Rwanda: Coronavirus Causes Jitters Among Rwandan Traders

Health workers test government officials and executives from the private sector for coronavirus ahead of their departure for the National retreat in Gabiro.
12 February 2020

Businesses in Rwanda have started feeling the effects of the novel coronavirus, which has for weeks menaced China - a major source of Rwanda's imports.

Rwanda has not registered any case of the virus, which by Tuesday had killed 1000 people, according to officials.

Like their counterparts in many parts of Africa, Rwandan businesses hugely depend on Chinese supplies, including clothes, electronics and other materials, yet, for days now, travel to the Asian country has been limited with many airlines suspending flights due to the ongoing outbreak.

After the World Health Organisation declared the epidemic a Public Health Emergency of International Concern in January, Rwanda's national carrier, RwandAir, suspended its flights to Guangzhou, a major Chinese business city where local traders bought a great deal of merchandise.

In Kigali, the Government also advised against unnecessary travel to Wuhan, the epicentre of the epidemic, and other parts of China.

And the local business community seems to be feeling the pinch already.

"Work has stopped," said Adrie Musabe, an importer of clothes from China.

Musabe told The New Times that she used to go to Guangzhou at least once a month on business trips.

The last time she was in Guangzhou was on January 11 and she initially planned to go back on the 20th or 25th of February, something that may not materialise.

"I don't know what is going on, we are simply waiting," she said.

She said she still has some commodities in stock while some other containers are on the way. She purchased the consignment that's on the way on her last trip to China.

"Some stock will be arriving soon but then what will happen after I have sold them," she said.

Asked whether she could not place her order from Rwanda, pay and have the goods delivered without necessarily travelling there, she said she has done this before and incurred losses because she would end up receiving the wrong products.

"I would rather sit and wait until the outbreak has ended than order for things that I may not use," she said. "When you don't go there, suppliers may send you products that you don't want, and you end up in losses."

But still, even if shipping was a viable option, she said, many factories in China are not working as usual. "There is likely to be a shortage even on the other side."

Musabe's worries are similar to those of other wholesalers.

But retailers have also been affected, she said.

For instance, she said, some of the retailers who normally buy from her are calling in and trying to book larger amounts of products so that they can be able to have something in stock in the event that the outbreak persists.

Elias Mbangura, a businessperson who works from CHIC Complex in Kigali's Central Business District, told The New Times that local traders may end up looking elsewhere for supplies.

For instance, he said, businesses in Dar-es-Salaam and Nairobi tend to have larger stocks that might last long. While these also get some of their goods from China, he said, their stocks are often larger than for most Rwandan businesspersons'.

But this option would mean increase in prices, he warned. "A pair of shoes that would normally cost Rwf5000 may go for Rwf6000," he said.

Delphine Iradukunda, another trader at CHIC Complex, spoke of the possibility of switching to Dubai, but hastened to add that it was easier to do business with China.

Canisius Bihira, a Rwandan economist, said the coronavirus epidemic may indeed cause problems to local businesses.

"Most of our goods come from China, it is a place where businesses in Africa get cheaper goods from," he said.

He agreed that Dubai was a viable option, but added that the challenge was yet a reminder that Africa needs to grow its own industry so as to produce goods locally.

By midmorning Thursday, there were at least 40,171 coronavirus infections on mainland China.

Key prevention tips

- Avoid unnecessary travels to affected countries.

- Immediately inform your employer or authorities on return from potentially affected areas.

- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser.

- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.

- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

- Stay home when you are sick.

- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.

- Avoid unnecessary handshaking if you present clinical signs of the flu-like syndrome.

- Observe general hygiene practices.

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