INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana — Rwanda is a small, landlocked country located in the Great Rift Valley of central Africa. It has a population of about 13 million. It is home to two main ethnic groups: the pastoral Hutu and the agricultural Tutsi tribes. In 1990, tensions rose between these two groups and culminated in civil war, resulting in the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. Since the 800,000 person massacre and displacement of primarily Tutsi civilians by Hutu extremists, the country has been in a state of repair and has made great strides in many areas of development, including its health sector. Specifically, the development of drone technology in Rwanda has been a significant factor in the improvement of its health care system.
The Need For Innovation
While Rwanda has made great improvements over the last two decades, its health care system still faces many challenges. Infrastructure is still very poor in many areas of the country, making it incredibly difficult to deliver medical resources to the rural community, which makes up 82.69% of Rwanda’s population.
Out of the country’s 14,000 km of roads, paved roads account for only 2,600 km. During the rainy season, many of these roads become completely impassable.
As a result of Rwanda’s poor infrastructure, the country suffers from very high rates of preventable deaths. Maternal mortality is a huge problem worldwide, with approximately 100,000 women dying each year as a result of severe bleeding after childbirth. The majority of these deaths could have been preventable if the necessary blood supply had been available at the time.
Rwanda’s maternal mortality rate has improved since the civil war. However, as of 2018, it was “still 20 times worse than the United States,” as Time reported. Other preventable deaths due to a lack of timely blood supply in Rwanda include everything from malaria to car crashes and snake bites. Rather than waiting years for infrastructure to improve, the government employed drone technology in Rwanda to prevent these unnecessary deaths.
Zipline: A US Start-Up
In 2014, a small San Francisco-based company called Zipline joined forces with the Rwandan government to utilize drones for a more efficient way to deliver blood for medical purposes. This innovative technology in Rwanda has been revolutionary, with a single drone being able to transport bags of blood in as little as 15 minutes when transport previously took 3 hours or more.
The drones have a built-in GPS system and can fly even in extreme weather conditions, which are common in equatorial Rwanda. When the drone reaches its destination, it simply drops the supplies by parachutes. This means that clinics in need of blood require no infrastructure in order to register as clients of the Zipline distribution center.
Since its establishment, Zipline’s drone technology has flown more than 17 million miles, made more than 237,000 commercial deliveries and serviced 25 million customers. In early 2020, “Zipline was delivering 75% of Rwanda’s blood supply outside of the capital,” according to Reach Alliance.
Rwanda had already made great progress in combating postpartum deaths. It decreased its maternal mortality rate from “1,160 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2000 to 260 in 2016,” as Reach Alliance reported. However, Zipline has a commitment to further minimizing these preventable deaths both in Rwanda and around the world.
Zipline and COVID-19
Zipline’s drone technology in Rwanda expanded to Ghana in April 2019 and has recently undergone utilization in the distribution of vaccines for the coronavirus. In November 2021, Zipline became the first company to successfully complete “the first long-range drone delivery of both authorized mRNA COVID-19 vaccines.” So far, more than 220,000 deliveries have been distributed through Zipline’s drones. The company hopes to deliver even more COVID-19 supplies to low and middle-income countries.
Zipline’s innovative drone technology in Rwanda has proved to be revolutionary for the country’s health care system. Not only has the company expedited blood delivery to prevent postpartum deaths, but it is now becoming a critical tool in the global fight against COVID-19 and it all began in the small African country of Rwanda.
– Hannah Gage