The real victory hidden in Masisi’s vaccine lab deal

In the works: The vaccine lab at the Innovation Hub is due by year end PIC: BW GOVERNMENT
In the works: The vaccine lab at the Innovation Hub is due by year end PIC: BW GOVERNMENT

This week’s launch of a biotech laboratory that will produce different cutting-edge vaccines, represents a much-needed victory for the country, after years of being outshined by continental rivals in the battle for global investor attention. Staff Writer MBONGENI MGUNI reports

Policymakers involved in sharpening the country’s competitiveness and ‘ease of doing business’ environment were left smarting last April when social media giant, Twitter, chose Ghana to be its African headquarters.

While frontrunners for the headquarters included powerhouses such as South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, Botswana, which thus far has not attracted any of the global tech giants to set up any form of physical presence, would have felt the reforms it has made in recent years stood it in good stead.

In Africa, the battle for global investor attention comes down to the size of markets, efficiencies and connectivity meaning Botswana has often found itself in the shadow of South Africa. Only when Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is ‘commodity or resource seeking does Botswana get attention, as seen in the fact that mining is the dominant target of investors in the country.

In the 11 years since the Doing Business and Global Competitiveness sub-committee was established in cabinet and despite the extensive reforms and billions of pula spent in facilitating investment, the country has struggled against its continental rivals in the hunt for investment.

These billions include the more than P700 million spent on the Icon Building at the Innovation Hub, the country’s largest expenditure on a single building in the country’s history.

The majority of FDI in Africa is looking for factors Botswana can’t totally control such as geography and population size. However, through reforms around efficiency, upskilling the workforce, lowering costs, finetuning policies and incentives, as well as setting up the Icon Building, policymakers have hoped to attract the Big Tech investors who do not necessarily look for big populations or coastlines.

The reasons Twitter gave for choosing Ghana would have been particularly infuriating for local policymakers as they underpin Botswana’s entire approach in enhancing its investment climate.

“As a champion for democracy, Ghana is a supporter of free speech, online freedom, and the Open Internet, of which Twitter is also an advocate,” the social media giant said, adding that Ghana’s choice as host of the African Continental Free Trade Area Secretariat had also been a factor.

Botswana is not only Africa’s longest-running multi-party democracy, but it also enjoys a reputation as a beacon for stability, non-violent public discourse and freedom of speech, the latter two virtues espoused in traditional Setswana culture and institutions such as the kgotla.

Overlooked by Facebook, Google, Amazon and other tech giants, policymakers in Botswana would have wondered what more is needed to be done to gain the attention of global investors and push for President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s knowledge-based economy drive.

Part of the answer, it turns out, lies in not just having the investment climate and shiny buildings such as the Icon Hub, but going out to engage investors one-on-one. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the US billionaire who this week cut the ribbon on the multi-vaccine laboratory being set up at the Innovation Hub, was approached directly by Botswana representatives during Masisi’s trip to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2021.

Soon-Shiong, who boasts a net wealth of about $11.5 billion, is a bioscientist and inventor of a renowned drug for the treatment of lung, breast, and pancreatic cancer. In all the countries he could have chosen in Africa, he was bowled over by the Botswana proposition presented by Masisi.

Soon-Shiong is the founder, chairman and CEO of NantWorks, a holding company with interests across healthcare, technology science and others. One of these subsidiaries is ImmunityBio, which has sealed a deal with Texas researchers to introduce a COVID-19 vaccine to Africa. NantWorks is also working on its own COVID-19 vaccine based on strengthening T-cells’ response to the virus.

This week, it was announced that Botswana had authorised the Texas vaccine, which will be produced at the Innovation Hub and will be called Pula Corbevax. Soon-Shiong also revealed that the T-cell vaccine would be named Pula Vax upon its manufacture in Botswana. The Innovation Hub laboratory is expected to be operational by the end of this year, or the first quarter of next year at the latest.

The deal with Botswana will involve the transfer of science and technology to Botswana, targeting rollout regionally, continentally and eventually globally. Already, scores of young, citizen scholars are being trained to take advantage of the skills transfer that will take place at the lab, through the Young Achievers programme.

“This has been a day that we have been looking forward to as I met with His Excellency in Los Angeles and it’s very clear to me the strength, leadership and commitment to his people,” Soon-Shiong said previously on the deal.

“I’m African. I was born in South Africa and Africa is in my blood.

“I understand the hardships but I’m ashamed in a way at the lack of humanity by countries that can and should help and I understand that if not now, when.”

This week, the billionaire hinted at the ease of doing business as a factor in the decision to locate in Botswana.

“The experience I have had with the Botswana Medicines Regulatory Authority over the past months is highly encouraging and this is an opportunity for us in Botswana to take regulatory leadership,” he said.

“I have watched how Bangladesh and Singapore have grown and Botswana could be the Singapore of Africa.”

Speaking at this week’s ribbon cutting, Masisi acknowledged the work required to attract the attention of global capital in the tech and other sectors. “I would like to reassure NantWorks, and other potential investors that government continues to improve the ease of doing business as part of our unwavering commitment to facilitating the setting up, operation and sustenance of noble projects like this one,” he said.

The journey to securing Soon-Shiong’s investment also highlights a factor often overlooked in investment attraction. Many African countries have launched aggressive branding campaigns targeted at global capital, but ultimately the promises made to investors during outward investment campaigns need to match what they find when they set foot in the country.

Soon-Shiong signed the MoU for the Botswana lab in December. He subsequently came with his team to tour the Innovation Hub in January to establish whether the facilities, connectivity, promised regulatory efficiencies and human resource support was in place.

A similar challenge faces the Botswana Investment and Trade Centre which, it was revealed this week, spent P10.5 million over the six-month Dubai Expo 2020, which ended on March 31. With 192 countries exhibiting at the Expo, the event was the ultimate stage to weigh the country’s competitiveness and attractiveness against rivals on the continent and beyond.

Of the scores of investment leads raised by the local delegation and the estimated 1,200 visits to the Botswana pavilion, all eyes are on how these will be converted to tangible economic opportunities for the country.

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