Robert Bwimba’s university education kicked off on a note of compromise in Belgium, in 1992. When he gained admission to the Universite Catholique De Louvain La Nevve Belgique, he did not find his dream course, Tourism Science. Consequently, he was forced to settle for a bachelor of science in economics.
Two years into the course, however, the university unveiled a department of Tourism Science, prompting Bwimba to immediately swap courses. “For a long time, my dream had been to improve the level of tourism science back home,” he reveals.
After university, he secured an internship at the then Sabena Airlines (the present day SN Brussels), working simultaneously in the ticketing, baggage, and catering departments between 1996 and 1998.
While working as a waiter at the Cercle Hotel in Brussels in 1998, he met a British-Indian investor, Mr Kukadia, the owner of Pepe Jeans, by then the world’s second biggest gents’ denim line after Levi’s.
“At the time, Pepe Jeans had just penetrated the BENELUX (Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg) region,” he recalls. “He (Kukadia) came from London and stayed at the Cercle Hotel where I worked.”
He recalls that Kukadia was no ordinary hotel client: “My boss at the hotel had his own private suite on the premises, but told me to give the keys to Kukadia in case he popped up without reservation. He was a very simple man who wore simple jeans and T-shirts. But whenever he came, I would develop headache and goose pimples because I knew he was a very high profile person.”
One day, Bwimba decided to pour out his insecurities to a colleague as he went about serving Kukadia. “After I had finished talking to my colleague, he (Kukadia) called me and bashed me using strong Swahili words. Later, when I knew him, I discovered that he spoke perfect Swahili because he had spent part of his childhood in Kenya.”
“I felt so guilty and unprofessional, and pleaded for his pardon. For a whole week, I was panicking, not knowing what would happen to me. After two weeks, he came back to the hotel and again asked me if I liked my job. I replied yes, and asked if he wanted to offer me a new job. Immediately, he gave me his business card and set up an appointment.”
On the day of the appointment, and when he arrived at Kukadia’s office, Bwimba was harshly turned away by a guard. “As I walked away humiliated, he drove in, and called out “Mobutu!” That’s what he always called me at the hotel. When I explained to him what had just happened, he came out of the car and walked me to his office. He sacked the guard who had blocked me immediately, and coming back to me, asked if I was ready to start work right away. I was assigned one of his workers to take me around the office and brief me on my duties. I was wearing a suit, which I was told to replace with workman’s overalls. That was the first shock, because all along I had been looking forward to a white collar job.”
Instead, he ended up in stores, loading, offloading, and occasionally filing away. But after three months of work, his dreams of an office job were back to haunt him. This time, he gathered enough courage to confront his employer and express his dissatisfaction at the job. “I told him that based on my training, I was in the wrong job. Soon, I was made Chief Manager, and my job involved overseeing the setting up of all Pepe Jeans outlets in Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France –a total of 1,600 outlets. Occasionally, I would personally deliver some orders using a big truck.”
He spent four years on the job, and describes it as his biggest employment to date. “I knew jeans like the back of my fingers. To this day, I can see you from miles away, and know exactly which size suits you.”
When his boss eventually sold off his stakes in the company to Chinese investors, Bwimba decided to follow suit by quitting his job. “I became a freelance agent and set up my own shop, Denim Palace. However, I encountered problems from the start. First, the street on which I was located had the most sophisticated clothes shops in Belgium. I was just too small and people simply bypassed me.”
The second challenge was that of his skin color, in a clearly white-dominated industry at the time. “Most whites found it hard to believe in me, and to be noticed, I went to the level of personally distributing promotional fliers at street corners just to make my shop known.”
Realizing no positive results, he devised a radical approach, and entrusted the shop in the hands of a Belgian lady, tasking her with running and promoting it. The strategy worked, and soon, business started to trickle in. It was the big break he had been yearning for, and soon, he started to expand his entrepreneurial web. “Within a short time, I started Management Trading Company (MTC), an import and export company.
He followed this with Fair Place Discotheque, and a restaurant he named Chez Robert, all in Brussels. “Finally, I set up R.B Jeans, the R.B standing for my name, Robert Bwimba.”
Bwimba opened the first Chez Robert Restaurant in Brussels in 1993, after buying off an Italian eatery. “It was called Quadrifoglio, a name I continued to use for a year after buying it. But my non-Italian clients complained that the name was complicated. One of my suppliers for beverages also made a similar complaint, and advised that I replace it with my name. The problem with using my name was that I would have to work extra hard to protect it, but soon I saw the sense in it and changed name to Chez Robert.”
In 2002, he opened Chez Robert in Kiyovu, Kigali, under very similar circumstances. “The place we got was a restaurant called Caprice du Palais, a name that everybody advised me to keep because it was already very famous in Kigali. I replied to them and said mine too was very famous.”
Today, he runs the upscale facility with his wife, Marie Paule Sorozo, and a tightly-knit team of 40 staff, and his business card reads “Administrator.” Bwimba comes across as a polished and chivalrous man, the unassuming manager who likes to make things happen from behind the scenes.
He has a servant leadership style, and at Chez Robert, the kitchen and lobby are some of his preferred work spaces. “I am one of the chefs here. I have all the passion that it takes to be a good cook. A good cook uses their own taste buds to determine what is good and not.”
It is at the tail-end of the interview that it eventually becomes evident that Bwimba walks with slight difficulty, something close to limping. In 1998, while working in Brussels, he got involved in a serious car accident that left him hospitalized for a whole year. It is an accident in which he says he “broke everything on my body and lost everything I had worked for, but I had to rise again.”
True job satisfaction, to him, is “cooking and guests enjoying.”