A year later, Rwanda looks to expand delivery of medical supplies by drones

It was around noon on a rainy Friday two weeks ago in Ruhango District’s Kinazi area when Joseph Ndagijimana, an employee in charge of customer success at Zipline’s Rwanda office in Muhanga, announced that we could rush into his company car and go to Nyanza Hospital.
A Zipline employee at its distribution centre in Muhanga tests a drone carrying blood before launching it in the sky. / Eugene Kwibuka
A Zipline employee at its distribution centre in Muhanga tests a drone carrying blood before launching it in the sky. / Eugene Kwibuka

It was around noon on a rainy Friday two weeks ago in Ruhango District’s Kinazi area when Joseph Ndagijimana, an employee in charge of customer success at Zipline’s Rwanda office in Muhanga, announced that we could rush into his company car and go to Nyanza Hospital.

Zipline is a US-based robotics company that introduced drone technology to deliver blood to Rwandan hospitals.

That was after about four hours of waiting at Ruhango District Hospital in Kinazi where we had gone so I can witness a drone delivering a blood package to a hospital for the first time.

I waited for the hospital to get an emergency case and order for blood to be flown there but this meant long hours of waiting for me.

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Then, Ndagijimana screamed after reading a WhatsApp message that notified him that Nyanza Hospital had just made two orders on emergency and that we have to rush there if I was to be sure of witnessing a blood delivery by drone that day.

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We naturally jumped into the car and rushed to Nyanza, leaving Ruhango District Hospital behind as my luck turned out to be in Nyanza.

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A Zipline employee at the distribution centre in Muhanga takes an order of blood on phone. / Eugene Kwibuka

Within the next forty minutes that followed, I was in Nyanza witnessing the delivery of the second order of the blood since I had missed the first order that had arrived at the hospital ahead of us.

Like a lightning, the buzzing drone dropped the package from the sky and a nurse rushed to pick it from the hospital lawn where the device was programmed to drop the blood as it continued its flight back to Muhanga Distribution Centre.

Here in Nyanza, nurses are now used to the fact that they can collect blood packages dropped by drones from the sky and go ahead to transfuse their patients who often need it on emergency.

That expectation could soon spread to nurses and doctors in other parts of the country as Rwanda now looks to deploy Zipline services across the country.

After a year of operation in the country’s Southern and Western provinces, the use of drones to supply blood and other medical supplies will be expanded to the Eastern Province early next year, officials at Zipline Inc and the Government of Rwanda have revealed.

With the supplier of the service, Zipline Inc, having made about 2000 deliveries of blood units in total at twelve hospitals in the two provinces where it operates since October last year, the company now wants to open a distribution centre in Eastern Province to serve the area as well as Northern Province.

Dhruv Boddupalli, the Director of National Implementations at Zipline International Inc, told The New Times last week that the new distribution centre will be opened in the first quarter of next year even if the timeline for opening the centre is not yet definite.

“We are working closely with the Government of Rwanda to determine the timeline but our hope is that it will be in the first quarter of next year,” he said on opening a second distribution centre.

The company’s first distribution centre is based in Muhanga, Southern Province, and serves twelve health facilities in Southern and Western provinces with a target to serve at least 21 health facilities in the region before the end of the year.

The centre in Muhanga is currently a busy place as works to expand it are in progress in line with efforts to have it operate to capacity and serve the remaining health facilities in its area of coverage.

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A medical worker at Nyanza hospital collects blood supplies after they were delivered by a drone. / Eugene Kwibuka

The service to deliver medical supplies by drones has so far been lauded by health workers in the area where it is available, with medical doctors at twelve served health facilities describing it as cost-effective and faster if compared to previous means of carrying blood by vehicles over long distances.

The twelve served health facilities include Ruli (Gakenke District), Muhororo (Ruhango District), Kabgayi (Muhanga District), Nyanza (Nyanza District), Gitwe (Ruhango District), Kirinda (Karongi District), Gikonko (Gisagara District), Gakoma (Gisagara District) Kabaya (Nyabihu District), Shyira (Nyabihu District), Ruhango (Ruhango District), and Kaduha (Nyamagabe District).

