In 2014, Forbes named Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa as Africa’s Number one Tobacco manufacturer. The founder of Pan Africa Tobacco group (PTG) had a very humble start in life but that did not stop him from becoming one of the largest indigenous manufacturers of tobacco in the continent.
The company has operations in several countries outside Rwanda, namely; the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Burundi, Nigeria, Angola and the United Arab Emirates. PTG is one of the biggest competitors of international giants, British American Tobacco and Altria in Africa.
Here is his story as told by WoK.
Background and Exile
Born in Rwanda, he lost his mother at the age of 12 and was expelled from school at 16 while in 8th grade. At the age of 19, he went into exile in Burundi due to the tensions caused by the division of the Hutu and Tutsi. He went on to secure employment as a clerk in the regional post office that served Rwanda and Burundi.
The businessman loved the job and worked very hard. He was recruited to train post office officials to take over from the colonialists as Rwanda and Burundi had attained independence.
He then learnt French at Alliance Francaise as it was the main language and then taught Rwandan refugees how to speak it.
Employment and Business
Getting employment afterwards was not easy. In Rwanda, he had been kicked out of school and Burundi preferred to employ their own nationality.
He sought employment in the private sector managing to work with a petroleum storage company. With his savings, he bought a pickup to transport goods and people. This was his first taste of entrepreneurship.
He loved it and at 29, quit working in the private sector to focus on entrepreneurship. He started a bakery and would import salt and wheat.
Then came rebel clashes on the Tanzania border that threatened to halt his business but he found a way to move it around the rebel area helping solve the salt shortage in Burundi and got an exclusive salt trading license.
He tried his hand in the gold trading business but failed. He said he went into it without proper knowledge and was aiming to get a quick buck. After losing what he put into the venture, he dusted himself and continued with other ventures. According to him, most businesspeople have encountered failure. He took the lessons from this and moved on.
Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa Tobacco Business
In the 70s, he started importing goods that he thought had mass appeal from Tanzania to Burundi including wheat flour, salt and cigarettes. He realized the market for cigarettes was huge and began to focus on it.
In 1978, he decided to begin manufacturing cigarettes locally rather than importing. The decision was good since importation had its challenges, such as, political instability and poor infrastructure.
It was a daring step considering the fact that at the time the manufacturing industry was dominated by multinationals. Nonetheless, he knew what he wanted. In addition, he had developed great relationships with his Tanzanian suppliers who had exposed him to manufacturing principles.
The business was a success, it provided economic empowerment to the locals. Soon, he expanded to the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, a military coup in Burundi would see his fortunes change.
The military ruler nationalized his company and accused him of being in cohort with the overthrown government and in 1987 he was put in prison.
The entrepreneur broke out of prison at night and fled to South Africa. He moved with his family and established his headquarters there in 1990. This proved to be a challenging yet rewarding task.
He knew that if he could pull a business in Africa’s most developed nation, then nothing could stop him. The business became a success and opened doors for operations in the Middle East. The government of Burundi eventually returned his business.
As a believer in entrepreneurship, he helped found the Rwanda Chamber of Commerce and served as its first chairman. He was also co-chairman of the Akagera Task Force and the chairman of Rwanda Investment and Export Promotion Agency.
Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa UTC Ownership Saga
The government of Rwanda seized his $20 million Union Trade Center (UTC) Mall in Kigali in 2013 alleging it had been abandoned since the owner was living outside the country. He couldn’t understand how an operational center with over 400 workers and more than 80 businesses could be classified as abandoned. He contested the decision.
In 2015, the government said UTC had defaulted $1.4 million in tax. The claims made no sense since it was being managed by the state.
They later auctioned it for $8 million, less than half its actual value. He took the government to the EACJ (the East African Court of Justice) which ruled both the seizure and the auction were illegal.
The government was ordered to account for rental and sales proceeds from 2013 to compensate for US$500,000 damages and 6% annual interest from the date of judgment.
The businessman appealed since the court failed to restore his ownership of the property. The government then claimed together with his associates, he had embezzled $458, 058 from UTC in 2011. This was instead a loan they had acquired during the construction of UTC.
In August 2022, the court once again ruled against the government saying he should be awarded US$1 million, 6% interest and court costs.
The seasoned entrepreneur is also a philanthropist. He established Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa Foundation to help people across the continent, especially young people.
He has helped communities in matters of education, water access, food and afforestation. He has also helped in the provision of scholarships to various students in high school and university in his country.