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Solving a life-or-death problem with drones

Zipline has spent a decade working with governments in Africa to deliver blood products, vaccines, and life-saving medicines, using its own unmanned drones.

This story was published on our Quartz Africa Member Brief newsletter, A look at emerging industries and companies on the continent.
  • Jordan Weinstock
By Jordan Weinstock

Executive Assistant based in New York

Published

Before we dive in, a programming note: Your regularly scheduled Member Brief will be taking a holiday next Wednesday, but will be back on Wednesday August 17.

Hi Quartz Africa members!

One of the problems with delivering quality healthcare in many African communities is the poor state of critical infrastructure like roads.

During emergencies, reaching patients with life-saving supplies is so difficult that people often die from usually treatable diseases or injuries. Coupled with the shortage of healthcare facilities with robust storage systems, a government’s ability to manage supplies and coordinate distribution across locations is often limited. This is the case with essential medicines, vaccines, and equipment, but arguably most crucial when dealing with blood products.

Efficient blood delivery is a life-or-death problem, especially for women in sub-Saharan Africa, who suffer from the world’s highest maternal mortality rate. Most deaths are due to complications related to pregnancy or childbirth, particularly postpartum hemorrhage. But blood products are required in other time-sensitive medical procedures as well, such as treating major accidents and conducting surgeries. As such, companies that can provide logistics to circumvent transportation challenges have a huge market opportunity.

When it comes to fast transport, nothing beats an aerial vehicle. But where airplanes move humans and heavy cargo, unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, have emerged over the last decade as a flexible, safe, and reliable sweet spot for direct deliveries to doorsteps. Amazon, FedEx, UPS, and Walmart have all started experimenting with drone deliveries as part of a shift towards greater efficiency. In the matter of delivering medical products like blood, four startups are playing catch-up to an industry leader born in the US, raised in Rwanda, and zipping into new markets in Africa.


Cheat sheet

💡 The opportunity: Communities that live in places that are difficult to access by road, struggle to receive medical care when they need it. Drone deliveries can bridge this access gap, and also use digital technology to anticipate demand efficiently.

🤔 The challenge: Unmanned aerial vehicles are expensive to procure and require high levels of expertise for operations, especially when dealing with medical products that are sensitive to time, temperature, and other storage conditions. Also, national security considerations often make licensing for drone operations difficult to get.

🌍 The road map: Identify healthcare providers that need to improve distribution of medical products. Develop a system that centralizes these products in distribution centers, from where they can be quickly flown to medical facilities.

💰 The stakeholders: Government regulators who must approve licenses to operate drones, healthcare providers who hold medical products in stock but need efficient distribution, and the patients who eventually receive the necessary care.


By the digits

30%: The proportion of roads in Nigeria that are paved.

50%: The proportion of maternal deaths in sub-Saharan Africa caused by postpartum hemorrhage.

$185 billion: Expected revenue for the global healthcare logistics market by 2030.

5 million: Units of vaccines delivered by Zipline using its drones.


The case study

Name: Zipline

Founded: 2014

HQ: USA

Founders: Keller Rinaudo, Keenan Wyrobek, and Will Hetzler

Latest valuation: $2.75 billion (June 2021)

Zipline is not a health tech company, but a logistics company like FedEx. Zipline has spent a decade working with governments in Africa to deliver blood products, vaccines, and life-saving medicines, using its own unmanned drones.

Zipline, Drone-Delivery Company, Sends Medical Supplies To Rural Communities In Rwanda
Image copyright: Luke Dray / Stringer

Zipline has conducted 300,000 flights since the first one in Rwanda in 2016. Its work in Rwanda has been the blueprint for its operations in Ghana in 2019, and Nigeria this year. Its operations are straightforward: Zipline receives medical products from the government’s stock and stores them at a distribution center that doubles as an airfield from which drones take off and deliver products to hospitals. Zipline is contracted and paid by a federal or state government, but the company’s systems interact with personnel at hospitals, receiving requests from doctors at those hospitals via text message, WhatsApp, phone, or the web.

The not-so-simple part is that Zipline’s drones have to be carefully designed to deliver sensitive medical products, rather than books or groceries. And while the company’s value is in flying over rugged areas, the drones have to drop the packages where medical personnel can safely pick them up. The drones don’t land on the ground during deliveries; they suspend momentarily mid-air, drop the package, and return to the base from which they took off.

Zipline, Drone-Delivery Company, Sends Medical Supplies To Rural Communities In Rwanda
Image copyright: Luke Dray / Stringer

After delivering packages to more than 2,000 hospitals across Rwanda, Ghana, and the US, the company has unveiled technology that enables its drones to detect other aircraft in real time and prevent possible accidents. Zipline now boasts of its ability to operate in difficult conditions as its main selling point. “We are bringing instant logistics of essential medical products to [Nigeria], one of the most challenging states logistically,” Daniel Marfo, the company’s senior vice president for Africa, told Quartz.

Powered by nearly $500 million in funding, Zipline has the financial might to design and build its drones in-house. A large capital outlay, the need for government contracts, and the complexity of drone regulations may pose a high barrier for new entrants. But then again, Zipline has only scratched the surface of a problem that exists in 54 countries across the continent. Another innovator might just give them a run for their money.


In conversation with

Daniel Marfo is Zipline’s senior vice president for Africa. Quartz spoke with him before the company’s launch in Nigeria this year:

⚠️ Why does Zipline go into communities with difficult terrain?

Due to the incidence of banditry, to move just a few medical products from Kaduna city (in northwest Nigeria) to the west of Kaduna, they need a military convoy. I’ve been to health facilities in Kaduna that have been shut down because medical products do not get to them due to the danger in traveling certain roads. So for us, these kinds of places have the biggest need.

🤝 How dependent is Zipline on government health contracts?

Our primary customers in Rwanda and Ghana are the federal governments of each country, but they are not our only customers. Our system can be applied to other use cases. For instance, in Rwanda we transport cold chain artificial semen of farm animals to farmers in rural areas. Our work delivering medical products is the biggest and that creates the biggest impact, [but] it is not our only revenue model.


Similar deals we are 👀

LifeBank, the blood delivery startup in Nigeria, received a $250,000 grant in 2019 after winning the African Netpreneur Prize Initiative run by the Jack Ma Foundation. Founded in 2016, the company uses motorcycles to deliver blood and, more recently, oxygen products to hospitals just in time for use by patients.


More from Quartz Africa

🚁 Zipline needs Nigeria to support its drone delivery medical service

🇳🇬 Zipline is launching in Kaduna state

💰 The true cost of drone delivery medical services in Africa


🎵 This brief was produced while listening to Tarihindaby Cécile Kayirebwa (Rwanda)

Have a highly motivated rest of your week,

—Alexander Onukwue, West Africa correspondent


One 🩸 thing

In October 2016, Zipline started delivering blood products to 21 Rwandan hospitals on demand, reducing delivery time from four hours by road to within 20 minutes, using drones that travel up to 100 km per hour at a time.

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