Q&A: Drones are game changer

Tuesday February 18 2020

 

JEAN-PIERRE AFADHALI
By JEAN-PIERRE AFADHALI
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Zipline in 2016 launched its operations in the country, delivering blood to hospitals before expanding its services to include medical supplies. Rwanda Today’s Jean Pierre Afadhali spoke with the firm’s head of global communication and public affairs on the introduction of the technology in Africa.

Below are exacerpts.

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What have you done since the launch of your services in Rwanda in 2016?

Well, as you know you were here in 2016 when we first launched. We had just one distribution centre in Muhanga with around 15 drones that would ultimately go on to deliver blood to 21 health facilities.

We have since opened a second distribution centre in Kayonza. Between the two facilities we will ultimately be delivering to over 400 different health facilities across the country.

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And another exciting development for us is that we have expanded beyond delivering just blood to also delivering over 150 critical medications, medical supplies and vaccines.

What was the challenge at hand?

I think blood is the most delicate product you can deliver; because there are so many different types of drugs and all of them require a very precise refrigeration.

So, I think after we had the opportunity to get really good at delivering blood, it put us in a great position to deliver other products that also require sophisticated handling and refrigeration. So we are working very closely under the leadership of Rwanda’s Ministry of Health, we were able to quickly expand with their help to offer additional medication for people.

When did you start drugs delivery?

We started a year ago. So we transport 150 different medical products right now.

How does the delivery work?

The area right here is our medical fulfilment warehouse. So we get regular deliveries from the medical stores in Kigali, they bring them here, so that anytime one of the hospitals we serve around the country needs something either in emergency or normal supply we are able to deliver without delays. They can just place an order through WhatsApp.

We take the medication from our stores put in a box and put that box inside the drone just like this one and launch it for delivery and it can be in the hospital within 30 minutes or so.

What challenges did you face here and other parts of Africa?

We often say that the easy part is building the technology and the hard part is integrating with the national health system, national airspace when you are dealing with commercial air traffic.

Working very close with communities to make sure that they know that every time a drone flies over head it’s on its way to serve a patient in need.

So incredible amount of work it takes to do all these things is the hardest work. You know the drone is just one piece of it. We have been incredibly fortunate to have the government as our partner.

And without the government support and commitment, none of these would be possible. We thank the commitment the government has had to expand healthcare access for people across Rwanda.

The government puts countries across the world in the position to learn from what they have done here and benefit from it. Tell us about your future expansion. Last year, we expanded to Ghana where we launched our first distribution centre in April.

Between April and December we launched three more distribution centres. It took us three years to get to set two distribution centres in Rwanda but in Ghana we were able to do it quickly based on all of the things we learned in Rwanda.

We will be establishing a fourth base there soon. We are in the process of constructing it. But we are talking to countries around the world and ministries of health around the world. And our goal is to expand this service to every person on the planet.

How about Kenya and Ethiopia?

We are in very close conversations with several ministries of health across Africa, I don’t have anything official to announce right now, but we are very eager to expand this service to people across Africa.

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