What Rwanda and Tanzania have in common? One thing will be the lack of infrastructure which causes incredible hardship to people living in remote areas. The weather conditions make things even more difficult, especially during the rainy season, when the poorly maintained and unpaved roads become a sea of mud or are being completely covered by landslides. With a majority of the population living in rural areas, access to health care or medical supplies in these conditions is either impossible or it takes too long. Rwanda for instance, due to its rough terrains, has been named “The Land of Thousand Hills ”and only a quarter of its roads are paved. Nevertheless, both Rwanda and Tanzania seem to have found a partial solution to the problem which is called: ZIPLINE! An amazing entrepreneurial project that uses cutting-edge technologies to deliver critical medical supplies such as transfusion blood products health facilities located in inaccessible areas.
What is Zipline and how it works?
Zipline is a Silicon Valley based start-up, created in 2014 that designs, builds and operates electric autonomous aircrafts. A team of brilliant engineers in aerospace and robotics formerly associated with companies like Space X, Google or Lockheed Martin, have teamed up with a vision to change Africa. Keller Rinaudo (CEO), William Hetzler (COO) and Keenan Wyrobek(CTO) started the Zipline Project and managed to raise more than $43 million in financial funding from investors like UPS, Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures, Jerry Yang, Paul Allen, Stanford University and SV Angels to mention a few. In October 2016, Zipline in partnership with the government of Rwanda launched its drone-based, on-demand delivery service of blood and blood products to health centers located in hard-to-reach areas of the country. In this way, Rwanda, one of the poorest countries of the world, became the country with the world’s first nationwide delivery system operated by drones and integrated with the national health care system. Deliveries that would usually take up to 8 hours by traditional road transport now happen in maximum 30 minutes.
The drone network in Rwanda currently serves 21 medical facilities providing access to life-saving products to more than 8 million people, that is more than half of the country’s 11 million population. Following this success, Zipline will expand to Tanzania this year. For a country considerably bigger with a population of 55,57 million people and presenting the same infrastructural issues as Rwanda, the project will involve 4 distribution centers. The first facility which is getting ready to “take off” as we speak, will be located outside the capital city of Dodoma with similar facilities to follow in Mwanza, Geita and Mbeya. In total, the project aims to support 5640 medical facilities using 120 drones, capable of 2000 daily flights. Therefore, Tanzania will have the world’s largest drone delivery system of high-priority medical supplies which in addition to blood and transfusion products will include anti-venom and rabies vaccines, IV tubes and HIV medicines.
Greet the Zip!
This cute drone looks very much like a mini commercial aircraft and goes by the name Zip! The device, weighs about 10 kg, is powered by a nose-mounted lithium-ion battery, has a fixed wing which makes it more resilient in bad weather compared to the multi-copter models and features a modular body which allows for easy parts replacement. Zip is equipped with a very accurate GPS system having a location error margin of only 1cm and can travel at speeds of 100 km/h over a 150 km round trip.
How does it work?
Doctors place their orders to the distribution center via a text message or Whats App text. The operations team at the distribution center which includes recruits from the local community will wrap and pack carefully the medical products in a red cardboard box about the size of a shoe-box. This packing has been designed to ensure the integrity of the product during the transport, cost roughly $1 and is reusable. The red box is loaded on the Zip which will be launched in the air using a slingshot mechanism being completely autonomous afterwards. Each Zip can carry 1,5 kg of medical supplies which will be dropped from the bottom of the aircraft when the device reaches the determined destination. After descending to an optimal altitude for release, the package will float to the ground in a parachute made from folded wax paper. When the Zip is approaching the drop point, a message is automatically sent to the medical staff which will collect the package from the collection point. The Zip will then fly back to the distribution center and it will be ready to fly again within minutes. Watch the full process in the video here.
