Home Interesting People Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa’s Business and Philanthropic Legacy Will Outlive His Detractors

Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa’s Business and Philanthropic Legacy Will Outlive His Detractors

Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa

Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa’s Business and Philanthropic Legacy Will Outlive His Detractors

Over the last 40 years, Rwandan businessman Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa built one of Africa’s most successful Tobacco companies. He is the founder and controlling shareholder of  Pan African Tobacco Group (PTG), the continent’s largest indigenous manufacturer of tobacco products. PTG, which manufactures in a dozen African countries and trades across the continent, is the most formidable competitor to the international tobacco giants, Altria and British American Tobacco in Africa. Ayabatwa’s profile today in African business and philanthropy might be intimidating, but his early beginnings were anything but. After his mother passed away when he was only 12, Ayabatwa was expelled from school when he was in the 8th grade. At the age of 19, he went into exile as a Rwandan refugee in Burundi in the face of Hutu-Tutsi ethnic tensions fuelled by colonial authorities.

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Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa Humble Beginnings

In Burundi, the young Ayabatwa soon landed a job as a clerk in the regional Post Office that served Rwanda and Burundi. At this job, he gained a strong foundation for organizing and managing people and other resources. He worked hard and excelled remarkably and before long he was training future post office officials that were to take over from the departing colonial managers as Burundi and Rwanda were now independent states. He subsequently secured a job in a petroleum storage company and quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a senior manager of the company at the age of 22.

After honing his managerial skills at both the post office and the petroleum company, Ayabatwa set out to find his fortune in business. At the age of 29, he started importing wheat, flour and salt into Burundi. When conflict and armed clashes along the border with Tanzania halted his salt imports, he found alternative routes through and around rebel-held areas. As a result, Ayabatwa single-handedly helped to end salt shortage in Burundi, and earned the title “King of Salt” in various social and economic circles in Burundi.

Ayabatwa Builds His Empire

Ayabatwa expanded his trading enterprise into various other commodities such as wheat, flour, salt and cigarettes. Cigarettes were selling faster than all the other commodities in his portfolio, and so in 1978, Ayabatwa channeled some of his profits into manufacturing cigarettes locally, rather than importing. Four decades and some odd years later, that company has scaled massively and evolved to become Africa’s largest maker of tobacco products. It currently manufactures cigarettes across several other African countries – including Angola, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda – and the United Arab Emirates. Apart from cigarettes and tobacco, Tribert has diverse business holdings in cement, snack foods, tea, and real estate, among other industries.

Expectedly, it has not always been smooth sailing for the Rwandan business. Ayabatwa has encountered his fair share of persecution in his journey. In 1987, military ruler Pierre Buyoya who came into power in a coup d’etat, decided to nationalise Ayabatwa’s business. Ayabatwa was imprisoned on false charges that he was in partnership with the overthrown government. In a daring night-time escape that was facilitated with help from both the inside and the outside, Ayabatwa fled to South Africa, where he moved his family and established his corporate headquarters in 1990. By setting up in South Africa – a country infamously difficult for foreigners to penetrate – Ayabatwa found the courage to venture into other African countries and the Middle East.

Ayabatwa and his company, PTG have had to consistently fight various reputational battles across Africa and beyond. While some see him as a hardworking, philanthropic entrepreneur, others see him as a ruthless businessman who does not mind breaking any laws on a whim as long as it profits him. It is important to understand that a lot of Ayabatwa’s public image has been shaped by a lot of negative media reports on him, which are politically sponsored by the current Rwandan regime in order to tarnish his name and cripple his businesses. Ayabatwa has been falsely accused in various media outlets as being a war financier because of his alleged funding and support of various militant groups. In late March 2021, the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) published a report titled “An Unholy Alliance: Links between Extremism and Illicit Trade in East Africa,” a lopsided report which aims to portray Ayabatwa as a promoter of illicit trade and a financier of terrorism.

The CEP Report was flawed in many instances. Among other things, it asserts that the 2008 UN Group of Experts Report identified Ayabatwa as a major financier of armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Inexplicably, the CEP Report did not examine what happens whenever the UN Group of Experts labels an individual a financier of armed groups. The UN Group of Experts conducts robust investigations to verify if indeed the individual in question is guilty of financing armed groups. In the event that no evidence is found to prove that the individual financed armed groups, s/he is cleared of the allegation and the case is closed. If it is determined that the individual is guilty of the deed, s/he is sanctioned with the UN Travel Ban and Asset Freeze. Once an individual is sanctioned, s/he is placed on the UN Consolidated List which includes all individuals and entities subject to measures imposed by the Security Council. It is on public record that the UN Group of Experts determined that Mr. Ayabatwa did not finance armed groups in DRC and the case was closed. As a result, he was never listed on the United Nations Consolidated List.