Claudien Niyigirimbabazi, a medical officer at Muhororo hospital in Ngororero District, said that the service has helped save lives of many patients who would be at risk of dying in case of delayed delivery of blood, especially for mothers giving birth.

“A mother in labour (and needs transfussion) was at risk of dying because it would take long to get blood for her. With the Zipline drone service in place, such cases are rare today,” he said.

It takes about five hours to drive to Kigali to collect blood and go back to the hospital, which the doctor says is not fast enough to save patients who need it within minutes, hence the drone service proves effective as it uses about ten minutes to deliver the blood.

“It plays a big role in helping patients who urgently need blood. Before the Zipline system came we would have to go to the blood bank in Kigali and it would take long and remained expensive because we had to deploy a nurse and a driver on the way. It wasn’t cost-effective,” Niyigirimbabazi said.

Zipline, which is an automated logistics company, based in California, partnered with the Government of Rwanda to deliver blood and other medical supplies in the country, an initiative that is the first of its kind in the world where drones have historically been used to deliver lethal bombs.

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A nurse at Nyanza hospital smiles after collecting a blood supply delivered by Zipline. / Eugene Kwibuka

Boddupalli said that by accepting to use Zipline services, the government has essentially placed its citizens within 45 minutes of essential medical supplies.

“It’s a bold vision and no any other country in the world is doing this,” he said of Rwanda’s use of drones to deliver medical supplies.

So far, the zips, as the drones in Rwanda are called by Zipline’s technicians, have been delivering blood only but now Rwandan officials and the company’s managers are looking at what other medical supplies can be delivered.

Dr Jean Baptiste Mazarati, head of biomedical services at the Rwanda Biomedical Centre, which is attached to the Ministry of Health, said that the process to expand Zipline services across the country will also be accompanied by diversification in terms of medical supplies that can be delivered by the drones.

“We know that this service is having a positive impact on the lives of Rwandans, we know it is cost-effective, and we want it to be expanded,” Mazarati said in an interview yesterday.

He said that while it would be unfair to tag any prices on the lives of Rwandans, the drones’ service has proved less expensive when it comes to blood distribution.

Apart from being smart and fast, the official said, the drones’ service has helped cut the rate of blood wastes at health facilities where it is available because they now don’t have to stock up on blood that normally ends up expiring because they can now call Zipline and order any time.

While processing blood costs money, about Rwf75000 for every blood unit according to Mazarati’s estimates, 6 per cent of all the country’s blood collections were lost every year as it would expire at health facilities that would overstock it to avoid the difficulties of accessing it while needed.

Now the government figured out it will save both lives and money by using drones because, according to Mazarati, it pays Rwf $20 (about Rwf 17,000) for every blood unit delivered by Zipline to a health facility.

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A medical worker at Nyanza hospital collects a blood supply delivered by Zipline. / Eugene Kwibuka

Boddupalli said the economic benefits of using drones to deliver medical supplies are enormous because their initial calculations on the project proved inaccurate as they had underestimated the struggles that health facilities’ managers go through to bring needed blood supplies to their hospitals.

He said that apart from saving lives and reducing blood wastes in the blood supply system at health facilities, Zipline has helped boost the morale of doctors who now know that they can do everything in their abilities to save their patients’ lives as they don’t have to worry about blood supply.

Of the 2000 blood deliveries to health facilities that the company has successfully made so far since it started operations last October, 500 orders were made on an emergency basis.

“I would say that each one of the 500 emergency deliveries is a potential life (saved),” Boddupalli said.

Mazarati said that the government expects Zipline to cover the entire territory of Rwanda where about 44 public health facilities qualify to carry out blood transfusion and that it’s up to the company to determine the speed at which it can do it.

Meanwhile, Rwanda’s model to deliver medical supplies using drones has inspired other governments in the region, with Tanzania announcing two months ago that it will launch the world’s largest drone delivery service to provide emergency on-demand access to medicines.

Zipline announced on its website that beginning in the first quarter of 2018, the Tanzanian government will begin using drones to make up to 2,000 life-saving deliveries per day to over one thousand health facilities, serving 10 million people across the country.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw