It would be easy to assume that businessman and entrepreneur Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa always had a penchant for growth and ambition but has achieved success against all odds. When Tribert was growing up, he faced immense adversity; from growing up as a refugee, to being kicked out of school at 13, Tribert didn’t have a typical origin story. Despite having the odds stacked against him, he went on to obtain a certificate as a desk clerk and typist, studying French, the official language of the country. Starting work at a petroleum storage company, Tribert was given an opportunity to pursue a managerial position, allowing him to make executive decisions for the first time. Eventually, his experiences led him to the tobacco business, where set his sights on the importation of cigarettes. Today, his businesses employ over 26,000 people and have strengthened communities, changed lives across the countries he has operated in.
In hopes of giving back, he has also started the TRA Foundation to benefit African youth through scholarships and internships. As inspiration for what can be done when you believe in yourself above all else, Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa is sharing his best kept success secrets.
How did you get started in this business?
I have always had the spirit of entrepreneurship inside of me. Through every position I worked, I started to gain the confidence and skills necessary to start and run my own business. In 1974, I spotted a business opportunity to import cigarettes from Tanzania to Burundi. Four years later, the business had grown remarkably, which enabled me to start producing locally. The business was started not for profit-driven reasons, but rather to improve the livelihoods of local communities and families. Being able to utilize the resources available to us and drive growth for the benefit of the community was a major driver for starting this business.
How do you make money?
We make money through the production, manufacturing, and distribution of high-quality tobacco and cigarettes. In our state-of-the-art manufacturing plants, we perform three primary tasks. Firstly, together with farmers, we grow high quality tobacco. Secondly, our MTC threshing plant separates green leaf and stem. Finally, the plant undertakes primary processing to produce cut-rag for cigarette manufacturing. From here, we sell our products to various retailers.
How long did it take for you to become profitable when you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?
I consider myself very lucky, in a sense, because I had the opportunity to explore entrepreneurship on someone else’s dime. Working for a bakery business in an entrepreneurial manner helped me grow my business acumen and managerial skills. These lessons have helped me expand my operations at MTC and Global Tobacco Supply Ltd. Being given the ability to make mistakes and learn these skills at a young age, I never doubted for a second that Global Tobacco Supply Ltd. would work. I had ‘been there, done that’, and was confident in my ability to lead my own company in the way that I had previously. It did not take a long time for me to become profitable, primarily due to the high demand.
How did you get your first customer?
Throughout my career, I have built several key relationships and networks that have opened up new markets and opportunities. This is how I got my first customer. Having worked in a managerial position prior to Global Tobacco Supply Ltd., I had several key connections in the world of exports, and this helped me grow the business into what it is today.
What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?
I would say digital marketing. As the saying goes, ‘reach your customers where they are’, and that place is online. So many people receive news, content, and inspiration from digital media, and it is important to connect with people on these platforms. Unlike traditional media marketing, like print and out-of-home placements, digital marketing has the unique ability to define a specific demographic; from age to gender and specific interests, digital marketing is able to reach audiences that are aligned with your initiatives.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?
The toughest decision I have had to make is in choosing the recipients of the TRA scholarship. Looking through applications is a very rewarding process, however, so many of the applicants are worthy of the grant that it is difficult to choose. I see myself in so many of the individuals applying that I wish I could grant them all.
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
An inability to give up when the going get’s tough. I do not consider rejection as sign of failure, but rather as a sign to continue. Knowing that something does not work means you are slowly coming to a conclusion of what does work. There is a certain amount of stubbornness required to be an entrepreneur and business owner, and I believe I have that quality.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
Despite my success in business, I would say that my most satisfying moment has been starting the TRA Foundation. There is a sense of duty I feel in being able to give back to my community, and I feel fulfilled being able to do that.
What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?
The future holds sustainable growth. As I mentioned, the primary reason for starting the company was to enrich and empower local communities and having achieved that, I only wish that it maintains this level of success.
What business books have inspired you?
The book, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey has been highly influential in my life. The habits of being proactive, beginning with the end in mind, putting first things first, thinking win/win, seeking first to understand then be understood, synergizing, and sharpening the saw have all helped me become who I am today. Most business books address external factors, but this one hones in on personal development, the single most important factor to self-improvement.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t worry about the little things, life has something greater in store for you. When we suffer, we tend to dislike our situation so deeply that we forget to enjoy the things around us that bring us joy. What we allow into our lives can have a major impact on our daily experience.