Ethiopian start-up joins the medical drone race

Meet Avion, an Ethiopian start-up on a mission to change the fortunes of medical delivery beyond just Ethiopia.

Founded by three friends who say they just started scribbling their ideas on pieces of paper before deciding to act on them, Avion’s locally manufactured drones have just been given the greenlight by the Ethiopia’s Ministries of Innovation and Technology; and that of Health, giving them licence to advance development and commence drone delivery services nationwide.

“At Avion, we design, build and operate hybrid, autonomous, vertical take-off and landing UAVs to transport vaccination and medicine weighing 5 kg from our nodes to destinations as far as 150 km radius,” the start-up says. “We design and set up distribution nodes with minimal infrastructure (small storage space for inventory, charging and fuel station, minor maintenance toolkit, flight monitoring computers, take-off and landing pad, order processing and order fulfilment area with cheap and easy to set up physical structure).”

Like many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia has rural communities that are difficult to access, due to poor road networks and other reasons; and Avion are hoping to bridge this gap by developing unmanned aerial vehicles that will traverse across these remote communities that were hitherto unreachable.

“More than 2.5 billion people (about 40 percent of the world’s population) live in rural and remote areas in developing countries where conventional mode of logistics and transportation is far from ideal,” the founders say. “Only a third of Africans live within two kilometres of a road that functions all year-round. Even in developed countries, disasters, such as earthquakes and fires, can render roads inaccessible.”

And the challenge for Avion UAV is to change that. Although they have to import some of the components they use, Avion UAV are only the second country to locally manufacture delivery drones in Africa, after AerialMetric of Madagascar.

They have entered the race for dominance in a medical drone field that is littered with talents like Zipline, Wingcopter, Swoop Aero, Avy and RigiTech.

The founders – Brook Ayalneh, Mohamed Ahmed, and Bitiya Samuel – are friends from high school who have for long been working on different start-up projects proposing solutions for several problems. Previously the team developed a health management system deployed at Black Lion hospital in Addis Ababa; a USSD based data collection system for the mega Green-Legacy campaign (a plan to plant 6million trees across Ethiopia and help combat climate change, launched by the president in March this year), among other projects.

Their current team at Avion UAV has grown to 24 employees.

Last year, the three friends saw their venture become the first Ethiopian and one of only three African companies to qualify for US-based start-up fund programme, Y-Combinator’s Winter 2020 batch. Based in Silicon Valley, California, Y-Combinator provides seed funds, consultation, and networking opportunities through a through-month long program that is run twice a year.

In exchange for all the material and consultative support, the venture capital company will claim about six percent equity from the companies in its programmes.

Avion received $120K in seed investment from Y-Combinator.

And the young founders are ecstatic about it. They said the seed funds have helped unlock doors to access foreign currency; a problem that left the project stranded in 2019. But the cash injection enabled them to take their project forward, starting with the launch of about 120 daily drone flights and 2,600 monthly flights involving 24 drones and six cities – Addis Ababa, Meqele, Hawasa, Jima, Dire Dewa, and Bahir Dar – acting as despatch hubs.

These flights would reach more than 2,000 health centres that previously had no access to medical supplies.

“Our dream is to make Addis Ababa a drone production hub,” the company said. “We also intend to expand into Africa and even beyond.”

We say, go for it!


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