Rujugiro Ayabatwa

Entrepreneur | Philanthropist | Public Servant




Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa: From Refugee to Pan-African Industrialist and Philanthropist

After a half century of hard work in the face of overwhelming odds, Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa has built businesses that delivered jobs, prosperity and economic impact across Africa. From his roots as a Tutsi youth in Rwanda and a refugee in Burundi, Tribert became a successful businessman and philanthropist. In the process, Tribert has demonstrated that he learned the value of determination and discipline, risk taking and resiliency — the very qualities that define the successful entrepreneurs Africa needs in order to generate economic opportunities, stable societies and strong democracies.

In 2012 at age 72, Tribert, the father of six and grandfather of 14, stepped back from the companies he built to focus on launching a philanthropic foundation. The foundation is now under development and will soon draw upon his life experience by offering educational, employment and economic assistance to budding entrepreneurs.

Tribert has always turned adversity into triumph. Just after Tribert suffered the loss of his mother, church and colonial authorities — who kept the country economically and ethnically stratified and controlled Rwanda’s education system — expelled the 13-year-old boy from the eighth grade, effectively ending Tribert’s academic future.

Refusing to be kept down, Tribert 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, Tribert 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. Tribert 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 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 singlehandedly ended the country’s salt shortage and earned an exclusive salt-trading license — and the moniker “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; he persisted.

Read More and scroll through an Interactive Timeline of Tribert's Life

Burundi’s military ruler Pierre Buyoya, who twice served as head of state for a total of 13 years, jailed Tribert in 1987 and nationalized his cigarette business. After three years in prison, with help from both inside and outside that involved a daring night-time escape, Tribert ultimately fled to South Africa, where he moved his family and established his corporate group headquarters in 1990. The Burundi government later returned his business to him.

From his exile in South Africa, Tribert played a critical role in mobilizing, organizing and funding the opposition group Rwandan Patriotic Front. Several years after his friend Paul Kagame became president of Rwanda, Tribert moved back as one of President Kagame’s top advisers. In addition to taking a leading role in reviving Rwanda’s Chamber of Commerce, crafting the country’s economic and market reforms, chairing the country’s Investment and Export Promotion Agency, and mobilizing private investment to pay for critical infrastructure projects though the Rwandan Investment Group that he co-founded, Tribert also built a housing development and primary school for almost 100 homeless families following the genocide.

Today, Tribert is focused on launching a nonprofit, private foundation that will give deserving African youth a helping hand in education and business development by providing them with scholarships, internships, venture capital and mentoring. This project is under active discussion and development in partnership with leading colleges and universities in sub-Saharan Africa.

Tribert’s life has been defined by hard work, resiliency and opportunity. His goal has been and will continue to be, as he puts it, to “build something up” — to create a better and more prosperous Africa.

Interactive Timeline


Tribert Rujugiro the Entrepreneur

A Rwandan refugee with little formal education, Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa constantly battled adversity. But he eventually became one of Africa’s leading businessmen.

Over five decades, Tribert launched numerous companies that today employ tens of thousands of workers and help expand Africa’s middle class. From banks to investment groups to public service, he helped launch economic reforms and guide investment into areas of Africa that create opportunities for private entrepreneurs, governments and their people. His businesses have included a shopping mall, a cement factory, a tea plant, a housing development, a plastic shoe company, a brewery, a snack company, and tobacco farms and factories. Tribert’s investments have created jobs and strengthened communities from South Africa to Dubai and everywhere in between: Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Nigeria and South Sudan.

When he retired in 2012, Tribert’s companies employed 25,680 people. Assuming each job sustained seven people — the average in sub-Saharan Africa — Tribert’s businesses supported 182,000 individuals.

Like all great entrepreneurs, Tribert’s success was built on a 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. Those supportive experiences nurtured his own desire to help others achieve through philanthropic contributions to community and business development, education, housing and other programs.

