Why Africa is the best market for Drone Medical Deliveries?
Updated: Nov 30, 2019
Why are drone deliveries becoming ever more popular especially in medical industry and especially in emerging markets like Africa?
It is anticipated that only 1/3 of Africans live within 2 kilometers of an all-weather road. Making sure that the remaining 2/3 have access to roads will cost more than $50 billion USD and take several years, which is why Africa has been a pioneer in using drones as an alternative means of delivery vs building roads. Source.
The best example is the work that Zipline is doing. To date (27.11.2019), Zipline has delivered 24,184 blood deliveries throughout Rwanda and Ghana starting back in 2016. Source. A third of deliveries involved emergency deliveries, where time was critical and drone flights were the only feasible way of getting the blood to the patient. Source.
Drone deliveries can be effective however they are also bogged down by regulation. Regulators who give approval to drone operations typically require those operations to be in rural areas. For example, JD.COM, one of China’s largest ecommerce retailers said they had made more than 35 000 deliveries to remote Chinese villages with regulators only approving those specific routes. Source.
Each African countries also chooses to approach drone regulations differently. Some will issue approvals to operate drone deliveries throughout the entire countries like a blank sheet however highlighting non fly zones in urban areas. Others will want to approve each specific drone delivery route. There is also this desire for African nations to the look to western countries specifically the U.S Federation Aviation Authority to see how they are assessing drones regulations and mimic that approach. In addition, there is the International Civil Aviation Organisations (ICAO), a body that regulates air transport at the international level, which can come along at anytime and shut down an African country's air operations should they conclude there is a safety risk.
That being said, 14 countries (26%) of African countries now have drone regulations in place. Source. However, these regulations are often very restrictive and have exorbitant licensing fees, driving local startups and operators out of the market. If drone delivery technology is going to change Africa, innovate companies have to be able to enter businesses using technology and be able to operate with some sort of margin.
Malawai is one of those countries which have embraced drones and carefully thought of regulation. The Government of Malawi joined forces with UNICEF to open a humanitarian drone corridor in December 2016. The country created a 5,000 km2 area for drone testing. Source.
The predominant use case of drones in Africa currently centers around health care. According to the WHO, about 295,000 women died globally from mostly preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth in 2017, with roughly two-thirds of these deaths taking place in sub-Saharan Africa. Source. This was [in part] due to the fact that blood could not get to the patient fast enough, as traditional transport means take far too long due to poor road infrastructure and the distance that needed to be covered.
While road infrastructure can be poor, there is a positive in the number of mobile internet users in sub-Saharan Africa growing rapidly. According to GSMA, the mobile industry's trade body, smartphone connections in the region reached 302 million in 2018. GSMA expects this to rise to nearly 700 million by 2025. Mobile connection is an ordering means for medical supplies which can be put in at nearby drone ports resulting in dispatch in less than 10 mins. Source.
While the likes of Amazon, DHL and and UPS are gearing up to use drones to cut costs of delivering consumer goods, the question is whether this technology is better to put to use delivering life-saving medical supplies to-access places ranging from less developed countries to natural or humanitarian disaster zones.
Ultimately Africa remains the hot spot for drone deliveries for two main reasons:
Public Health Demand: The need for innovative medical delivery solutions to help circumvent poor infrastructure and enhance public health.
Regulation: Willingness for regulators to work with companies to ensure their technology meets aviation security standards.
So next time you're in Africa, be sure to look up and if you're lucky enough to see a drone, just know that's probably heading to a hospital near you saving someone's life.