More than twenty years after the Rwandan genocide when some 800,000 people were killed in just 100 days by ethnic extremists, Rwanda is on a path to not only healing and order, but also technological advancement. Now politically and functionally stable, which is an exception to the rule in east Africa, the country is recognizing that biotechnology is one of the key drivers to help improve the health and well being of its citizens. Rwanda is focusing on providing the resources and training needed to grow its capabilities in biotechnology, and could be on track to become an African biotech hub.
Rwanda, and its biotech push, caught the attention of Promega by way of customers working with its Belgium-Netherlands-Luxembourg (BNL) branch office. Researchers who are also African ex-patriots working at Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), a French-speaking private research university in Brussels, Belgium, invited Promega to attend a conference in Rwanda earlier this month organized by the Society for the Advancement of Science in Africa (SASA) and the Rwanda Biotechnology Association focusing on translational science and biotechnology advances in Africa. Promega was a main sponsor of the conference along with US medical device manufacturer Medtronic.
Promega Marketing Manager Hemanth Shenoi and Promega BNL Sales Manager Carlos Rossini eagerly made the trip, becoming the first Promega representatives to visit Rwanda. They not only attended the conference but also ran a Promega-sponsored preconference workshop held in Huye, the capital city of Rwanda’s Southern Province and home to the biotechnology campus for the University of Rwanda. Undergrads and graduate students spent two days in lectures and also hands-on training with professors from ULB, as well as Shenoi and Rossini.
“Their passion for research is mind blowing,” says Shenoi, explaining how student after student expressed the goal of applying science directly to the problems facing their own country, such as developing low cost and reliable methods to purify water that an average rural villager can carry out. “It’s about research by Rwandans to address the problems of Rwandans. I was struck by their desire to learn and their eagerness to find ways to apply that knowledge to benefit the people of Rwanda.”
Students worked hands-on in the lab learning PCR techniques with the Promega GoTaq® polymerase. They also worked with the Promega Water-Glo™ System, which uses ATP detection to determine live microbial contaminants in water, testing samples of purified bottled water, tap water, and traditional herbal-infused water very commonly used as medicine in Rwanda. Tap water was eight times more contaminated than the bottled water and many of the infused water samples were heavily contaminated. During the process, students and professors discussed the possible benefit of using ATP detection technology as a way to perform quality control of these traditional medicines, aligning with a Rwandan government push to impose quality control measures over these substances, since currently there are none.
The theme of quality control was recurring, says Shenoi, as participants also saw an application for WaterGlo in ensuring water used in medical procedures is not contaminated. Again, no quality control standards currently exist for this in Rwanda. Lack of funds is an issue for the country, and infrastructure for biotech is just being built. Training is the focus now, as well as developing avenues to access the tools necessary to move Rwanda’s biotechnology capabilities forward.
An example of how far the country has advanced recently in biotech manufacturing is the production of insulin. Diabetes is a growing issue in Rwanda, and the government is focusing more on the treatment and prevention of non-communicable diseases. In the near future, Rwanda will begin producing its own insulin, allowing the life-saving drug to be less expensive and more readily available for the population. Many see insulin production as just the beginning of Rwanda’s biotech growth.
Along with working with students, Shenoi and Rossini attended meetings with high level officials including Rwanda’s minister of health and the vice-chancellor of the University of Rwanda. The common theme of all the discussions, says Shenoi, was Rwanda’s vision that science is key to the country moving forward from its tragic not-so-distant history. He came away impressed and moved by the commitment.
“I see Rwanda as the model for the future of Africa,” says Shenoi. “The people of Rwanda are young, eager and they are now the engine that’s driving the country forward. They are accepting that they have health and poverty issues, but they are also doing something about it. They see biotech as part of the answer. More and better quality research on local issues, plus working to build an entrepreneurial class, will create a biotech industry that develops the products and economic growth that will propel Africa forward.”
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