Last month saw the entry of Salvo Grima Group into the Rwandan market as the national distributor for British American Tobacco, the market leader in the country.

This is far from their first foray into Africa, with Group CEO Karl Aquilina leading the company into the Tunisian and Djiboutian markets following an already strong presence in Libya. reached out to Mr Aquilina to pick his brains on what it takes to expand internationally.

“Our Group focuses on making connections across international markets whilst ensuring the world-class standards expected by global brands,” he says.

“We have been distributors for global brands in North Africa for almost forty years, expanding into East Africa more recently.”

The Group mainly specialises in the wholesale distribution of fast-moving consumer goods, including food, toiletries, personal care products, beverages and tobacco.

They have established operations in Libya and Tunisia and recently set up a subsidiary based in Djibouti Free Zone in order to reach their growing client base in East Africa.

This year, Salvo Grima Group were selected by British American Tobacco to be their national distributor for Rwanda, launching Rwandan operations on 1st October 2020.

“Whilst Rwanda is a new market for us, we are proud to have joined forces with an excellent Rwandan logistics partner, Anco Millena and we have employed a team of 15 new Rwandan staff, including a general manager who is strongly familiar with the market.”

“This set-up combines our expertise in the supply and distribution of branded products and tobacco with local, on-the-ground competence,” said Mr Aquilina, who has been with the company since 2003, occupying various roles including Chief Operations Officer before being appointed to the CEO position in 2014.

The Group was impressed by the professional approach taken by the Rwandan government authorities to support new businesses, as well as by the high level of education of their new staff members, many of whom are fluent in English.

Asked about the challenges the company faced during their expansion to the south, Mr Aquilina said, “One of our main aims as a Group is that of acting as a ‘bridge’ between global brands and markets which are challenging or unfamiliar to them. One of our main challenges is therefore overcoming the gap between the procedures and expectations of international companies and the requirements of African businesses.”

“Africa is a huge and diverse market, incorporating countries with a large range of legal, historical and cultural backgrounds, so we needed to invest heavily in building up inhouse knowledge, identifying the right advisors and establishing a network of reliable collaborators in different regions.”

He continues, “We managed to overcome difficulties and make the right connections mainly through our enthusiastic team of staff with a strong interest in international relations and experience working in different countries.”

“Whilst we found the business environment to be supportive in Tunisia, Djibouti and Rwanda, we have had to deal with unfamiliar bureaucracy, trade barriers, foreign exchange shortages or even civil war in other areas.”

“For instance,” he explains, “Salvo Grima Group has been steadily and carefully supplying branded goods to the Libyan market even during periods of instability and unrest.”

“Our expansion into Africa has only been possible because of the business models we have built up over the years to minimise risk, identify safe trade-routes and establish strong relationships on the ground, based on mutual respect.”

“There are no shortcuts, and we are not ready to compromise our reputation,” he says emphatically.

“Our Group depends heavily on the credibility we have built up with stakeholders, clients and suppliers, so we need to ensure due diligence and water-tight standards across our supply chain.”

Since Malta is such a small market, Mr Aquilina strongly recommends that local companies try and diversify their focus and consider expanding into new markets, especially in Africa.

“Africa is rich in resources with a young, ambitious workforce and many countries are ready to welcome foreign direct investment. Our advice is to have a readiness to learn and to invest in language skills, market research and connections.”

Asked finally about the support Malta’s authorities can provide to local businesses wishing to capitalise on Africa’s growing population and economy, Mr Aquilina said the Group is very pleased with the level of support, market research and networking opportunities provided by Trade Malta, which has recently been organising several seminars on business in Africa, including Rwanda.

“We have also obtained support from Ambassadors and the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs,” he says.

“On a general level, we would recommend that Malta invests more heavily in developing an outward-looking, flexible workforce with strong foreign language skills, an interest in international affairs and a respect for people from other cultures,” he concludes.

Main Image:

Salvo Grima Group CEO Karl Aquilina

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Written By

Robert Fenech

Robert is curious about the connections that make the world work, and takes a particular interest in the confluence of economy, environment and justice. He can also be found moonlighting as a butler for his big black cat.