At 19, when he crossed the border into neighbouring Burundi, Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa was not sure where his next meal would come from. Fleeing food shortages and political turmoil, in native Rwanda, young Ayabatwa learnt quite early in life how to make a way for himself. Today, after a half century of hard work, in the face of overwhelming odds, this uncommon African has built businesses that delivered jobs, prosperity and economic impact across the continent.
At the last count, he has businesses in 27 countries in Africa, making him one of the highest employers of labour on the continent. With his tentacle in salt-related businesses, he is known as the king of salt. Indeed, from his days as a Tutsi youth in Rwanda and a refugee in Burundi, Ayabatwa needed nobody to tell him that life was brutish; a battlefield where only the fittest survive. He was only 13 years old when his mother died, but that did not stop the church and colonial authorities who, at the time controlled Rwanda’s education system, from expelling him from school. The expulsion, in eight grade, effectively put paid to his academic future.
Refusing to be kept down, Ayabatwa obtained a certificate as a clerk and typist. Yet, once again, he confronted ethnic discrimination by colonial authorities who prevented him from finding a job. Leaving his family behind, he went into exile as a Rwandan refugee in Burundi and found a job as a clerk in the post office. After work, he spent most evenings at the Alliance Francaise, where he learned French, the dominant language. Soon, Tribert was so proficient that he began teaching French to other Rwandan exiles, an experience that taught him the importance of community solidarity and helping others.
Tribert saw his paths to a future in the public sector slowly shut down as the majority-Hutu community dominated Rwanda and Burundi gave preference to indigenous nationals. Trying his luck in private sector employment, he landed a job in a petroleum-storage company in Burundi with an absentee boss. He rose to the challenge and learned valuable management skills that enabled him to experiment with his own entrepreneurial ideas for the first time, buying a pickup truck, hiring a driver, and transporting people and goods.
A few years later, Tribert saw an opportunity to enter the local bakery business. That led him to importing wheat, flour and salt. When clashes along the border with Tanzania stopped his import of salt into Burundi, Tribert found a route through and around rebel areas. He singlehanded ended the country’s salt shortage and earned an exclusive salt-trading license — and the sobriquet “King of Salt.”
In 1974, seeing another opportunity, Tribert started importing cigarettes to Burundi from Tanzania. He then began manufacturing them in Burundi in 1978, and expanded the business across much of the subcontinent, where his work is seen as a model for delivering development and jobs to rural Africa.
Today, Tribert’s brands are sold in 27 countries – half of Africa’s 54 states. In the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Tribert’s brands are sold in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Togo and Sao Tome.
In the East African Community (EAC), his brands are sold in Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. His products are also sold in Somalia and South Sudan. In the Southern African Development Community (SADC), his brands are sold in Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia. Outside Africa, Tribert’s products are sold on the United Arab Emirates’ market.
Tribert continued to grow his businesses, becoming either full or part owner of a brewery, tea plantation, cement company, snack food company, furniture manufacturing plant, housing development, shoe company, shopping mall, printing company, cattle farm and a transport company. Including farmers, seasonal workers and full-time employees, his companies today employ about 26,000 people in 10 countries – Burundi, the DRC, Tanzania, South Africa, Uganda, Angola, Rwanda, United Arab Emirates, Nigeria and South Sudan. Based on the average sub-Saharan African family of seven, Tribert’s businesses support 182,000 people.
Throughout his life, Tribert confronted personal as well as professional challenges, including coups, imprisonment and the effects of Rwanda’s deadly 1994 genocide, which killed an estimated 800, 000 people, including over 400 members of Tribert’s family. Still, Tribert never gave up. Over five decades, he launched numerous companies that today employ tens of thousands of workers and help expand Africa’s middle class, from banks to investment groups.
Like all great entrepreneurs, Tribert’s success was built on a canny ability to spot opportunities and take risks. He also credits the help from many people who along the way recognized his drive and determination and took a chance on him.
Having established himself as a Pan-African entrepreneur with operations in 27 countries including Nigeria, Tribert Rujugiro has become renowed for his uncanny ability to turn adversity into triumph. Predictably, after the genocide in his country, he was a choice candidate that lead the think-tank assigned with drawing up a road map for post-war Rwanda. He is the architect of Rwanda’s economic reconstruction and the behind-the-scene figure responsible for remodelling Rwanda as the ‘Singapore of Africa’.
After the war in Rwanda — which Tribert was instrumental in ending through his work, organising and funding the pro-democracy movement that ended the genocide in 1994 — Tribert helped establish the Rwandan Chamber of Commerce, serving as its first chairman. Once the genocidal government fell in 1994, Tribert continued to work for the Rwandan people. The new governing party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), nominated him to chair its Economic Commission to map the country’s future; he served as chairman until 2008. In 1996, Tribert took the initiative to re-establish the Rwanda Chamber of Commerce, which he subsequently re-launched and then served as inaugural chairperson.
Because of his extensive business and investment experience, the Rwanda government continually turned to Tribert for economic counsel. Between 2004 and 2007, he served as chairman of the Rwanda Investment and Export Promotion Agency (RIEPA). In this position, Tribert was a regular member of the national delegation that accompanied the Rwandan president on trips to attract foreign business investment from the United States, Britain, China, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa and other countries.
In 2006, when Rwandan President Paul Kagame established his Presidential Advisory Council made up of highly influential people from around the globe — including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Harvard University professor of competitiveness Michael Porter — Tribert was among the Rwandans tapped to advise the government on its strategic planning. That year, Tribert founded and became the chairperson of the first venture capital organisation in the country — the Rwandan Investment Group (RIG). RIG was established to mobilize capital from private and public institutions to finance large social and economic development projects. Tribert remains a major shareholder in the organisation.
Also in 2006, Tribert was asked by the Rwandan government to serve as the co-chair of the Akagera Taskforce, which was formed to oversee a series of important strategic economic and governance reforms. The taskforce’s recommendations helped foster a better business climate in Rwanda.
Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa relied on hard work and entrepreneurial instincts to build a business empire across sub-Saharan Africa. He has never forgotten where he came from and those who helped him along the way. To this, the industrialist has always offered a helping hand to younger Africans coming up behind him. Though he stepped back in 2012 from directly managing his companies, having handed over day-to-day operations to his sons, Tribert Rujugiro now plans to intensify his charitable works and is taking steps toward development of a private, nonprofit foundation. He envisions creating a foundation that focuses on assisting others to develop business. Initially, the foundation will concentrate on helping those closest to Tribert’s heart: African young people with drive and determination, who need a shot at opportunity and a little help overcoming the odds — those who are in a similar situation to the one Tribert faced as a young refugee.
Tribert, father of six and grandfather of 14, has announced two main goals for this project: first, providing mentoring and venture capital to budding African entrepreneurs so they can pursue their business development goals and, second, developing internship opportunities for African students to give them the practical, hands-on experience they need to succeed in today’s job market.
This foundation is the logical extension of Tribert’s lifelong passion to promote African education, community development and business opportunity through philanthropic efforts, civic work and public service. He quietly invested in community development projects and student scholarships for decades, without recognition. Between 2005 and 2012, Tribert provided scholarships for 84 high school students and nearly 30 university students in his native country of Rwanda.