structural imbalances for granted. These are the things that are keeping these economies down. When we stand up and say we need to change them it is not to say we need to change them so that we can benefit.
“I disagree that you can have a government policy to support all entrepreneurs. How? Show me any nation that supported single sectors and generations of entrepreneurs! They targeted specific entities that they knew would transform the rest of the economy – Samsung, Huawei, Hyundai, LG…
“They targeted them, trained their human resources, empowered them, provided capital at low interest. The Japanese government sponsored missions – bureaucrats and business people – to other countries to study those societies and infused their private sector with value systems and ways of looking at how business should be conducted to help next generations!”
“It is not enough to say things are not right. It is more to appreciate why they are not right and what they can do about it. So when we write our stories we are transferring data, not just for ourselves but for the next generation!”
He was heated up by now, good and proper, and went on:
“If I can be entitled to support 14,000 farmers then so be it. Because everyone who has come before me hasn’t only been entitled by fiat for themselves – they have been entitled for the system and the market place. Today we find a very distorted market. You are selling goods and commodities to a market that subjectively, by stealth, conspicuously frustrates African exports to those markets and by arguing against that we are somehow making a case from a foundation that is entitled? NO WAY! We HAVE TO make these arguments. We HAVE TO document them. As practitioners. As people who have to pay salaries at the end of the month. People who have loans. And when we make those arguments, we become a body of evidence that the kiosk-runners can no longer ignore! Pressure transforms!”
And then, just when we thought there couldn’t be any acceleration and the road was coming to an end, he went into an even higher gear and pushed on:
“Enough already. I don’t buy that nonsense about capital not being there. You can steal US$100million then why not give capital to businesses?! It is easy for a bunch of crooks and nincompoops to steal US$100billion and we have whole sectors of entrepreneurs who have no capital?! There is a problem! The NSSF is sitting on billions and they can’t lend it because of rent-seeking? There will always be rent-seeking and there will always be corruption! The Thai, Taiwanese, Singaporean, Korean and Chinese experience shows it is not how many entrepreneurs you can support and how many are corrupt – it is how many good ones in the process can you build that they may employ people, create wealth, pay taxes and prosper your economy?!!!!!!!!
For every Hyundai there were ten corrupt companies. That doesn’t stop us. When you have a deviant child, you don’t give up on your children. You work on them until you get it right. That’s not how we manage our homes, that’s not how we manage our businesses and THAT’S NOT HOW WE SHOULD MANAGE OUR PUBLIC AFFAIRS!”
I’ve gone for a pot of Good African Coffee.