Greg Bakunzi stared intently on the streets below us. His eyes told me everything I wanted to know – milky red from early bouts with meningitis and malnutrition, but calm and confident in the man he had become.
He is a Rwandan, born a refugee in a foreign land. He studied beneath a tree, and when UN funding ran too sparse he found his education in a mechanic’s garage just outside the camp.
He is opportunistic above all else, a trait that explains his improbable rise to innovative, authentic entrepreneurship.
Bakunzi’s parents fled Rwanda in the summer of 1959, seeking refuge from what would become a forty-year build up to genocide. They settled on Lake Albert in western Uganda, once there finding only harassment under the infamous, cruel regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote. Bakunzi was born in a UN camp that sheltered 300,000 displaced Rwandans. He spent the first eighteen years of his life at the camp.
Like many born amidst conflict and poverty, he could only guess his birth date—“around ’74 or ’75”—and his homeland seemed distant and unreal. The conditions at Camp Kyangwali were lamentable.
“When I was growing, the only thing I knew, to survive, was to line up in front of the UN offices and wait for the food,”Bakunzi says.
Bakunzi and his fellow exiles were cast-outs in a country that didn’t recognize them as citizens.
“There was a dangerous bridge called Kafu that had a checkpoint. Obote’s army was at this checkpoint, and they would see the Rwandans as the meat of the bullet. That’s how they would explain it in their Swahili language – we were meat of their bullets,” he explains.
When Rwanda’s northern volcano region erupted into civil war in 1990, Bakunzi returned to the camp (he had left a year earlier to learn car maintenance in a nearby garage) with hopes that the longstanding tension between Tutsis and Hutus would soon be resolved.
Yet the war dragged on for four years. It ended with the victory of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Kagame-led rebel group that delivered Rwanda from a brutal, three-month Genocide against the Tutsi, in the summer of 1994. As bodies still rotted on Rwanda’s streets and floated down its rivers, making their mournful procession toward Lake Victoria in the east, Bakunzi boarded a UN truck and returned to the homeland he’d never seen. He settled on the eastern flatlands with his uncle, and for three years awaited inevitability’s push.
By 1997, tourism was ripe for future growth. An old Ugandan friend encouraged Bakunzi to move to the northern town of Ruhengeri, the gateway of the famed “gorillas of the mist”. He soon found a niche in a tourism industry still suffering from continued insurgent raids, which had menaced the region ever since the genocidaires were exiled to nearby Zaire (currently Democratic Republic of Congo).
Because travelers were still uneasy about a prolonged tour in Rwanda, Bakunzi focused on a short-term approach to attract clients. He borrowed local trucks to take clients from the Ugandan border-town of Kisoro into Rwanda, where they would see the gorillas and return to Uganda by day’s end. He earned his living on commissions and tips, and slowly began building his reputation and income.
From 1999 to 2001, the government’s campaigns to stabilize the country were finally coming to fruition. The northern region “started breathing easily” again, a sign for Bakunzi to make his next move. Tourists at this time were high-rolling adventurists dropping by for a glimpse of the gorilla, to compliment the lions of Kenya and the great migration of the Serengeti wildebeests. Established tour guide companies had already tapped the market. Bakunzi decided to focus on a different offer to a different type of traveler.
Michael Grosspietsch, a German researching the image of Rwanda as a tourist destination, was working with the Rwanda Office of Tours and National Parks (ORTPN) in 2003. The Director of Tourism came to him one day complaining about someone from Ruhengeri who asked ceaselessly about a concept called community-based tourism. He asked if Michael would sit down and share some of his knowledge with the young man.
Community-based tourism was a foreign concept for an industry that had built its success around the mountain gorilla. The idea was that tour guides would establish business partnerships with local residents—who were mostly rural and poor—and take their clients to see the residents’ communities and volunteer on different projects.
This accomplished two goals: giving clients an authentic experience and providing the communities with an income.
Michael met Bakunzi and was immediately impressed, believing him to be honest, intelligent and most importantly altruistic with his intentions. “He was not going to betray the communities.”
Michael said, “He realized that the people who were going to trek gorillas loved to stay another day or two, and just wanted to get involved with local people. This was the opportunity. This is what hesaw in Uganda. He could do the same here, and keep clients in Rwanda longer; give them a great experience while benefitting his own people.”
