Malaria Fighter: Jean-Pierre Rucakibungo

Kigali, Rwanda

Jean-Pierre Rucakibungo, Senior Finance and Administration Manager, oversees all the financial, accounting, and compliance aspects for PMI VectorLink Rwanda. Born and raised in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali, Rucakibungo is fluent in English, French, Swahili and Kinyarwanda and holds a Bachelor of Science from the National University of Rwanda and an MBA from the University of Roehampton, London. In his spare time, he enjoys studying the history and culture of Rwanda in his mother language (Kinyarwanda). Recently, Rucakibungo took time to talk to us about his work.

VL: How did you get started working with malaria?

JPR: After the genocide, we had a lack of people who were qualified in finance. There were many NGOs, so I started with Médecins sans Frontières in finance. I continued working with projects in finance, and in 2011, I started working with the PMI Africa Indoor Residual Spraying (AIRS) Project. I ensure that the office management, budgeting, operations, procurement, financial, subcontracting, and human resources systems are compliant with USAID rules and regulations.

VL: Do you have any personal experience with malaria?

JPR: When I was a child, we all used to have malaria. Anytime someone wasn’t well, we would think it was malaria. Our mother used to give us Nivaquine, which is a preventative medicine that my siblings and I had to take it daily. It was very bitter, so we had to take it in front of her. When we used it, we tended not to get malaria. If someone had a fever and tested positive for malaria, then he/she was treated with a more effective drug. The last time I had malaria was in 2001. When I’m traveling to those districts with high malaria, I’m afraid to see mosquitoes. It’s a bad illness. After you have it, you have to build up your strength. Everybody should sleep under a mosquito net to protect themselves from contracting it.

VL: What has surprised you most about working with PMI VectorLink (or AIRS)?

JPR: When IRS first came to Kigali, I was not aware that malaria was an illness that could be eliminated. I knew people were doing research on mosquitoes but I didn’t know it was to reduce malaria. It’s a disease that can be controlled, but it’s very costly. Elimination will require coordination with Burundi and the DRC to sustain the gains we are making in Rwanda.

VL: What do you find most challenging about your job?

JPR: The most challenging aspect is eliminating mistakes from the field, such as ensuring that the mobile phone numbers we collect for mobile money payments are registered to the corresponding seasonal workers. In the past, there have been discrepancies and it resulted in delayed payments. After every campaign we look at the challenges we faced and develop a strategy to ensure we don’t make mistakes. Most of the time, the budget is 96-98 percent on target. I use the budget tracker and can manage activities not planned. For instance, the Government of Rwanda has sought our assistance in protecting Mahama Refugee Camp with IRS. While not in the initial work plan budget, we were able to make this happen in 2018 and 2019 by covering operational costs while the government provided the insecticide.

In 2018, we moved to mobile payments for seasonal workers. We had the training for a week. I was excited to know that these things could happen. At the time, I had finished my MBA and I had worked on eMoney with businesses in Kigali. I had the knowledge of how things work. When I was asked to implement online payments for the project, I really understood them well.

By paying our accounts and staff with mobile money I was able to move around the country and follow training for seasonal staff, which helped me to better understand what was happening in the field. As I managed the budget over the years, I’ve learned a lot about IRS and entomology outside of finance, such as when we rehabilitated an entomology laboratory and managed entomological monitoring sentinel sites.

VL: What kind of impact have you seen on malaria in Rwanda from IRS?

JPR: In 2010, the district with the most burden was Nyagatare with 45% of the country’s cases. We’ve sprayed Nyagatare since the beginning of AIRS in 2011. With epidemiological data, the impact is very visible. They now have few cases. Ngoma District was first sprayed in 2019 by the Government of Rwanda. They saw right away the impact of IRS. So when PMI VectorLink sprayed there this year, everyone wanted their homes sprayed. We were impressed to see how much the people liked IRS because they understand the impact.

VL: What do you wish other people knew about the project?

JPR: Most people know there is a project spraying houses to fight malaria. I often explain the impact the spray can have. We explain that we are not eliminating all mosquitoes rather mosquitoes that carry the malaria parasite. I’m often explaining the impact of IRS and why we spray the walls and ceilings of every house. When the insecticide we had been using previously was shown to have reduced efficacy, we changed to a bendiocarb insecticide. People were happy because they could see it was working. Later, when we started spraying with the organophosphate Actellic, the population could see it was killing the mosquitoes and other insects. Before people used to tell stories that the pyrethroid insecticide brought fleas into the house, but now they do not. They don’t hear mosquitoes in the house at night, so they can sleep. With the new insecticide, people like it more. When people aren’t experiencing malaria, they don’t understand why we are still spraying. So we often have to explain why we need to continue with IRS in order to maintain control.

VL: What is your hope from the project?

JPR: As we start the third year of the project, I see that we have a well-equipped laboratory, so the entomology is going well. But we don’t have enough entomologists and continued efforts are needed to build local capacity. With project trainings and time, we will be better able to fight malaria. One thing I’ve seen is the increased use of mosquito nets. We are moving more toward using nets for fighting malaria. The Government of Rwanda is now distributing nets across the country. We are combining IRS with nets, and in the three years, we will see where we will be.

VL: What could other countries learn from Rwanda?

JPR: The one number one thing is how we implement IRS as a team. Since we started, our entire operations staff is involved in all aspects of the project. While our environmental compliance officer conducts environmental assessments, she’s not the only person who knows how to do the job. We work as a team, so when I’m in the field I can support the team. Or if we’re spraying in two districts at the same time, we can support each other. The teamwork makes IRS in Rwanda successful.