By Paul Ndiho
Born in Rwanda, Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa has consistently overcome adversity– to become one of Africa’s leading businessman and philanthropists. His a personal fortune estimated in the tens of millions of dollars includes a shopping mall, a cement factory, a brewery, tobacco farms, processing plants and several other businesses. His ability to succeed, despite repeated hardships is remarkable.
“I don’t see myself as Rwandese, I see myself as African… I wish when I die that whatever I started can continue not for looking at expending the business but building up something. And this is what I tell my kids. This is the legacy I’ll leave with my children. I want them to continue building something in Africa.”
At age 73, Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa is one of Rwanda’s most prominent entrepreneurs– and a key player on the African continent. From an early age, Rujugiro Ayabatwa knew he wanted to be a businessman and philanthropist– and his sons are learning their business skills from their father.
“My dad for example on the business side, I’d say very difficult, very demanding but also fair.”
“Even when I started in business, i mean it wasn’t being appointed here and there… I mean you started from the bottom.
Mr. Ayabatwa has always turned adversity into triumph. After the death of his mother, Tribert obtained a certificate as a clerk and typist and went into exile as a Rwandan refugee in Burundi. Soon, he found a job as a clerk. After work, he spent most evenings learning French. He later became so proficient with French, that he began teaching the language to other Rwandan exiles.
“He’s not really individualistic whether you talk about business, community development, nation building, he wants to involve more people. He’s involved in cement making, tobacco growing as well as cigar rate making; he’s into growing and processing. He’s contribution to Africa is very significant.
Over the years, he has expanded his business holdings across much of the sub-continent, where his work is seen as a model for delivering development and jobs to rural Africa. Today, Rujugiro Ayabatwa’s brands are sold in more than 27 African countries.
“I was not interested in making money in Rwanda, I was interested the country’s development. We brought electricity to a church in rural Rwanda and build a school and day care center in Kigali. We’ve built roads and bridges in Uganda, and we’re helping widows to find work and feed their families in south Sudan. We had a big – big problem of about one million people coming back and not having a house. So I told them and said, please give me land to build some house for some families. So they gave me the land and I built about a hundred houses and sold them at market price.”
In the last five decades, Ayabatwa launched numerous companies that now employ more than 25-thousand people.
Yes I’m happy with what i have done. Because some people count success in terms of money, in terms of this, for me it’s achieving what you set as a goal.”
Like all great industrialists, Tribert’s success was built on his canny ability to spot opportunities– and take risks. He also credits the help of many people along the way who recognized his drive and determination– and took a chance on him. In 2012, Tribert stepped back from directly managing his companies and handed over day-to-day operations to his sons. He now plans to intensify his charitable works and is taking steps toward development of a private, nonprofit foundation.
Mr. Rujugiro does have his critics; the Rwandan government recently confiscated some of his property including a shopping mall and his official residence which is valued at more than 2 million dollars. They say the property was abandoned– a claim he disputes. The government alleges that Mr. Rujugiro, who resides in South Africa, abandoned the mall because he no longer lives in Rwanda as the justification for seizing his property.