The CEP Report also falsely claimed that after the 2008 UN report was published, Ayabatwa and his companies were linked to illicit activity throughout the region. The CEP Report provided no evidence of any sort or categorically named said activities.

Ayabatwa’s Generosity Is Unmatched In Africa

In spite of the continuous attempts at rewriting his history, Ayabatwa forges on in business and philanthropy. Ayabatwa has long-held the view that businesses must be socially responsible to the communities where they do business. In 2015, PTG’s subsidiary in Nigeria, Leaf Tobacco and Commodities Nigerian Ltd, erected a six-classroom block, administrative offices, and furniture for a public primary school in the rural Gbakura village in Kaduna State, where it has a factory. PTG also provided water and sanitation infrastructure for the community. The company went a step further to regularly supply teaching and learning materials to the school, provide uniforms, bags, and footwear to pupils, and supported the upkeep of teachers and non-academic staff with monthly stipend in addition to their regular salary.

Rather than just build schools and sink boreholes, the corporate social responsibility engagement in Gbakura is one that meets the targeted community at their point of need, boosting the motivation of teachers – the majority of whom are underpaid – and providing hope for the future to the children.

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More recently amid the heat of coronavirus lockdowns in 2020, PTG extended its resources to support several African governments – through subsidiaries in Angola (Barco Trading), Nigeria, South Sudan (Carnak), and Uganda – in the battle against the pandemic by contributing medical equipment and food items.

These CSR efforts perfectly demonstrate Tribert’s unwavering commitment to a lifelong passion of promoting education, business opportunity, and community development in Africa through philanthropic efforts, civic work, and public service. A business venture based solely on profit-making will neither flourish nor contribute to nation-building in Africa, he says, with a belief that collaborating with other stakeholders – federal governments, local authorities, and crucially, communities in their bid to uplift themselves – is the answer.

Tribert Covid

These CSR efforts perfectly demonstrate Tribert’s unwavering commitment to a lifelong passion of promoting education, business opportunity, and community development in Africa through philanthropic efforts, civic work, and public service. A business venture based solely on profit-making will neither flourish nor contribute to nation-building in Africa, he says, with a belief that collaborating with other stakeholders – federal governments, local authorities, and crucially, communities in their bid to uplift themselves – is the answer.

 Over the decades, the business mogul has, beyond the exploits in business and commerce, provided opportunities for Africans, particularly the youth, and is one of the continent’s most notable philanthropists, with significant contributions to community development in areas that include education, food security, access to water, and even afforestation.

Tribert Ayabatwa Uganda

Ayabata’s Focuses On His Foundation

In 2012, Ayabatwa took a step back from managing his companies directly in order to fully focus on his charitable works mainly through a foundation – the Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa (TRA) Foundation. Through the non-profit firm that was launched in 2013, Tribert helps young Africans in two ways: One is by providing mentoring and venture capital to budding entrepreneurs to pursue their business goals and secondly, the foundation develops internship and scholarship opportunities for African students to gain the practical, hands-on experience they need to enter and succeed in today’s job market – with particular focus on careers in science, engineering, and technology.

Long before the TRA Foundation, however, Tribert had been actively involved in philanthropy. Between 2005 and 2012, the Rwandan native funded more than 100 scholarships for 84 high school students and nearly 30 college students in his home country. That’s in addition to several development projects in Rwanda and beyond – including the Gbakura school project in Kaduna, Nigeria; provision of electricity to 500 families near the Nshili Kivu tea plantation in Rwanda; donation of cement to build new roads, a church, and a football stadium in Burundi; and provision of food and seedlings to farmers in Uganda.

Tribert Fox Chronicle Clean Water

Ayabatwa’s ultimate aim is to empower people to build stronger communities and improve the lives of the many families that support and sustain his businesses. To put members of a new generation on their paths to success, and support young Africans with drive and determination but need a shot at opportunity and a little help overcoming the odds, similar to the ones the young refugee Ayabatwa faced, remains his passion and what he will be remembered for.

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