Monday, April 8, 2013

Book Review: A Good African Story

When you are a reader of books on the macro level socio-economic or socio-political state of the African continent, your options usually come with titles like; ‘Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles’, ‘Dead Aid’, ‘What Went Wrong with Africa’, ‘Africa is in a Mess: What went wrong and what should be done’, ‘The White Man’s Burden…’. Even when you are not a denier of the troubles on this continent, these bleak invocations eventually get you angry and defensive. Mr Rugasira’s book came with the happy title; ‘A Good African Story’. To borrow Dorothy Boyd’s famous line; he had me at hello. That definitely was a title I was bound to buy.

It is a good African story. Good, because a man builds a business from idea to considerable success right in the space of less than 10 years. It is African because most obviously, the main characters and events are African but also in the nuanced drama of it all. On his very first exploratory meeting with coffee farmers, Mr Rugasira is playfully threatened with circumcision as an acceptance ritual in Mbale. Later on in Kasese, he is threateningly stared down by a woman who caricatures his intentions in the image of the impotent aid projects that litter the life story of an African farmer. Over in the west, Mr Rugasira has the misfortune of coming off as a black man pulling sham-swag when he gets to sleep in one of New York’s best hotels thanks to a family & friends discount from his brother in-law who works there. The same nuanced drama follows him into western boardrooms where people to whom he makes serious business proposals sometimes treat him like a mere impressive African boy. For example; by giving him a pat of the back before shooing him out of their boardrooms without any real feedback on the business proposed.

This book attempts to strike a balance between being a business biography of Mr Rugasira or Good African Limited and a discussion of the macro-level issues that impede Africa’s involvement in international trade. I would have had tilt more to one of the two than balance the act. In particular I would have had it be more a biography of the man because there is no shortage of literature analyzing Africa’s issues. Infact, Mr Rugasira’s own discussion of the issues is more of a systematic analysis of this existing literature than his own opinion. Plus, telling a personal story can be a really powerful way to highlight the issues in a reader friendly manner. Having read quite a bit of the existing analysis of African’s issues, I found the first three chapters slow going, only picking up pace in places where Mr Rugasira talks about his own family history and at the brief part where he delves into his own opinion on what impact the expulsion of Asian population may or may not have had on the Ugandan economy at the time.   

Speaking of his opinion, I wish there was more of it in the book. I enjoyed his whipping of Fair Trade for instance but for the most part, Rugasira guards against being too hotly opinionated instead referring to other publications where he might have been more so – like his 2007 piece for the Guardian. But why shouldn’t he be hotly opinionated? He is smart, intellectual and has in his very own African skin experienced the global market place. Andrew Mwenda has only the first two (less qualifying) of the mentioned attributes and without bridle speaks a bucketful on the subject. I am willing to bet that off the record, Rugasira says so much more than he did in the book. In my humble opinion, that is a damn shame!

You may not mind it but I regretted that the book offered rather little on the personal drama side of things. I have two lasting images of this from the book. One of Rugasira bursting into Sudhir's office to offer his  own house in lieu of loan repayments because he had had it with Crane bank creditors hounding him. Another stars him audaciously but with quiet fear intruding on the central bank governor (at home) in a desperate attempts to get his company approved for the loan facility that later landed him in hot soup with Sudhir’s bank. Why isn’t there more of this kind of scene? Surely, the machinations of getting an international business from idea to success in less than 10 years must have offered much more fodder than this. Another argument for why the book should have been more deeply autobiographical.

All that said, I think the book is well worth a read. If this review reads kind of jumpy and ill at transition, live with it. The book itself sort of reads the same but look, you got to the end of this so you will get to the end of the book too. Albeit with the same feelings as you now feel about the review - that you should take an editing hand at it but are happy to have read it. 

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