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From A Truck Driver To A King Of Kigali

It is the dream of a former refugee, it will take $33 million to build and will dominate the Kigali skyline. It will be a potent symbol of Rwanda’s climb from the depths of hell.

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Rwanda’s post-genocide recovery has gone through many hands, but there is one big hand to reckon with—that of entrepreneur Said Sekoko Hatari.

Hatari may not be the richest man in Rwanda, but he is among Kigali’s cash kings. Born to a poor family, he grew up in Uganda as a refugee. One of the bitter legacies of Rwanda’s troubled past is that many of its people grew up sheltering outside the country.

Exile was where Hatari started in business, at the tender age of 20, as a truck driver working for Somalis. He was transporting construction materials from Kisumu in Kenya to missionaries living nearby. He quit the job to trade spare parts and coffee. He made mistakes along the way, including losing $1 million in the coffee business.

More than 30 years on, Hatari, who also served in the Rwandan army, is the king of hospitality and construction in Kigali with a number of business partnerships at his elbow.

“In partnerships, people come with their own money and borrowing connections. When you are alone, you get exhausted,” he says.

Hatari is the executive director of Doyelcy Ltd, founded in 2006, one of the largest firms in Rwanda and under valuation by Ernst & Young. The company may list on the Rwanda Stock Exchange or issue a corporate bond to raise capital for investment in its core businesses of hospitality, property, insurance, renewable energy and agriculture.

Doyelcy is co-investing in hospitality and construction projects in Rwanda along with Dubai World, Chinese investors and Sudhir Ruparelia, one of the richest men in Uganda.

The prime project is the Kigali City Tower, which will be the tallest building in Rwanda and a potent symbol of reconstruction less than two decades after dead bodies littered the streets.

The 1994 genocide took more than 800,000 lives in 100 days. It shattered the country’s infrastructure, as well as its soul. From roads to government offices, private businesses and homes, to water pipes and electric poles—the country needed huge investment to build afresh; money that the government did not have.

Seventeen years later, Rwanda is one of the world’s success stories, with an annual average growth rate of about 8%. It was ranked the top global business reformer in the World Bank’s Doing Business Report in 2010. This was the first time a country from sub-Saharan Africa—the region with the highest poverty levels in the world—won such an accolade.

The tower of Kigali is a bold manifestation of this surge of confidence. It will bring scarce high-end office and retail space to Rwanda as the country plans to position itself as the business-friendly Switzerland of East Africa. Tenants are signing up for 20 floors; they include Rwanda’s plush coffee shop, Bourbon Street; Apple; Kenya’s Nakumatt; and South Africa’s Mr Price.

Ernst & Young valued the tower at $33 million, which also makes it the most expensive landmark in Rwanda.

In another project, costing at least $200 million, Doyelcy is also co-investing with Ruparelia in a modern tax park and commercial buildings in Kigali. Then there is a $60 million five-star hotel with Chinese investors. The 254-room Kigali Marriot will be the largest hotel in Rwanda.

This year, the Central Bank says the economy may grow by more than 7.5%,  with strong recovery in the agriculture and service sectors, in a land where it takes one day to register a business. Inflation is easing and the financial sector grows stronger as more regional banks set up shop in Kigali.

This year, Rwanda expects investments to grow to $550 million, from more than $300 million last year.

Construction and hospitality are the fastest growing sectors in the country. In the first six months of 2011, construction rose by 54.6% compared to 28.7% for the same period last year.

“I believe that the future of this economy is mainly its expansion, going beyond borders as it reduces trade obstacles and introduces new markets,” says Hatari.

Although the construction sector is growing, Hatari says it faces setbacks from a lack of skilled labour and construction materials like cement. There is also a question over long-term finance from the banks.

“Finance is still a challenge and I think it will remain a challenge,” he says.

The good news is that Rwanda relishes a challenge.

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