Rwanda is one of Africa’s smallest countries, but as one of the most densely populated, COVID-19 had the potential to spread quickly within its borders. Its swift and decisive actions in response to the pandemic—it was the first sub-Saharan country to impose lockdown measures—have resulted in a little over 300 cases at the time of writing, and zero fatalities to date.
Clare Akamanzi is an international trade and investment lawyer, CEO of the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), a Member of the Cabinet of Rwanda, and part of the inaugural cohort of Amujae Leaders. In her role as a cabinet member, she has been actively involved in the country’s COVID-19 response, carried out under the leadership of President Paul Kagame.
She serves as a member of the country’s COVID-19 task force, chaired by Prime Minister Édouard Ngirente, under the supervision of H.E the President, which has coordinated the government’s efforts to combat the virus by organizing isolation centers, sourcing personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing kits, and creating plans for the post-virus recovery. A key element of this response was building a command post structure to specifically respond to coronavirus. Comprising scientific advisers, researchers, and volunteers, it enabled a data-driven response, including a comprehensive track-and-trace system.
“Our taskforce has worked well because we had high-level players involved. Many of the people involved are ministers or heads of institutions, and we are chaired by the Prime Minister, so decisions can be made quickly. Having people from a broad mix of organizations has also helped us make well-informed, but tough decisions quickly, such as stopping air travel, imposing lockdown measures, and shutting national parks. The last decision in particular was tough, as tourism is a huge pillar of our economy.”
In light of her tourism portfolio, Clare has been particularly involved in the country’s engagement with the hospitality sector during the response. One of her first responsibilities was to identify places that could be used as isolation centers for people who needed to be quarantined. There was a need to make people comfortable during their 14-day isolation, and so hotels—already closed due to lockdown measures—seemed an ideal location to use.
“As a promoter of tourism, we already had a good relationship with the Chamber of Tourism, so it was natural to approach them about renting hotels as isolation centers, which we have now been doing since March. We’ve been careful to provide plenty of reassurance to hotel owners and operators that we are making things as safe as possible, and that our scientific understanding of the virus shows that using hotels in this way doesn’t pose any long-term risks. Moreover, we are providing the sector with some income when they would otherwise have none, so it made sense for them to work with us.”
Sourcing PPE and testing kits has been a challenge for countries large and small around the world. To support these efforts in Africa, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under the African Union has now created a procurement platform, giving countries access to suppliers of essential medical supplies needed in the response. Before this platform was up and running, the Rwandan government actively engaged the country’s private sector to produce critical supplies and provided the economic structures and technical support needed to help them do so.
“A lot of our initiatives involving the private sector have been policy-led. For example, we’ve made the wearing of masks compulsory, and provided guidance to textile producers to ensure that products are made to high standards. Additionally, we’ve created economic incentives to make their production viable. We’ve produced over four million masks to date and will continue to do so. We’re also putting economic resilience funds in place to help the private sector access working capital and restructuring loans to help companies grow their businesses. Once recovery is underway, a lot of businesses will be able to go back to their previous models but will continue to make some PPE items.”
Looking to the future, Clare is working with the tourism industry to develop a threefold strategy to support its reopening, as part of the government’s wider economic recovery plan:
“Once we’re able to restart tourism, we’ll begin by promoting domestic travel through packages targeted at Rwandan consumers. Beyond that, when international travel becomes viable again, we’ll be working with people who have deferred their trip to Rwanda to help them reschedule, and ultimately begin widespread international tourism again. It’s a positive sign that many of the people who had booked travel and were given the choice to cancel or defer have chosen to rebook at a later date.”
While she was not able to attend the inaugural Amujae Leadership Forum at the beginning of March, Clare has enjoyed building connections with her fellow Amujae Leaders remotely. Over the coming months, she is hoping to maintain contact with the other Leaders and work together to highlight their shared experiences.
“I’m keen to keep building relationships across the program. There is a lot of rich work that can be done through developing our links across the continent and with the coaches leading the program.”
Learn more about the Government of Rwanda’s COVID-19 response here.
The Amujae Initiative is a program of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development. Learn more about the Center here.