The case for medical drones in Africa
Today our attention has been drawn to a report from Zimbabwe, in Southern Africa where NewZWire reports that the government has so far failed to scratch the surface of COVID-19 vaccine distributions, despite receiving 200,000 doses from China in February.
The plan was for the country to inoculate essential service workers first – those in health care, customs and immigration services – but it seems the plan is not going according to plan. To put it into context, Zimbabwe started administering the vaccinations on February 22 this year; but nearly a month later, a large consignment of those vaccines still sits unused in the country’s cold rooms, with only 36,359 people having injected their dose by March 14.
What is more, Zimbabwe is set to welcome about 800,000 more doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine in the coming days – 600,000 of those will be paid for, while the other 200,000 are coming in as a donation.
“A Zimbabwean chartered flight will bring back the second batch of China-donated COVID-19 vaccines as well as the first batch of procured Chinese vaccine,” China’s ambassador to Zimbabwe, Guo Shaochun, announced on Sunday.
Which means Zimbabwe will have in its possession nearly one million potential life savers in its kitty, with no immediate plan on how to distribute them in good time.
And that is before we say anything about the 984,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that are waiting to be shipped in – courtesy of the Gavi COVAX facility – once the country approves their effectiveness.
And we are sitting here thinking: would this not be the perfect time to point out that there is a means of convenient small autonomous air transport that is working wonders in Ghana and Rwanda right now, being heavily involved in the last mile delivery of COVID-19 vaccines to areas in these two countries that would otherwise be unreachable in good time?
As we write, Ghana has distributed more than 300,000 vaccine doses across the country, more than half of the 600,000 it received two weeks ago when it became the first African country to receive the COVAX facility vaccine. And drone technology has played a crucial part in this seemingly flawless distribution efficiency by the Ghanaian government.
Having first set foot in the country in 2018, American drone logistics company Zipline has since established four hubs from where their drones engage in last mile delivery of medical supplies to hospitals and clinics in Ghana. When the coronavirus vaccine arrived at the airport in Accra, it was just a matter of working with government and UPS delivery trucks to get the inoculations to regional cold rooms and Zipline distribution hubs – which were recently upgraded to accommodate a cold supply chain with coronavirus vaccines in mind – then let the drones do their magic.
The company has passed one million flight missions so far, and with the way they are growing, they will soon lose count of how many times they have delivered medical supplies at their bases all over the world.
And it is not even that we are advocating for countries like Zimbabwe to be on the phone with Zipline officials right now; they just happen to be the company with the most comprehensive medical drone logistics infrastructure that has proven its weight in gold in Africa. But so too has Swoop Aero in the DRC and Mozambique, and AerialMetric in Madagascar, which boasts of the added benefit of manufacturing its own drones.
In Malawi, Wingcopter has an effective medical drone delivery network, while Astral Aerial in Kenya are working with government to distribute the vaccines in the country.
Outside Africa, other drone delivery companies like Netherlands-based Avy are steadily making their mark; and it is for their growing influence that aviation authorities in Europe are researching on ways in which they can seamlessly and safely integrate drone technology in their skies.
Granted, Rwanda and Ghana are way ahead of the curve when it comes to adoption of drone technology in government circles (Zipline has been in Rwanda since 2016, and since the coronavirus vaccine were out, the company has helped distribute over 245,000 vaccines in the country); but we know that about 70 percent of the population in Zimbabwe is rural; and that is a statistic that does not look like changing in the near future.
With many of the country’s national roads in various state of rehabilitation, and the heavy rains having rendered far flung areas like Gokwe in the Midlands and Binga in Matebeleland North virtually inaccessible, it will be a real challenge transporting vaccine batches to clinics and hospitals in these areas so the health care workers who need them can benefit.
Moreover, the country recently announced that it would be re-opening schools this month, with no plans on when its teachers will be vaccinated so they feel safe in the workplace again.
These are the problems that medical drone technology is solving in many African countries right now, including the DRC, Mozambique and Malawi; which went a step further and gave land to UNICEF for the establishment of the first world class drone academy in Africa last year.
Last mile delivery in rural Africa is a challenge that seems to have been tailor-made for drone technology to tackle. The air space in these areas is not busy with other air transport, so it will only be the drones and birds to add colour colour the landscape. Maybe an occasional witch in a winnowing basket, but these usually take their flights in the dead of night.
Actually, the largely empty state of affairs in in the airspaces of Rwanda was one of the main reasons that lead Zipline to launch their pilot project in the country five years ago.
Since then, Rwanda has been nothing short of a good blue print for medical drone delivery in rural and other remote areas, which was why Ghana, and now Nigeria, picked it up and applied it in their own countries, with similar success. Of course, there are other latent benefits that come with a new industry like drone technology, not least of which is employment creation, but the first challenge is saving lives through timely delivery of vaccines and other medicines.
Maybe it is time Zimbabwe and other African countries took a serious look at drone technology as an important addition to their fleet of medical vehicles.