Turning the wheels of innovation; the VillageReach way

The VillageReach president, Emily Bancroft is right – it might be sound like a tired cliché, but necessity really is the mother of all invention.

Ms Bancroft feels it is when times are desperate that humanity is usually at its most creative. Think of Hungarian Doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis discovering the magical healing powers of washing hands to prevent diseases; or the doctors and researchers who discovered that exposing humans to a little of some disease outbreaks like polio and small pox would make them immune to infections.

Or the Ford guy who invented the car, so humanity could use the horse for more fitting purposes – like polo and racing and equestrianism at the Olympics.

Bancroft was proved right last year when the COVID-19 pandemic started spreading across the world, and her non-profit, whose raison d’etre is to bring health care access to underserved communities in about 14 countries in Africa – suddenly found itself grounded by national lockdowns like everybody else, with no immediate means to reach the 46million people who had come to rely on the organisation for healthcare needs like medical supplies and vaccine deliveries.

“In a pandemic, innovation is not an option,” Bancroft declared. “It is a requirement.

“At VillageReach, innovation has long been a core value. We believe creativity and fearless exploration are essential to developing sustainable solutions that improve the availability of health services and foster lasting change for communities everywhere.

“We also know that in times of crisis, innovation can take many forms — from new ideas and new ways of working, to new uses for existing tools. Over the past eighteen months VillageReach has supported governments across the countries we work in, relying on our spirit of innovation to both respond to COVID-19 now and strengthen health systems for the future.”

With the pandemic obviously turning the world upside down, a vacuum for new kinds of medical supplies was created – personal protective equipment – which low-income countries had little hope of securing because of their financial standing. VillageReach bridged this gap by joining other organisations in creating the COVID-19 Action Fund for Africa, which raised millions of dollars to procure and supply PPE for 24 countries in Africa.

With the supply side sorted, the next question was how they were going to get these much-needed implements to the community health workers who needed to use them in the remote areas where they were located.

The organisation used some tried and tested logistics means to ensure that supplies reached their destination in time – and they also turned to left field options.

Drone technology was one.

Emily Bancroft

“One exciting innovation starting to take flight is the Drones for Health program, which operates a fleet of drones in southern Malawi (among other countries across sub-Saharan Africa),” Bancroft says. “From the onset of the pandemic, the already existing drone network (VIllageReach started testing drone technology in Mozambique in 2015) was leveraged to transport COVID-19 samples and accelerate the diagnostics.

“Today, the drones are delivering COVID-19 vaccines to 25 hard-to-reach health centres in two districts that are at risk of being completely cut off by floods. Between May and July of this year, some 1,800 doses were delivered to a population that has been disproportionately impacted by the uneven and inequitable global vaccine rollout. As the COVID-19 vaccine delivery campaigns continue in Malawi, planning is underway to reach an additional 20 districts with 105 health facilities using drones, ensuring we are getting more shots to the people who need them.”

Besides Malawi and Mozambique, VillageReach has medical drone logistics operations going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which the Congolese government has been so impressed by that they will be expanding the project from just the Equateur Region in the North West to two more provinces — Kinshasa and Kongo Central – next year.

Looking at the evidence at what the drone technology provided by VillageReach drone partner, Australian medical drone logistics company Swoop Aero, has done in Equateur, it would be easy to see why the health ministry wants the project expanded. Since December last year when the Drones for Health pilot was launched, the network has served 29 health facilities, with more than 1,000 flights completed, over 50,000 vaccine doses, lab samples, medical reports, PPE, and essential medicines transported.

Expanding the project will cater for an additional 75 hard-to-reach health facilities across Kinshasa and Kongo Central Provinces, increase access to immunisation and other health products; and improve the laboratory sample transportation systems through routine drone deliveries.

The organisation has also called for drone partners work with on a proposed project in the Central African Republic.

Necessity. Innovation. They work just like hand and glove.

“As we focus now on ensuring the equitable global rollout of lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines, innovation will again be needed. It’s not enough to get vaccines to countries — we must urgently find creative solutions to deliver them to everyone at risk. There is a critical need for greater investment in the delivery systems and health workforces that will conceive of and implement these solutions, to address today’s crisis and prepare for tomorrow’s.

“As the world faces its biggest battle yet, we’re standing at the frontline. And our fearless exploration will continue long after the pandemic ends.”

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