Rwanda's import-export gap in packaging could be reduced as local alternative packaging manufacturers seek to tap into regional market such as Kenya, which recently banned use of non-biodegradable plastic bags.
Rwanda passed a law banning the importation and use of non-biodegradable packaging bags in 2008.
Later, the East African Community legislative organ introduced Polythene Materials Control Bill of 2011, which countries like Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania have been slow in implementing, arguing that their local alternative packaging industries are yet to be developed.
After the plastics ban in 2008 in Rwanda, investors taped into the opportunity and established alternative packing industries as well as plastics recycling plants.
The investors told The New Times that they are targeting to export alternative packaging products to EAC countries such as Kenya whose alternative packing industries are yet to be developed despite the ban on the polythene bags.
Brian Ngaramba, the proprietor of Bonus Industries, an alternative packaging factory in Kicukiro District, said they have started exporting their products to Kenya.
Last month, Kenya banned the production, importation and use of plastic bags, with government introducing four-year jail term or fines of $40,000 for culprits.
Kenya Association of Manufacturers said the ban would cost 60,000 jobs and force 176 manufacturers to close since Kenya is a major exporter of plastic bags to the region.
Ngarambe said in an interview with The New Times that they are targeting the market through Kenyans who have already ordered for alternative packaging products from Rwanda.
Bonus Industries, which was started after plastics bags ban in Rwanda, produces paper bags for flour packaging, paper shopping bags, wax-coated paper for packaging bread, grocery paper bags, confectionary bags, seed bags and others, which are used by Rwanda supermarkets for packaging, according to the proprietor.
"We are not yet where we want to be. We have an open market. We target exports to regional countries. Nairobi has allowed us to export some of our products once they start implementing polythene ban. Last month, we were able to export 78 tonnes of biodegradable bags at a cost of $250,000. We have more orders from Kenya that we are going to supply," he said.
Bonus Industries produces 160 tonnes of grocery bags, and 60 tonnes of bread packaging material every month.
The plant, that currently employees 50 staff and 35 casual labourers, has also created many jobs in sales chain.
"We give a chance to the vulnerable youth without jobs, train them and they get employed in different positions, mainly sales, that make 60 per cent of revenue," he said.
Ngaramba said there is investment opportunity in Rwanda such as manufacturing packaging for meat, beans, biscuit and other products that cannot be packaged in papers.
He added that they also target to manufacture corrugated boxes.
According to a feasibility study, "Packaging Plant in Rwanda," conducted in 2013, Rwanda imported paper packaging products worth $27.6 million in 2012.
Rwanda imported $538,000 in non-corrugated folding cartons from abroad in 2012, with 90 per cent from Uganda. The items are used for everything from soap, and tea to cigarettes.
Corrugated boxes in Rwanda were imported at a cost of $15.6 million in 2012.
Despite its ban on polythene and plastics, Rwanda spent $9.7 million on import of some type of polythene packaging in 2015 for products without alternative packaging material yet. The polythene is later recycled.
Challenges that are still experienced in the alternative packing industrty, Ngarambe said, include cost of transporting materials, importing raw materials, electricity cuts as well as lack of enough skilled labour.
"In the beginning, we could meet challenges such as lack of technicians and we had to hire foreign experts to train the locals which was expensive for us. We still have foreign experts," he added.
Ngarambe suggested that authorities should look into introducing into the country tree species whose products are used as raw materials for packagaing material.
Remy Duhuze, the director of environmental regulation and pollution control at Rwanda Environment Management Authority, told The New Times that although it is difficult to measure the positive impact of polythene ban on environment in monetary terms, direct and indirect impacts are being felt since 2008.
"While the alternative packing factories and recycling plants can count the benefits of plastics ban in monetary terms according to their annual income, we, as environmentalists, also observe direct and indirect impact of the ban on environment," Duhuze said.
Some direct benefits such as cleanliness in Kigali city is observed, he said, adding that the impact on cleanliness is also in line with boosting MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) tourism.
"Elimination of plastic bags reduced flooding because when they are dumped everywhere they block the smooth flow of water. In agriculture, the plastics impede permeation of water into soil, which can affect productivity," he said.
Other risks of plastics on health, he said, include killing animals that consume them.
According to a 2008 estimate in waste management, people around the world discard between 500 billion and one trillion plastic bags a year.
According to a 2014 estimate, published in PLOS ONE, more than five trillion pieces of plastic (not all from bags) weighing a combined 250,000 tonnes are floating in the world's oceans.
Duhuze said, however, that some plastic bags are still smuggled into Rwanda from neighbouring countries, but warned that authorities will not relent on cracking down on offenders.
"We have received delegations from different countries who came to learn from our initiative. People should be aware of these benefits so that the ban implementation is strengthened," he added.