Technology: After Rwanda, Zipline targets West Africa

Initiator of the use of drones to deliver medical supplies in remote areas, notably in Rwanda, the start-up Zipline is now eyeing West Africa to expand its African operations. This development confirms the relevance of its innovative solution. 

By Ange Iliza, in Kigali 

California-based start-up Zipline, a pioneer in the use of drones to deliver emergency medical supplies to remote areas, notably in Rwanda, is working to expand its african operations in Nigeria and Ghana. Founded in 2014, the company is arguably the world’s largest drone delivery service for medical supplies and has been operating in Rwanda since october 2016. Better yet, Zipline is the first endeavor in world history using unmanned aerial vehicle to deliver blood, a life-saving commodity as the most common cause of maternal death is bleeding Rwanda, like the rest of the African continent, has a high maternal mortality rate (248 deaths per 100,000 live births, according to World Bank data) due to post-partum hemorrhage. The system put in place by the drone company helps combat the difficulties in delivering blood.

More than 340 Rwandan health centers served from two distribution centers

Zipline  now reaches over 340 health facilities from its two distribution centers in Huye, south, and Kayonza, east, “covering the entire country,” says Diane Munezero Kayigi, Zipline’s country operations coordinator. More than 100 health centers are yet to be added to the list. The company has grown to make 226 flights in one day from one distribution. As of 2019, only 2,600 km out of 14,000 km of roads in Rwanda were paved. Due to the rugged topography of the “land of a Thousand hills”, some health centers had to wait for at least five hours to get some essential medical supplies due to poor transport and road infrastructure. As the drone company gets more access to more remote areas, the issue diminishes. 

In addition, since 2016, the company has expanded its product line beyond blood bags: Zipline can now deliver medicines and Covid-19 vaccines delivered to hospitals across Rwanda.  As for the drones deployed by the company, they are capable of flying 160-km round trips at up to 120 km/h.  “We have grown so much in terms of capacity, workforce, and skills. We are already serving more and more health facilities and we are aware that the issue of lacking access to essential medical supplies is not particular to Rwanda,” Ms. Munezero Kayigi explained. 

$250 million raised to fund expansion projects

In fact, the privilege of having medical supplies delivered by drones is no longer limited to Rwanda. Already operational in Ghana since April 2019, Zipline is looking to further expand its activities there and in Nigeria. The start-up, which has raised $250 million in new funding last June, will establish four more distribution centers in Ghana and two in Nigeria. Zipline targets Nigeria’s and Ghana’s remotest areas. It will partner with public health institutions to deliver its valuable medical products to the people. Zipline’s target is to make health services as accessible as possible regardless of geographical limitations. 

Zipline had already established four distribution centers in Ghana. Each receives health products from the country’s health ministry through medical stores designated for each region. The distribution centers are essentially centralized warehouses that operate round the clock and from which products are delivered to hospitals when they are needed.

Asked by ANA about the choice of these two countries, Munezero Kayigi explains that they were selected based on geographical size and transport infrastructure. As for the expansion plans, they are expected to be launched in 2022. The announced move into Nigeria could in particular be big for Zipline’s larger ambitions as a logistics company that can move from just delivering medical products from the government to health centers to one that delivers other types of packages to consumers. 

One thing is for sure, this expected new phase of development should only confirm the relevance of the innovative technology Zipline has deployed since its inception in humanitarian operations, as the company’s efforts have been recognized worldwide, including by the IMF. The blood inventory part of Zipline’s work in Africa has been collaborative, involving governments, pharmacies, and other firms that deal in medical products. 

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