By Francis Annagu
In addressing logistics issues and improving overall delivery times for medical supplies to health facilities in rural areas—the Kaduna State Government, in February 2021, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with a US-based medical product delivery company, Zipline.
To target 54.2 percent of the state’s residents living in rural communities, Zipline was set up to “operate three distribution centres across the state, covering an area of 46, 000 square kilometres and delivering to approximately 500 health facilities, serving millions of people.”
The commissioner for Health in Kaduna, Dr Amina Mohammed Baloni said “Access to health services and maternal, infant and child health, which are directly dependent on the constant availability of health commodities at service delivery point, will be improved.”
Mrs. Rukaya Abdullahi, a nurse and medical assistant at the primary health center in Pambegua, said that when the health center requests drugs and vaccines, they are delivered in a short period, contrary to the long delays experienced when such requests were submitted to the Kaduna State Health Supplies Management Agency before the arrival of Zipline.
Watch how Zipline operates in Kaduna State
The mandate in Kaduna
Malam Nasir El-Rufai, Governor of Kaduna State, said the agreement with Zipline builds on state investments in primary health care and transforming the health supply chain beginning in 2015. Zipline’s services have boosted the on-demand delivery of drugs, blood products, and vaccines in areas of the State that are difficult to access. Zipline’s unique approach is building distribution hubs across the State and using drones to deliver emergency medical supplies.
How Zipline drone deliveries work
Zipline receives medical supplies from the Kaduna State Health Supplies Management Agency at their warehouse for proper inspection, scanned and labeled with an identification name and expiry date. Then drugs and vaccines are put aside—waiting for orders that come through a call centre that handles all requests from health care facilities. Orders are packed in a package box with a parachute to safely land at the destination. Next, the ID is scanned by flight operators to determine the location of the medication or vaccine for delivery. The parcel is loaded onto the AI drone while the operator is getting ready for the flight. The drones can fly to their destination with no control because it is connected to a GPS and communicates with all the drones in operational flight. The drones have four components: battery, nose cone, wing, and body; all components are required to propel the drone—maintain balance in air, data, and connectivity interaction.
“Since Zipline started operations on August 18, 2022, we have been able to make more than 18,000 deliveries to date, primarily in the northern part of Kaduna State. We deliver vital medicines and vaccines to most hard-to-reach health centres within 5 and 45 minutes of an order. We have reduced delays and increased patient numbers in health facilities, and we look forward to expanding our use cases to include blood,” said Mr. Edmund Dambo, health systems integration at Zipline.
The medical officer in charge of Karreh primary health centre, Mr. Idris Isa, mentioned that before Zipline came—it was often difficult to re-stock supplies, which always took longer than expected. But now that the health centre is working with Zipline, they can simply place orders, and the deliveries are sent to them in record time. The supply of drugs has improved healthcare service delivery in the State.
“One of our challenges is the wind, which in some cases disturbs drone deliveries to local health centres. Although this does not stop our deliveries, it could take a while,” says Mr. Jeremiah Duna, in charge of flight operations.
Mr. Joel Dangiwa, the flight operator, disclosed that Zipline drones travel at a speed of 100 kilometres per hour. However, if the wind is too strong, the drone will warn the flight operator to monitor the situation or to avoid flying that route. He further mentioned, whenever the Nigerian Airforce operates the Pambegua axis—Zipline may stop operations until the air is safe to resume flights.
“In this situation, Zipline has what’s called ground delivery that supplies drugs and vaccines using standby trucks until they can fly the drones again,” said Mr. Jeremiah.
When asked about potential connectivity problems during flights, Mr. Jeremiah says the drone uses two GPS and backup networks; connectivity issues are something else that could be a real problem. In this case, the drones can make autonomous decisions and could return to the operations office when something doesn’t go well.
Tracking similar feats in Africa
Kaduna State is not the first to invest in game-changing technologies to improve healthcare in Africa. It is the third. In Malawi, EcoSoar is designed to fly small packages for medical supplies and diagnostics. EcoSoar reached a first-flight milestone when it flew a fully autonomous 19 km mission from the Gogode Health Clinic at Kasungu Airport carrying a simulated package of medical supplies.
This story was produced in partnership with Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
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