Man Crush Monday (MCM): Jean de Dieu Kagabo

by Duke Magazine

Jean de Dieu Kagabo is a Rwandan industrialist. For a young man who lost his father during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the dire need of starting from scratch, and take care of his two sisters, and risk by going to China apparently paid off for him.

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 40-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.

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.

In 2008, with $20,000 from his savings, he set up a small rented office overlooking a scrapyard in Kicukiro in Kigali. There he was before 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.

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.

With its new investor-friendly policies, Kagabo sees plenty of business opportunities in revitalized Rwanda.

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.

In recognition of his remarkable achievements, in 2011, the Rwanda Development Board honored him with the Young Entrepreneur of the Year and Best SME in General Manufacturing awards.

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.

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