It’s a late afternoon in May and Jean de Dieu Kagabo is sitting, not in his airconditioned office, but on the steps of his two-storied factory in Kigali’s sprawling new industrial park. He gazes at the rolling green hills in front of him. It truly is a pretty panorama – Rwanda’s bountiful and verdant landscape.
Train the lens on Kagabo and his picture is impressive too: a successful, strapping young businessman in his shiny new office premises. Look closer and another layer emerges: a young man lost in thought, his silence impregnable.
When he finally speaks, it’s with emotion.
“No one from the outside can feel the pain on our behalf. No one can feel the pain of the Rwandans more than us [Rwandans],” says Kagabo, the 34-year-old founder and director of Soft Group, a consumer goods company that started with manufacturing toilet tissues and is one of Rwanda’s most successful SMEs today.
“We have seen the reality, we live in the reality, we know where we came from, we know where we are and we have hope for the future,” he says, summing up Rwanda in one breathless sentence.
Kagabo was in Ndera, on the outskirts of Kigali, during the 1994 genocide, when his father was among the one million Rwandans killed. He does not want to revisit the pain that followed, but says it turned him – the happy-go-lucky 14-year-old that he was – into a man overnight. The memories of those 100 gruesome days still make him uncomfortable.
“My father had a petrol and transport business that was doing very well, but after he died, we lost everything. Even paying school fees became difficult. I shouldered responsibilities from a very young age,” he says.
Kagabo had no option but to finish high school and think of ways to make ends meet. His older brother had mismanaged much of his father’s fortune. With a capital of $3,000, Kagabo started out by importing cars from Dubai to Kigali, selling them for a profit in the local market. He then attempted to revive his father’s petrol station business. He was too young to convince the companies he approached for fuel and credit, but he presented them with business proposals and succeeded. He moved to Uganda to broaden his market, but that’s when his mother died, and he became a guardian to his two younger sisters. He had no option but to return to Kigali.
At the time, there was a new buzzword in Rwanda – China. He took advice from a friend who had studied in China and decided to head to this new land of opportunity. He picked up a few words in Mandarin and was soon on the plane to Guangzhou.
“China was advertising in Rwanda in the early 2000s. I didn’t know what I would do when I got off the plane in China. I knew I was taking a big risk,” he says.
Kagabo attended trade fairs while there. That’s when he saw opportunity in manufacturing fast-moving consumer goods and started looking for the right machinery.
In 2008, with $20,000 from his savings, he set up a small rented office overlooking a scrapyard in Kicukiro in Kigali. This is where he has been since, only recently moving to the industrial park.
He decided to provide Rwandans with the goods they needed every day, and started by manufacturing toilet tissues, eventually diversifying to kitchen towels, shampoos, soaps and sanitary napkins.
Kagabo says it took a while for his business to become profitable. It was not easy and he had to keep reinvesting. His target was the low-end mass market, the small groceries, retailers, hospitals and schools in Rwanda and the rest of East Africa.
At his new warehouse in Kigali’s industrial hub of Masoro, diligent staff test-run new imported machines that roll out reams of toilet paper.
“I bought my own factory. There was nothing here [in the new industrial area] two years ago. The Rwandan government is a gift from God,” he says.
With its new investor-friendly policies, Kagabo sees plenty of business opportunities in revitalized Rwanda.
Kagabo has invested $1.2 million in a new recycling plant for producing biodegradable woven plastic bags for farmers and manufacturers to pack farm produce. The new facility overlooks his factory, on one of the hills.
“Rwanda is encouraging agricultural businesses and they all need packaging. There is a big market for woven plastic bags,” he says.
Kagabo also says his company is the only one manufacturing drinking straws in Rwanda, and has been doing so for the last three years.
“Traditionally, Rwandans used natural straws, but these were considered unhygienic and the government banned them. People saw it as a problem; I saw it as an opportunity,” he says.
Be it tissues or straws, Kagabo feels it’s all about changing mindsets.
“The leadership is taking the time to educate people. The government is encouraging Rwandans to improve their hygiene and it has worked,” says Kagabo.
Kagabo has done well for himself. He lives in an upscale gated community in Kagugu; prized real estate in Kigali, drives a Mercedes ML350 and parties in Kigali’s nightclubs, mostly at the Legacy Lounge at the Hotel des Mille Collines by Kempinski.
He says he continues to look after his sisters, funding their education. One of them is a student of psychology in Brussels and the other is studying public relations in South Africa.
“I will feel settled only once they are settled,” says the still-single Kagabo.
Recognition has also come his way. In 2011, the Rwanda Development Board honored him with the Young Entrepreneur of the Year and Best SME in General Manufacturing awards.
“My company is still small, but my ambition is to help my country’s economy grow and be a part of its progress. I am grateful I have come this far through hard work.”
Like many in his country, Kagabo struggles to put his traumatic past behind him, but his success in rebuilding his life has seen him become a role model for Rwanda’s youth.