By Cheruto Valentine

Delivering medical supplies to rural areas in African countries has been a major challenge due to the state of road networks. Many of these roads, which are either underdeveloped or poorly maintained, connect small towns to major cities where medical supplies are found. Due to these circumstances, new technology is being used to reach more people.

A drone delivery service is being used in Ghana and Rwanda to bridge the divide between medical supplies and poor infrastructure. Zipline, an American medical product delivery company, is working with the health ministries from the two countries to deliver medical products to hard-to-reach communities in a timely manner.

In Rwanda, the Zipline drones are used to deliver blood from their base in Muhanga to 12 regional hospitals. The drone technology was launched in the country in October 2016. In January this year, a second base was opened in Kayonza and serves 5 regional hospitals.

“Every second you gain in saving a life is critical,” said Dr. Diane Gashumba, Rwandan Minister of Health. “When we saw that Zipline was a solution, we didn’t hesitate.”

Since its inception, it has cut blood delivery time down from four hours to just 15 minutes in some cases. This has contributed to a drop in child mortality and maternal mortality in the country. According to the World Health Organization, severe bleeding during delivery or after childbirth is the most common cause of maternal mortality and contributes to around 34 per cent of maternal deaths in Africa.

This, coupled with, Rwanda’s implementation of a Quality Management System (QMS) has led to the country earning the top-most Step 3 accreditation from Africa Society for Blood Transfusion.

In April 2019, Zipline opened their first distribution center in Omenako, Ghana. It was officially launched by Ghana’s vice president, Mahamudu Bawumia. This centre is the first of four centers that Zipline hopes to complete by the end of 2019. The drones will be able to travel to 500 health facilities within an 80-kilometer-range from the Omenako center which is stocked with emergency medicines, vaccines, blood and blood products.

It is hoped that the delivery program will reduce the incidence of wastage of medical products. This wastage is usually a result of overstocking at hospitals. If hospitals can store less blood, there will be less waste as blood spoils quickly.

Zipline hopes to open more distribution centres in other African countries. However, this may prove to be a challenge due to the regulations concerning Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in different African countries. Currently, less than 15 African countries have regulations in place concerning the use of drones, whether commercially or personally. Even among these countries, the regulations for most of them are still ambiguous.

According to africandrone.org/, South Africa is the most mature drone market in Africa. Other countries with drone regulations include Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria and Tanzania.

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