Bakunzi wanted to show his clients the warrior dance of the Intore, baskets weaved from thick papyrus grass found in the southern valleys, and other hidden pillars of a beautiful and unseen culture. His clientele would be middle class—backpackers, NGO workers, teachers, businessmen and volunteers—and his aim to show them the real Rwanda.
It was time to make the leap. Michael helped Bakunzi put all of his ideas under one umbrella, brand it with a name that embodied Rwanda’s strides towards reunification (Amahoro, meaning ‘peace’), and process the necessary papers. Amahoro Tours was registered as a business in 2003.
Michael represented Amahoro at the World Travel Market (WTM) in London the following year. He returned to develop the website and brochure, and help Bakunzi package his diverse community projects into a stronger association. Together they formed Amahoro Tourism Association (ATA), an umbrella network of thirteen different community groups.
“He covered all costs I incurred himself. That was the deal. When I printed brochures, when I printed business cards, when I launched and hosted his website, he paid me for it,”Bakunzi said.
Michael brought him several interns and volunteers to sustain the growing company. Three years passed. Michael was still representing Amahoro at the WTM in London and the International Tourism Bourse (ITB) in Berlin. Bakunzi was now hosting over eight hundred clients a year. Continuous marketing at the world’s two most prestigious tourism fairs was paying huge dividends. Yet it wasn’t enough. Bakunzi needed to understand his clients on their home turf.
In March of 2006 Bakunzi boarded a plane for the first time in his life, and headed to Berlin. The ITB was an eye-opening experience, where he met with international operators and individual customers and expanded an already growing client base.
The payoff was significant, as Amahoro pulled in a thousand more clients than it did in 2006. Bakunzi “made the good money, bought the first car,” and in June of the same year bought two Land Cruisers. The reaping of Berlin’s visit made manifest, he went again in 2007.
The following year, two more Land Cruisers were added to meet the growing demand. As the larger companies in Kigali staggered beneath a crumbling global economy, losing high-end clients who could no longer afford extravagant trips across the sea, Amahoro took advantage of a growing middle-income clientele. More of the West’s youth were escaping their failing home economies to backpack and volunteer in developing countries like Rwanda. The larger companies were not structured to meet the demands of this type of customer, so Amahoro gladly picked up the slack.
Bakunzi differentiated his company by reinvesting almost all of his profits, seeing the long-term benefits of international trade fairs, quality employees and expert partners like Michael Grosspietsch.
Still growing, still learning
Today, Amahoro is growing its share in Rwanda’s tourism market and is the prototype for community-based tourism. It still operates under Bakunzi’s credo of offering a unique, cultural experience to clients who have traded luxury for authenticity.
His community-based activities are now called the Amahoro Integrated Development Program (AIDP). AIDP’s housing project, which began in 2007 as a scheme to house a widow with two to three orphans, has successfully built nine different homes. Increased interest towards the program has Bakunzi planning on six more homes being built in 2011. Additionally, a village craft market (essentially a house where the community’s women can weave and sell baskets) has just been completed.
I listened to this story on a grassy clearing overlooking Camp Green Hill, Bakunzi’s property that sits above the dusty streets of Ruhengeri. Amahoro’s office sat beneath us, where two secretaries were busy calling next week’s clients. Bakunzi’s calm and confident gaze on the streets beneath us contrasted sharply with what we saw— a group of women carrying heavy baskets of potatoes to the market, children selling candy at the bus station, an old man pushing his goats across the road—and it was easy to envision what Bakunzi could have been. I asked him what lessons from Camp Kyangwari, learned long ago in a desolate corner of Uganda, shaped him into the businessman I now saw.
“I accept the challenges and know how to deal with them. I don’t give up. And I have never taken a loan. All our growth has been based on our savings,” he said.
New challenges for Bakunzi – the high costs associated with growth, controlling an expanding number of employees and adapting to an ever-changing tourism industry – still remain. He spoke about his ideas to reduce cars and outsource driving services to cut maintenance and driver costs; use better management techniques; focus more on entertaining clients than allowing the hassles of owning a large fleet to interfere with a trip. His sound sense of business rings a familiar tone. Yet Bakunzi has never opened the Harvard Business Review or discussed the Theory of Constraints with a gray-bearded professor.
The world did not give him these things. The world gave him a tree to study under and a UN ration line. He has taken it upon himself, the hardships of his youth pushing him forward, to become the self-reliant and innovative entrepreneur he is today.
Mark Darrough is a Staff Writer and Research Coordinator, Isoko Institute