Rwanda: When Drones Deliver Blood

Somewhere in a rural community in Rwanda, a health worker has her hands full. She has seen different types of mutilations and haemorrhages but this, this was on a different level.

The woman laying on the gurney she is slowly jogging beside was losing a lot of blood with each passing minute. "Don't worry, we will take care of you. Everything will be fine," she says in her now-shaky voice, in an attempt to assure the pale woman.

The woman stares back through blank eyes, unable to appreciate the health worker's assurance as several thousand pounds of pain course through her body. The gurney stops just as they get into the room. "GET THE DIFRIBULATOR!" the health worker screams. The woman is going into shock.

"WHERE THE HELL IS THE BLOOD?" the health worker thinks in her head. She leaves the gurney. loosening her grip one finger at a time, fear etched all over face as she walks back, slowly. Her colleagues are running around the dimly-lit operating room with futile purpose, trying to save the woman violently shaking in front of them.

The health worker knows this woman will not make it if she does not get blood very soon. She already put in the request several hours ago but the blood was yet to arrive. "Please, Lord...," she whispers, as the woman on the gurney goes into another convulsive fit.

Two minutes later, the woman on the gurney is still and a heavy silence blankets the room. The health worker is standing flat against the wall, her heart racing faster than her thoughts. The woman is dead and she didn't have to be.

The health worker slowly makes her way out of the room, willing her numb legs to take her to the infantry where the dead woman's newborn baby slept peacefully, unaware of the tragedy that just happened.

"At least you're okay," the health worker says softly as she runs her index finger across the baby's soft pink cheek. A few teardrops make their way down her face.


Postpartum haemorrhaging is the primary cause of death for new mothers in Rwanda and this is because clinics do not have the resources to keep blood products, which require reliable storage facilities at specific temperatures. Throw in Rwanda's long rainy season and delivery on land isn't always the first option.

Enter the Rwandan government (who is paying for everything), an American drone company called Zipline, the globally known delivery giant UPS, and Gavi, a vaccine fund backed by Bill Gates.

A Zipline drone in Rwanda. PhotoCredit: Recode

All of these entities have come together to a deal that will see 21 clinics in the western part of Rwanda get a supply line to blood and plasma on demand.

UPS will ship Zipline's drones to Rwanda (and donate a handsome $1.1 million to the cause via its charity arm, the UPS Foundation), Zipline will fly those drones from designated points and drop-off the blood and plasma in the clinic's receiving area then touch ground at the take-off center in the central Muhanga region of the country.


It's been six months since the health worker watched that woman die. Quite a few more have passed and she has begun to grow numb to it. She doesn't like that. She doesn't want to grow numb to death. That's why she's undecided on the drone delivery project the government says it wants to set up. She knows what the people in those communities have to gain from the project. But they aren't new to bottomless promises, and neither is she. "I'll have to wait and see," she thinks.


At first, it looks like someone hurled a tiny piece of rock from a great distance and the object is taking forever to get to you. Then comes the loud, wheezing sound of the drone's propellers pushing it to go further. *PYOOOF* A red package pops off from behind the drone and floats down to the clinic's receiving area, suspended from a disposable parachute. Somebody goes to pick it up; checks the contents of the box and frantically throws a thumbs up sign. The health worker lady smiles.

Blood boxes delivered to clinics in rural Rwanda via Zipline drones. PhotoCredit: Recode

They sent an SMS request for that package about 25 minutes ago. The health worker heaved a sigh that stood as a testament to new found hope and desire. More people could be saved. Surely, people everywhere would like to take advantage of this technology. "Nigeria bans drones lacking $4000 permit." That headline still stung. "But it is happening here," she mutters. "This is the first place in the entire world something like this happening."

The world doesn't know Africa as an innovative entity. Our cultures and ingenuity are often belittled - unless they fit a 'certain' standard. But Africa never stays down. Africa will always hold its own and what is happening in Rwanda, and ultimately, Africa's technology space is something that should be replicated across Africa and celebrated just as much.


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