As a youth in Rwanda, a country deeply divided between the minority Tutsis and majority Hutus, Tribert lost his chance at a formal education when church and colonial authorities expelled him from school — just because he was a Tutsi. Undeterred, Tribert obtained his typist and clerical certificate, but because of ethnic discrimination, he still could not find a job in his homeland. At age 19, he packed up and moved to neighboring Burundi in search of opportunity, finally landing a job as a clerk in a regional post office.

But for a Rwandan refugee, Burundi also presented challenges. Tribert knew he had to seek out his own opportunity if he was going to succeed. So, he acquired a truck, hired a driver and began transporting people and goods. At 22, Tribert landed a job at a Burundi petroleum storage company, rising quickly to the highest ranks. By 31, Tribert saw an opportunity to create a bakery business, and just two years later, he spun off to become a leading importer of wheat flour, salt and cigarettes.

Working hard, taking risks, and seeking help and advice – these are a part of Tribert’s DNA. After experimenting in cigarette imports, Tribert saw opportunities to diversify and grow in the industry and he found tremendous success. Over the next two decades, he built a major Pan-African tobacco empire with factories, farms and other facilities throughout Africa and in the Middle East, bringing infrastructure, technology and cash jobs to often-isolated parts of Africa and helping people and their communities grow. Along the way, he became a top adviser to the Rwandan government and helped craft deep economic reforms that nurtured the development of the private sector.

Although he retired from day-to-day oversight of his companies in 2012, Tribert’s work is not done: he is working toward developing a nonprofit, private foundation to help African youth by providing scholarships, education and venture capital for entrepreneurial pursuits. While Tribert still offers business guidance, his children, son-in-law and employees now manage the companies he founded.

One thing remains constant: Tribert will never stop working for Africa, its people and its communities.


The Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa Foundation: Paying It Forward

Starting out as a young refugee from colonial Rwanda with only an eighth-grade education, 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, and Tribert has always offered a helping hand to younger Africans coming up behind 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.

Tribert 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 has two main goals for this project at the outset: 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.

After the war in Rwanda — which Tribert was instrumental in ending through his work organizing and funding the movement that ended the genocide in 1994 — Tribert helped establish the Rwandan Chamber of Commerce, serving as its first chairman. Then, between 1994 and 2008, Tribert served as the chairman of the Economic Commission that advised the governing party on investment and economic policy. He also served as chairman of the Rwanda Investment and Export Promotion Agency and co-chairman of the Akagera Task Force, which was the driving force behind many of Rwanda’s economic reforms.

In community development, Tribert helped build a housing complex with about 100 homes for refugees after the genocide in Rwanda, when banks and commercial agencies were not yet operational. Tribert funded the entire development, including a school and child care center, and subsidized about 40 percent of the construction costs out of his own pocket. In addition, Tribert funded the building of a primary school and helped expand a technical secondary school in his home district of Nyanza. He also has begun work on a project there that includes plans for a sports stadium to anchor a large community development program.

Tribert continues to contribute to the many communities and families that support and sustain his businesses. Whether providing electricity to 500 families near the Nshili Kivu tea plantation in Rwanda; donating cement to build new roads, a church and a football stadium in Burundi; or providing food and seedlings to farmers in Uganda, Tribert is committed to improving African lives.

Through his foundation, Tribert plans to keep “paying it forward” and thanking the people who helped him succeed. He hopes to put members of a new generation on their own paths to success. Empowering people to build stronger communities — that’s one endeavor from which Tribert will never retire.

Public Service

A Record of Public Service

Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa quietly compiled a record of public service over two decades, working without recognition to build stronger African communities.

In 1990, when the Rwandan people rose up against a dictatorial and genocidal military government, Tribert quickly backed them. He set aside his own difficulties — including the confiscation of his businesses in neighboring Burundi — to support the fight for liberty and human rights. Tribert joined other Rwandan businesspeople, such as the late Miko Rwayitare, pioneer of mobile phone use in central Africa, to help the cause.

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 organization 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 organization.

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 has never sought credit for his efforts, which helped revitalize his homeland and restore its economy. He contributes because he is passionate about the future of Rwanda and Africa; he believes that stronger communities empower individuals and lead to national prosperity.

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