The bus boss who fought against 'African time'

Image caption,
Mr Nizeyimana's long term vision is to expand his business internationally

When Olivier Nizeyimana was a student, the journey to Rwanda's National University would sometimes take him ages so he thought it would be a good idea to start a bus company that made punctuality one of its core values.

"People learn from problems. Sometimes in business, a problem can be an opportunity," he told the BBC's series African Dream.

Born in neighbouring Burundi, Mr Nizeyimana had moved to Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, and was studying for a degree in management.

In 1999, a year before graduation, he launched his Volcanoes Transport Company.

"I had only one route. Then I've been expanding all the way. Now we have a really big company which is networking all the towns of the southern region of Rwanda, linking them with the capital, Kigali," he said.

Fortunately for him, he managed to start the company because he had found someone who believed in his dream.

"I couldn't get a loan from a bank. I was so young. I met the boss of the company Akagera Motors, the exclusive representative of Toyota Corporation here in Rwanda. I said: 'I have a project. I want to start a business. Can you please help me? Can you please supply buses on credit so that I can be paying every month?'," he remembers.

"I didn't make it a big deal, I was young, I just went and I said: 'If he says no, it's OK'. Fortunately, he said yes. No complications."

Mr Nizeyimana was also lucky that his family could help him to raise the 17m Rwandan francs ($28,000, £18,000) he was asked for as a down-payment.

"But the biggest part was given by the company, by Akagera Motors, my supplier, and I started with two buses. I have now more than 60," he said.

'African time'

The entrepreneur believes that at the moment his business is worth more than $3m.

"When I started, I had four staff with myself and now I have about 250," he told BBC Africa's Prudent Nsengiyumva at Kigali's main bus station, commonly known as Nyabugogo, where he conducted the interview.

"I am always here. I'm working with them. Sometimes I'm driving the bus myself. I want to be close to my clients. I take about one day driving on the roads with my drivers; they are like friends or brothers

"This is very important. They raise the commitment. They feel they own the company. They are much involved in the company's success. This company is not mine. This company is ours."

Mr Nizeyimana says that he not only provides jobs to drivers but also to ticket sellers, cleaners and other employees. His top wage is $2,000 a month while the lowest is $100.

According to him, one of the biggest initial challenges he faced was punctuality. In many African countries, regional buses do not depart until they are full but he wanted to do something different.

"The first time I took only two passengers. The second, I took only one [on a two-and-a-half-hour journey]. After one week the level was about 10 people for each bus but now I'm satisfied. I have 20-22 people; this would be the average, 22 passengers a bus.

"When I started I had that challenge of this so-called 'African time'. I thought I could change it and actually I've changed it. The first five years this was terrible, to tell people that time is time and time is money, but now they're OK."

His company has two types of vehicles, with 25 and 29 seats. The highest ticket costs 3,000 Rwandan francs ($5, £3) and the cheapest 500 francs ($0.80; £0.50).

His initial schedule saw buses departing every three hours and now, after the growth of his business, they leave every 30 minutes.

Long term vision

What would he recommend budding African entrepreneurs?

"The first advice is that they have to take risk. You can't earn anything without taking risk. Just make a first step. If the first step is a good one, the following will be easier."

Mr Nizeyimana - who in 2009 earned an MBA from Maastricht School of Management in The Netherlands - believes that a good first step to raising capital is to have a business plan based on a sound market study.

"For business, the problem is not only how to get money, how to get capital, but it's also how to use that money, how to be able to pay it back and to gain money also because you don't work for nothing, you have to earn something in return."

His long term vision is to expand his business internationally, to countries like neighbouring Uganda and more distant Kenya.

Last week, on 22 February, he began to make his international dream come true by opening a new line connecting Kigali to Bujumbura, Burundi's capital, three times a day.

So now you know, if one day you would like to travel with his company, be there on time. Otherwise you might have to wait for the next bus.

Luckily for consumers, at least in the Kigali-Bujumbura route, there are other companies operating so you may not have to wait for too long.

African Dream is broadcast on the BBC Network Africa programme every Monday morning.

Every week, one successful business man or woman will explain how they started off and what others could learn from them.

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