“If i had not gotten the blood, I would have lost my life” said François Mukeshimana a Rwandan mother which life was saved by a Zipline emergency blood delivery in the Muhanga District
According to the figures provided by the World Health Organisation, Africa ranks high in terms of deaths resulting from postpartum excessive bleeding. Likewise, thousands of children under the age of 5 die every day because they suffer from severe anemia caused by malaria and they cannot receive blood transfusions on time. You see, when it comes to blood if someone needs it, time is of essence as their lives depend on it. In the past, hospitals in Rwanda could procure transfusion products only by making weekly trips to the National Centre for Blood Transfusion in Kigali, the capital city. This could sometimes take hours that were crucial for some patients with their lives hanging on a bag or two of blood. Most hospitals would keep a limited stock of the most common blood types which meant additional trips in case of emergency, a high risk of death for patients, increased costs and overall inefficiency. Zipline is, therefore, a very welcomed development.
In terms of costs per delivery, the expenses are very much equal to those of the traditional means but the service is like 20 times faster. Better logistics in this sense translate first and foremost into a better chance of survival for millions of people. Secondly, through Zipline health professionals can prevent stock-outs of critical medical supplies, reduce wastage in such products and enjoy more access to products with short shelf-live or special storage requirements like vaccines. An assessment of the Department for International Development of the UK Government, funding the Zipline project in Tanzania, has estimated that flying medical supplies with drones from the distribution center outside Dodoma will save the government approximately $58.000 per year. Whereas the monetary savings will not be enormous, the time saving will be crucial for the survival of so many patients.
Zipline is not a philanthropic project!
While the impact of Zipline’s work has a massive impact on the local society, the services provided are not done out of pure philanthropy. The cooperation with the Rwandan and Tanzanian Ministries of Health is based on a commercial contract which means Zipline is charging a fee for every drone delivery performed. Rinaudo insisted to note on several occasion that they feel strongly about making this clear and in their opinion the only way to eradicate poverty in developing countries is through entrepreneurship, scalable business models and capitalism.
Challenges in the process!
Bad weather – When addressed with this question, CEO Keller Rinaudo confirmed that the Zip is designed to operate in over 90% of the climate conditions of Rwanda in daylight or during the night.
Legal barriers – The Zipline project was welcomed by the civil aviation authorities and the governments of both Rwanda and Tanzania which have altered their regulations to make possible the licencing and operation of drones in their jurisdictions. Similar regulations have been adopted by South Africa and Mauritius. I envisage a follow up on this with an analysis of the regulatory provisions in a future post so keep and eye of us.
” I used to see the drones fly and think ‘they must be mad’, until the same drone brought me blood and saved my life.” Alice Mutimutuje
Security concerns for the community and the government– Fears of the “Eye in the Sky” unsurprisingly sparked amongst Rwandans. Rinaudo said in many interviews that Zipline had to work with the community and build on their trust to ensure people that the Zips are there for humanitarian purposes only. Touching on the subject during his speech at IMF-World Bank Annual Meeting in October 2017, Rinaudo said many people and children from the areas surrounding the Muhanga distribution centre, line around the fences of the facility acclaiming every launch and landing of the Zips to which they refer as the “Sky Ambulance”. In terms of security concerns at governmental level, the devices are designed and built from scratch by the engineers at Zipline. As they do not feature a camera, privacy is not an issue. Secondly, the platform on which the whole system operates use an end-to-end encryption which is also designed by the Zipline experts from scratch. Thirdly, the service is monitored by the Rwandan authorities, which means they have a real-time track and record of all deliveries. For more information in this respect you should definitely watch Rinaudo’s speech at this IMF – World Bank Meeting available here.
Only a partial solution
As described above, the Zips do not land in making deliveries. The reason for this is threefold : 1) to save the battery life; 2) avoid the wear and tear of the drone from each landing and 3) to limit the costs and facilitate the implementation of the project. In fact, the health facilities which use the service need zero infrastructure hence, no investment to be enable them to use the service. All this is very good but there is also a downside. At the moment, Zipline operates only a one-way service whereas a two-way service would be desirable as it would facilitate the collection of diagnostic test samples. Additionally, as Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda acknowledged drones can transport blood but they can’t transport doctors who still require roads. I am sure we all agree with this statement but the Zipline initiative is an important step forward in the right direction. I would say, Zipline is a clear example of thinking outside the box to solve urgent problems. Building roads is absolutely necessary but is awfully expensive and it needs a lot of time thus, why not keep an open mind to possible alternatives?
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Until next time !