Delivery drones land in Botswana

The Botswana government has made history by becoming the second country in the SADC region and only the fourth in the whole of Africa to launch a long-term widespread delivery drone programme in its country.

This after the Democratic Republic of Congo, in partnership with VillageReach, launched their own remarkably cool project – ironically also called the Drones for Health – in the north western parts of the country late last year. Before then, it is by now well-documented that Rwanda was the first African country to bite the bullet and take a chance on Zipline’s novel delivery drone solutions, way back in 2016 when nobody knew where the technology was leading to.

Then Ghana hopped on board two years later, before Kaduna state in Nigeria also jumped onto the bandwagon last year.

Botswana’s project will be carried out by the Ministry of Health and Wellness in partnership with the Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST) and Netherlands’ drone logistics company Avy, who will be providing the drones and associated technology.

The project will also be supported and funded by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), who for the past several months, have been working with the university and Avy to perfect the delivery system in preparation for the launch last week.

“The Drones for Health Initiative is a pilot project, which will run for the first few years with assessment, after which a decision for a nationwide rollout will be taken,” BIUST said in a statement. “For this pilot, the areas targeted are Lecheng, Mokgware, Mogapi and Moremi. However, the project will widen its scope depending on the circumstances and the dictates on when and how the Ministry of Heath and Wellness wants to proceed with BIUST’s Commercial Unit.

“The Drones for Health Project aims to accelerate reduction of preventable maternal deaths by delivering maternal health supplies and commodities including essential emergency obstetric care drugs, blood and blood products and laboratory specimen in a timely manner to communities and health facilities that are hard to reach. Drones will be more efficient, faster and cost effective when used to deliver medical consignments compared to vehicles and other modes of transportation.”

Botswana’s maternal health systems have been deteriorating over the course of recent years with a maternal mortality rate of 166 per every 100,000 live births. At this rate, the UNFPA figures the country would miss the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of reducing the number to an average of seventy deaths per every 100,000 live births by the year 2030.

Eighty-seven mothers, almost all of them below the age of thirty, lost their lives in 2019 due to child bearing complications, which included postpartum haemorrhage, genital tract, pelvic infection, abortion, ectopic and molar pregnancy.

The government and its partners are hoping the introduction of the Drones for Health programme will go a long way to solving this problem – at least where the logistics side of things is concerned.

Because, while the advent of the medical dron in Botswana is very welcome, it has to be said that the reason why maternal mortality has been so high in the country has not been solely because mothers did not get the medicines they needed in time: the mothers still died even when the government claimed that 99 percent of them gave birth at a health facility while in the care of trained health care professionals present.

But there was also the question of the drugs being available in the first place: and now what remains to be seen is whether the drones will not be grounded due to lack of stock in the government’s drug repertoire.

The Botswana government hopes to run the Drones For Health programme for many years to come

“This launch marks the culmination of years of the efforts and investments of the past few years and marks a turn point for the health care infrastructure in the region,” said UNFPA country director, Beatrice Mutali. “Not only will the drones improve the national health situation in Botswana; they will change the entire health system. When women go to hospital and any critical medicine is urgently needed, they will not have to wait for hours, sometimes days, for the drugs to arrive.”

Confirming their participation on the project, Avy also congratulated the Botswana government for its latest initiative, and expressed how proud the drone company was to be involved.

“We feel blessed to be in Botswana as the partner of the Drones for Health Pilot Project initiated by BIUST and UNFPA, supported by the Ministry of Health & Wellness,” said Avy CEO Patrique Zaman. “Over the course of the last ten days (running up to the launch on May 7), we had a lot of really successful flights, and I’m proud to say we concluded phase one very successfully.”

“In this first phase, we aim to demonstrate that drones can indeed contribute to the health care supply chains of Botswana by delivery urgent medical goods to those in need, making medicines more affordable, more available and more accessible.”

Ahead of the launch, a demonstration flight was held, during with Avy’s drone, draped in the colours of the Batswana flag, successfully flew out of the BIUST Drones to a health centre eighteen kilometres away.

In the coming years, the partners are hoping to use drone technology to deliver medicines and specimen across hundreds of kilometres covering especially the rural parts of the country, and for a whole range of medical supplies, just like Rwanda did. The interest of UNFPA will be to make sure that medical supplies are availed to drive down the maternal mortality rate.

Government officials from the health ministry, their counterparts from higher education; local community leaders, the BIUST hierarchy, UN and UNFPA representatives, were among attendees to the launch, which was also held online to cater for officials who could be physically present due to pandemic reasons.

Based in Amsterdam, Avy develops fixed-wing drones for emergency medical deliveries, that combine the flexibility of autonomous flight features and the efficiency of an aeroplane.

Capable of carrying a payload of 2,2 kg, the drones can fly for more than 70 kilometres beyond the visual line of sight, and are becoming integral in these times of increasing demand for emergency healthcare where reducing the reaction time between notification and medical delivery is becoming important.

Avy say their goal is to ensure medical care in a changing world and to prove that drones can contribute to bringing care to the right place at the right time.


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