Malawian drone start-up picks up e-mobility prize

A Malawian drone and robotics start-up has become one of the five inaugural winners of the E-Mobility Innovation Call award, after shrugging off competition from over 100 other hopefuls from nineteen African countries to land the €50,000 prize.

Blantyre-based MicroMek – which develops low-cost drones for the delivery of medical supplies to rural Malawi – got just recognition for their sterling innovation from a competition launched just in March this year by the Siemens Stiftung, a foundation set up in 2008 by German electrical engineering company Siemens.

With the E-Mobility Innovation Call, an award for African enterprises that have proven their innovativeness in e-mobility solutions and sustainable business models, the Siemens Stiftung seeks to promote sustainable social development, which is crucially dependent on access to basic services, high-quality education and an understanding of culture.

The foundation has the support of organisations such as the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (German Corporation for International Cooperation, GIZ), the Shell Foundation, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), P4G – Partnering for Green Growth and Global Goals 2030 as well as local, regional, and national authorities in Kenya, Ghana, and Uganda.

In winning the inaugural challenge, MicroMek was among five other recipients of the accompanying prize money, which Siemens say ranges from €10,000 to €50,000.

“We are proud to be the winner of the Siemens Stiftung’s E-Mobility – Made in Africa 4 Africa,” MicroMek said on Tuesday. “Using our locally manufactured low-cost, drones, we envision a future where women and children have quick access to medicines and diagnostics regardless of their geographic location.”

Founded by Dumisani Kaliati in 2015, MicroMek developed the EcoSoar, a drone made of 3D-printed parts from local recycled materials, just two years later. The fixed wing unmanned bird is used to transport essential medicines for women and children in rural and hard-to-reach areas in Malawi.

According to UNICEF representative Mahimbo Mdoe, in 2014, nearly 40,000 children in the Malawi were born to HIV positive mothers. A quarter of that number were dying as a result of HIV-related complications each year.

“Quality care of these children depends on early diagnosis, which requires taking dried blood samples from the health centre to the central laboratory for testing,” Mdoe said in 2016. “We hope that UAVs can be part of the solution to reduce transportation time and ensure that children who need it, start their treatment early.”

At the time, Kaliati was wrapping up his studies towards an Information technology degree at the Malawi University Science and Technology, and the following year, with the help of professors from Virginia Tech University who were in Malawi to conduct workshops on drone and robotics technology, Kaliati was part of the group that designed the EcoSoar.

“Novel, built on low-cost technology suitable for fabrication, operation and maintenance entirely within Malawi,” MicorMek say of their autonomous vehicle. “It will overcome any mountains, poor and flooded road networks and bad terrain which currently stand as major barriers to timely delivery and access to healthcare products in remote areas of Malawi, as well as being used for Environmental sensing.”

The drone came to life on November 9, 2017, when it made its first ever flight at the new drone corridor in Kisungu, going on to fly for nineteen kilometres, which was a record for a drone flight in Malawi at the time.

The EcoSoar also went on to make history by being the first unmanned aerial vehicle to deliver a medical package to a local health centre.

The EcoSoar was the centre of attention at its birth in 2017

Of course, that period was just before Wingcopter made a landing in the country and – working with UNICEF, the Malawi government and Virginia Tech University – started turning the drone technology space on its head through regular aerial medical deliveries, and the establishment of the Africa Drone and Data Academy, the first ever drone and robotics technology institution on the continent.

Says MicroMek; “By working hand in hand with the Virginia Tech University Unmanned Systems Lab, we developed the low-cost UAV to explore the unmanned delivery of medicine.

“The drone will also provide a sterile transportation chain from clinic to laboratory, reduce time for delivery of diagnostics, vaccines and medicines; provide a lower cost delivery option and improve delivery reliability for hospitals and relief organisations looking to tackle healthcare challenges affecting children in the remote areas of Malawi.

“Also made for environmental monitoring, the EcoSoar will allow for on-demand assessment of flooded regions, assessment of agricultural areas and hydrogeological mapping. Urban mapping will also be done to assess populations, an exercise that is useful for planning health facility locations and disaster response.”

This is not the first time MicroMek has picked up gongs for innovation, having been named as one of the ten winners of the African Drone Business Challenge at the Africa Drone Forum held in Rwanda in February last year, and reaching the top three in the Total-sponsored Malawi Starterupper of the Year in 2019.

For their latest milestone, the start-up was joined by other winners which comprised:

  • BEAM Sarl (Burkina Faso): A mobile solar-powered platform that facilitates agricultural work such as plowing, pumping, or carrying loads for people in rural communities, which helps increase crop yield and income.
  • Solar Taxi Ltd. (Ghana): Electric-powered small vehicles (from electric motorcycles to mini-cars) for courier and cab services. The batteries needed are produced locally, and Solar Taxi is actively researching reuse and sustainable recycling. The start-up’s engineering team is made up of women.
  • Greenfoot Africa Ltd. (Tanzania): A marketplace app for perishable food – a solution that enables local traders to deliver their goods directly to customers using e-motorcycles that are efficient and cost-effective.
  • ThinkBikes Ltd. (Nigeria): Locally produced and innovative electric bicycles, including a rental system for school institutions and universities that introduces the topic of electric mobility to a younger generation.

The winners will channel their respective windfalls toward product development, expanding services, and establishing a greater market presence.

“The large number and scope of the applications submitted show the huge social and economic potential of innovative technical solutions related to electric mobility,” said Rolf Huber, Managing Director of Siemens Stiftung and initiator of the electric mobility program. “We are convinced that local approaches create better access to basic services while creating permanent jobs – especially in rural areas,”

Marah Köberle, who is charge of electric mobility at Siemens Stiftung, also congratulated the winners.

“We support the growth of social enterprises and are committed to closing financing gaps in the electric mobility sector in the process,” Koberle said. “Access to financing is an issue for all social enterprises, but in Africa it is often even more difficult. I’m excited to welcome the start-ups to our e-mobility network.”

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