Photograph — Geek on Gadgets

The Half Moon Bay, California-based medical supplies firm which currently runs daily operations in Rwanda, Ghana and Tanzania, has raised about $190 million since spring 2018. Now backed by hefty financiers like Texas Pacific Group and Goldman Sachs, Zipline raised the additional investments in two separate instalments, bringing total investments since 2016 to $225 million.

Zipline looks set to continue leading the world in health sector drone service delivery as it intends to use these fresh investments to bulk up its operations around Africa by setting up additional delivery hubs. The medical drone service hopes to establish delivery hubs at 2,600 health facilities by the end of 2019 and serve 700 million people by 2024. 

“Rwanda’s medical drone delivery operation has really shown the rest of the world what is possible. And I think what we’re seeing now is a growing number group of countries around the world raising their hands and coming forward, ready to follow in Rwanda’s footsteps. The new funds raised from investors will help Zipline to scale its presence and technology to help serve more people around the world,” Zipline’s head of National Implementation, Israel Bimpe said.

Since 2016, Zipline has made over 14,000 deliveries, a third of which were reportedly life-or-death situations. CEO and co-founder, Keller Rinaudo, says the company’s experience on the continent has inspired an overhaul of Zipline’s entire logistics system, not just its drones.

So far, Zipline has improved distribution centres where the drones are stored and loaded and began using computer-vision technology to assist with pre-flight checks. These, among other changes, have accelerated the time between order placement and putting a drone in the sky to sixty seconds.

The company, dubbed “Uber for blood,” has built its business around challenge number one and two of many African countries; bad roads and unresponsive medical facilities. This is why some keen watchers have questioned Zipline’s partner governments for jumping into short-term solutions for problems that require more durable answers. Such concerns are linked to Africa’s sudden prominence in drone testing.

For one, road networks across the continent are shambolic in dry seasons, worse when it rains. For another, because it is not a technologically aware continent, historically, African governments are more open to testing new things, even if, as in Zipline’s Ghana agreement, it costs taxpayers as much as $12 million.

All of that isn’t meant to hound Zipline or their government partners. It is only aimed at urging governments to consider making serious investments in durable road networks because Zipline didn’t come to Africa to fix roads. Governments must also keep health workers motivated because, well, when you fly medical supplies in, you need people on the ground who know what they’re doing and are happy to do it. Zipline can’t fix that.

Finally, governments must monitor the procurement of lab-tested drugs, because while Zipline can get drugs and blood anywhere fast, it isn’t set up, for the most part, verify the condition of what is being supplied.

Zipline’s service allows healthcare workers to order supplies by text message and have them delivered by drones dispatched from central distribution centres. With about seven centres in Africa already and its newly developed 128km-an hour drone, Zipline can schedule up to 3,500 deliveries per day.

By Caleb Ajinomoh

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