Medical drone deliveries for Benin

A medical delivery drone has flown for the first in time in Benin.

It’s a DJI Matrice 300.

With amazed stakeholders watching from the ground, the M300 took the first baby steps on the thousand miles journey that will see Benin investing in medical drone deliveries, especially in its rural communities.

Exactly as their counterparts in Botswana did a few weeks ago, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Benin have launched a drone delivery project to curb maternal mortality in the country. Apparently, the world body has managed to galvanise a partnership between itself, the government of Benin, drone services start-up Global Partners, Seme City (a smart city launched by the government in 2016 to become the hub of innovation in the country), Japanese pharmaceutical company Takeda, among others.

“To facilitate the delivery of essential and emergency products up to the last mile, the Government of Benin, Seme City, several actors in the country’s health system and UNFPA Benin yesterday officially launched the prototype for the use of drones in support of the supply chain,” said the organisation.

Benin’s maternal mortality rate has been slowly declining from a high of 432 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2013 to 397.00 in 2017. It may not be as high as the maternal mortality ratios of South Sudan, Chad and Sierra Leone that top the world charts with well over a thousand women dying per 100,000, due to pregnancy related complications.

The situation prompted the UNFPA and Takeda to step in last year and help with drug supplies to Benin, Guinea and Togo so they could improve maternal health situations in their respective countries.

“As COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly around the world, the impact on acute care services such as maternal and new-born care in countries with less developed health systems are likely to be substantial,” Takeda said at the time. “Lack of access to personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline health workers, as well as a shortage of essential medical supplies for maternal and new-born health, makes these countries particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 crisis, with potentially dire consequences for women and new-borns.

“This partnership will support the continuous delivery of life-saving maternal and new-born health services to at least 350,000 women and new-borns, including 12,700 women facing life threatening complications.”

Local drone services start-up, Global Partners joined the project as the drone technology partner, and in an apparent show that no drone is the wrong drone for a project, they used a DJI Matrice 300 for the demonstration event at the launch. It seems the powerful drone – whose primary applications lie in search and rescue, survey and mapping, inspections and other industrial uses, which are certainly not at all related to medical delivery – was saddled with two medicine boxes on its landing gear, and set on its way for the first medical delivery flight in Benin.

“At Global Partners, it is not about how large the resources are but how well the tools get the job done,” the start-up said. “We are proud to develop the first UAV in public health program in Benin in collaboration with UNFPA Benin and Seme City. Development is also local competencies addressing local needs.”

“In collaboration with UNFPA, Global Partners started the design of the drone for the medical supply delivery program in 2020. In addition to making medical supply available in remote areas on time, the project was also designed to facilitate rapid transportation of biomedical samples for laboratory testing especially in the context of COVID-19. The Team recognised that it was essential that local communities fully participate in designing the project.

“Consultations with health workers and a diverse group of local community leaders helped identify the needs of more than 30 health centres in the country. For each health centre the specificities of the products were identified, the frequency of their needs, the actual supply chain, the challenges with the supply chain, etc. In addition to those elements, the participants were also involved in developing the drone program: flight paths, payload, distance, were among the issues addressed.

The M300 will have to do for now…

“Essential to any drone program, the team of Global Partners also conducted a thorough analysis of the impact of factors such as the weather, geography, regulations, and many other factors on the drone program. At the end of this initial phase, all the stakeholders had the information needed to decide on the most important use case scenarios. With the limited resources available, the team launched the first test in early January, which culminated in a fully functional program that was launched in the presence of officials from the Benin Government on Thursday, May 20, 2021.

“As part of the program, Global Partners also trained youth in Benin coming from the regions where the remote rural health centres are located. The young people will play an essential role in the drone program. They will be the ones who will continue the delivery of the medical supplies. Global Partners in collaboration with UNFPA is ensuring that young people play an essential role in this program in their communities, become certified drone pilots in their regions, and make a living from their work.”

Of course, going ahead, delivery drone specially made for the purpose will need to be deployed, as there are medical supplies like blood and vaccines that require special care; and the start-up did reveal that it was in the process of producing a locally made drone fit for medical deliveries.

But as a proof of concept, Global Partners and their unconventional use of the M300 have shown that drone technology can indeed be a good response to some of the healthcare supply chain challenges in the country.

The launch on Thursday was a result of months of planning, between the government and its stakeholders, which started with identifying the neediest health centres, carrying out feasibility studies on whether deliveries would be possible, conducting initial test flights; and training young Beninese who will be working on the drone logistics.

The overall goal of the project is to integrate last mile drone delivery on a national scale.

“This was a key milestone in the collective journey for bold solutions to make sure that no mother dies while giving life because of the lack of critical health products in hard-to-reach areas of Benin,” said Barbara Laurenceau, a UNFPA Benin representative in Benin. “Thank you to Takeda for making this possible.”

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