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Vaccines added to Rwanda’s growing list of exports – what does it mean for Rwandans?

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Africa’s first mRNA vaccine manufacturing facility in Kigali is set to begin operations by December 18, two years after a vaccine production company from Germany, BioNTech signed an MoU with Rwanda. 

The process of completing the manufacturing facility in the Kigali Special Economic Zone involved housing the BioNTainers and provisioning necessary infrastructure, such as electricity, water, and cooling will be the second phase after the containers arrive. 

The BioNTainers were then installed in the facility and went through qualification runs until the actual manufacturing commences. This process took approximately 12-18 months to complete. Then the manufacturing will begin. 

The Kigali plant is the first mRNA technology manufacturing hub with similar facilities to be set up in Senegal and South Africa. Rwanda and Senegal signed an MoU with Biopharmaceutical New Technologies (BioNTech) in 2021 to initiate the construction of a manufacturing plant for mRNA-based vaccines. 

Construction in Rwanda began in June 2022 in the Kigali Economic Zone. It was reported that the entire ecosystem cost more than €100 million (approximately Rwf1.7 billion), which will in part be funded by the European Investment Bank. Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, and Tunisia will also be on the list of African countries to receive technology to produce mRNA vaccines.

Benefiting the local workforce 

The vaccine manufacturing plant will enable the country to produce and export COVID-19, tuberculosis, and malaria vaccines. The country also expects the plant to benefit local workers who will be part of the plant’s team. 

BioNTech plans to employ about 100 employees at the facility by 2024 from Rwanda and Germany in roles regarding production, associated laboratory, and quality assurance tasks.  

The company says it is working with staff from its sites in Germany to accelerate the training of the employees who will be running the production in Kigali.

 

It also hired local personnel in three waves, with the first wave with 24 positions mainly in senior roles in enabling functions such as human resources, IT, security, and construction to get the site up and running. 

And other waves focused on manufacturing and lab-related roles. Most applications have been from Rwandan citizens, according to BioNTech. 

Rwandans also stand to benefit from more vaccine-developing companies that have an interest in investing in Rwanda. These include UVU Bio, a South African-based company that specializes in biotech technology and the bio-economy ecosystem enabler dealing in incubation acceleration across Africa.

UVU signed a memorandum of understanding with Rwanda in June to set up the second open access lab worth up to Rwf 7 billion after the first one in Cape Town, to support startups in the industry to use high-end tech in research, capacity building, skills development, and addressing challenges of accessing a range of high-lab equipment to do research at the university which is one of the big gaps facing the industry.

The other company was Zodel Biotec- a sister company of Tecan- a leading global supplier of laboratory automation products and diagnostics applications that will focus on safe diagnostics using cutting-edge lab spaces and equipment, especially in TB and Cancer research. The companies promise to create hundreds of jobs for Rwandans in the first year of their operations. The timeline has, however, been not communicated so far. 

Vaccine exports and partnerships 

With a starting production of 50 million vaccines, Rwanda will have access to East Africa’s market size of around $6 billion in 2023 with Kenya leading with the biggest vaccine imports of $557million followed by Tanzania with $384 million, Uganda with $300 million, Rwanda with $79, million and Burundi with $53 million spent on vaccine imports, according to Africa CDC. 

Rwanda also eyes export markets beyond East Africa. In November 2022, President Kagame received Mia Amor Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados, who visited Rwanda to discuss partnerships between both countries to manufacture vaccines, among others. Observers see the partnership with Barbados as Rwanda’s way into Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries. 

Last month, the African Import and Exports Bank (Afrexim Bank) launched an initiative that will help Rwanda and the Caribbean nations establish the infrastructure and capabilities for long-term vaccine production. With the partnership with CARICOM, Rwanda would have access to the Caribbean market of 13 countries home to over 40 million people. 

Rwanda might see more similar vaccine export opportunities, as Benedict Oramah, President of AfreximBank explained during the event that took place in Guyana in November. 

“The Bank has the Africa Medical Supplies Platform through which we will provide the necessary financial and technical assistance to deals such as the one between Rwanda, Guyana, and Barbados to establish the necessary infrastructure and capacity to manufacture vaccines.”

As Rwanda positions itself as East Africa’s vaccine exporter, it has a long way to go to reach top pharmaceutical producers in Africa including South Africa and Egypt who earn up to $4 billion a year. 

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