In December 2020, Ghana’s Eastern Region Electorate faced a logistics challenge that could hamper the timely ease of voting in the region. Just 48 hours before the presidential election, poll workers lacked masks and personal protective equipment (PPE). Over 33 districts were to get tens of thousands of face masks for the election. This delivery target would take 48-72 hours, and only half would get to its destination if trucks were employed.
At the Eastern Region Electorate’s request, Zipline, a drone delivery company, had over 18,000+ face masks dropped off at its distribution centre in Omenako with less than a day’s notice. Within 16 hours of receiving supplies, Zipline exhausted the delivery, outperforming ground transportation in speed and efficiency with only 60 per cent of the costs. This unconventional logistics process allowed electoral workers to work safely, enabling several Ghanaians to vote. This is one of the several benefits drones afford users, and Zipline is at the forefront of using this technology to solve the supply chain logistics problem in the health industry across multiple countries in the world.
The American company operates distribution centres in Rwanda, Ghana, Japan, and the United States of America. Now, it is operational in Nigeria, home to the largest economy and population on the continent. Nigeria marks Zipline’s third country of operation in Africa and its fifth globally. In partnership with the Kaduna state government, the company completed the first drone delivery in the country.
With this, Zipline has become an integral part of the Nigerian medical supply chain and would operate three distribution centres across Kaduna state, covering an area of 46,000 square kilometres, delivering supplies to approximately 500 health facilities and serving millions of people. The autonomous drones will carry medicine, blood, and vaccines from a warehouse stocked by the Kaduna health ministry to local doctors and hospitals in remote regions. Hopes are high that previous success stories in Ghana and Rwanda will be repeated in Nigeria.
Saving lives from different wings
The health industry in Nigeria is heavily fragmented and fraught with supply chain problems. Health products like blood, platelets, frozen plasma, vaccines, infusions, and common medical commodities often need to get to their end-users quickly, especially in emergency cases. But road transportation, which is the most used means of transporting health products to the last mile, does not give the assurance of fast delivery. This is because it is subject to lots of human and infrastructural factors; poor road network, insecurity, traffic, vehicular breakdown, fuel scarcity, etcetera could impede the swift delivery of life-saving health products. Because the time between life and death is so precious, losing a second to logistics is costly.
More importantly, health products need to get to end-users in the proper condition. Unforeseen circumstances can make a vehicle exceed the stipulated delivery time, making the delivery unviable. For example, some health products are temperature reactive, administering them when they’ve become unviable is useless. With Zipline, life and time are saved. Since these drones are not vulnerable to traffic or fatigue and run autonomously, faster delivery is assured. Swift delivery times also translate to less wastage in health facilities, which is cost-effective.
As a last-mile logistics, Zipline also ensures sustainability and product traceability. Zipline drones are powered using chargeable batteries, and after each delivery, the drone autonomously returns to Zipline’s hub/station to get charged. This is climate-smart as it reduces fossil fuel consumption. Also, it would reduce congestion or pollution caused by vehicles, and all these help achieve net zero-emission, a pledge to save the earth and humans. On the traceability end, orders made with Zipline are GPS tracked, and all events are time stamped. So both the customer and provider can see, track, and schedule the progress of their shipment.
Flying beyond health borders
Globally, the use of drones in the logistics sector is still embryonic. But in Nigeria, it is absolutely new. The logistics industry in Nigeria is robust, and it was estimated to be N250 billion ($696 million) as of 2018. With this value, Nigeria is a viable market for Zipline to extend its reach beyond health logistics. The logistics industry in the country has evolved and has moved from the sole use of vehicles as tools for deliveries to motorbikes and bicycles in more recent times for last-mile logistics. Even with this massive growth and evolution, the use of drones for logistics is yet unseen until now. For example, in Rwanda, fresh and preserved semen are rapidly transported with Zipline to farmers for artificial insemination of farm animals, thus promoting productivity in the country’s agric sector. Using drones for logistics in other sectors in Nigeria and Africa is an unexplored goldmine, and Zipline may want to strike the axe before other potential actors.