Sitting in the foyer of a Kigali hotel with Raj Rajendran, sipping Rwandan tea, the conversation centers around Coimbatore, the bustling textile town in South India about 3,500 miles from Kigali.
When Rajendran speaks about his hometown, in the South Indian language of Malayalam this writer is familiar with, he manages to create a vision of Coimbatore that is a mirror image of Kigali.
The balmy air, the foliage, the clean roads and the warm enterprising people of Coimbatore could be cut and pasted in Kigali, and nothing would seem out of place.
It is little wonder Rajendran feels at home in Kigali, and although his family lives in Coimbatore, this is where he will spend the rest of his working life, and even retire in.
The affection this affable entrepreneur has for Rwanda is evident in the love Rwanda has for him. Rajendran is very popular amongst his friends and business associates here.
RwandAir CEO John Mirenge calls him munyaneza, meaning ‘joyful’ in Kinyarwanda.
“He is very well-liked,” says Mirenge.
For Rajendran, the journey from Coimbatore to Kigali was one of discovery – and serendipity.
Like any Tamil boy born and raised in Coimbatore – known as the Manchester of South India for its ubiquitous spinning mills – Rajendran studied textile engineering like his bespectacled peers, from the prestigious PSG College of Technology.
Not surprisingly, he started his career in a spinning mill in Coimbatore in 1974, thereafter arming himself with an MBA in marketing and foreign trade. After a stint with the National Handloom Development Corporation, an Indian government organization, which saw him traveling across India, he joined as the group president of a global company with interests in finance, education, real estate and plantations.
He was in Coimbatore when in 1999, somebody tipped him off about an opening in a country called Rwanda.
“I didn’t have any chance of knowing, I didn’t know where it was,” says Rajendran.
The job offered was as the Managing Director of UTEXRWA, the only textile manufacturing company in Rwanda at the time.
“I did a quick search on Yahoo and saw a picture of Kigali’s commercial street. It looked so pathetic, much worse than our [Indian] villages at the time. I found that all of Rwanda only had one textile company, unlike Coimbatore which had so many. I also read up on the genocide and found that about 300 people in the company [UTEXRWA] had been killed; that got me interested.”
UTEXRWA was started in 1985 as a family-owned company and fabric processing house.
“They had $18 million in 1993 which was very good. But in 1994 [during the genocide], everything was looted, all their raw materials. They incurred heavy cash losses in the subsequent years until 1998,” says Rajendran.
By the end of 1999, Rajendran was on board. He was yet to discuss the terms and conditions of his contract, but he came – relying solely on instinct.
He was in for a pleasant surprise –
and has never regretted his decision.
“I loved the country’s beauty, the climate and the people. I have traveled all over Africa, but Rwanda is incomparable. Africa may be synonymous with filth and corruption, but everything here is reliable and systematic. They have a culture of cleanliness. And they have the best leadership.”
Rajendran recalls his first meeting with Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame.
“My first interaction with him was the day he was sworn in, at the cocktail party held in his honor. We shook hands and I got a picture taken with him. He is not known to smile, but that picture had him smiling, and people asked: who is this guy who made him laugh?”
In 2000, Rajendran says he was invited as the only foreigner from the private sector to be part of the delegation for the president’s state visit to Nairobi. That is when Rajendran told him about the possibility of producing silk in Rwanda – like they did back home.
“The climatic conditions for silk in Rwanda are the same as in India. About 85 percent of India’s mulberry silk is from [the South Indian state of] Karnataka. The soil, the climatic conditions and terrain were similar to those of Karnataka in those days. I told him we don’t need to import silk, that Rwanda is fully capable of producing it,” says Rajendran, who was consequently asked to explore the possibilities at UTEXRWA.
He traveled to Karnataka, and brought back with him 100 mulberry stems, which he planted at UTEXRWA, and also in Rwanda’s eastern province.
“They grew so well and with leaf sizes four times bigger than we have seen in India, and much healthier,” says Rajendran.
In 2003, the Food and Agriculture Organization sent a Korean expert to meet with Rajendran, bringing with him silkworm eggs. The mulberry trees had grown by then.
“The cocoons were much bigger than the ones I saw in India. The Koreans gave a positive report. We wanted a bigger project to create more employment. And at the annual retreat that year in Rwanda, it was decided that sericulture is big business.”
Starting with four model units and machinery, UTEXRWA started processing. Rajendran also introduced Indian handloom fabrics.
“I brought a little bit of South India into Rwanda. We made silk ties, scarves, garments, and even exported silk pyjamas to Canada. I once made 20 different ties for Kagame,” says Rajendran.
After about 12 years with UTEXRWA, Rajendran decided to head home. He boarded the plane to India, but he left his heart in Kigali.
He returned to Rwanda a year later, this time, as an entrepreneur, co-founding an investment promotion company called Proman Associates, and Payoda, handholding investors, offering them all the information they needed to easily set up business in Rwanda.
Rajendran is also currently the Managing Director of Green Leaf, an enterprise in Kigali linking farmers with retail and offering packaged fruits and vegetables for the high-end market such as five-star hotels, restaurants and department stores.
He is also keen on reviving the sericulture business in Rwanda. From Coimbatore to Kigali, the silk route beckons again.