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Young Malawians conquer the skies to deliver lifesaving medicines

Thanks to the Drone and Data Aid project and its training academy, drones revolutionise access to medicines in hard-to reach rural areas of one of the world’s poorest countries.

Malawi’s poor road infrastructure and heavy rains mean that remote health centres frequently run out of essential medicines. Now the Drone and Data Aid project is not only using the latest technology to improve supply chains to hard-to-reach areas, but also inspiring young Malawians to become the drone pilots of the future at Africa’s first Drone and Data Academy.

As a loudly buzzing drone lands at Malawi’s Kasungu aerodrome, 24-year old Debora Duwa Mtambalika is also buzzing with excitement. For the last ten months she’s been doing her dream job, working as a drone pilot delivering essential medical supplies to some of the more remote health centres in the district. The bi-directional drones she’s flying have a range of up to 120 km – one of the longest ranges of any drones currently in operation – and can carry a load of up to 6 kg, which enable it to eventually make drops in three different locations.

‘Before we had drones, we had big problems,’ says Mathias Andmos, the pharmacy and drones co-ordinator in Kasungu district. ‘In the rainy season, ambulances can’t get through to remote health centres because the roads are too muddy and rivers flood, so it is a huge challenge to deliver essential medical supplies by bike or on foot. But now the Drone and Data Aid Project enables us to deliver essential medicines from Kasungu to smaller facilities.’

Smart and low-cost solution to improve supply chains

In June 2017, the Government of Malawi and UNICEF established a drone testing corridor in Kasungu – the first of its kind in Africa – to explore the use of drones for emergency medical supply deliveries, vaccines and sample delivery for diagnosis. This corridor allowed for beyond visual line of sight testing in a territory over 5000 km² with drones flying up to 400 meters above ground level.

Since November 2020, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and the German drone manufacturer Wingcopter have been working together on the pilot Drone and Data Aid project to support the establishment of flexible and rapid medicine supply chains to remote areas. Drone construction and operation is provided by Wingcopter, and the project is implemented on behalf of the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and with funding from the EU.

The project was also one of nine winners of a competition run by #SmartDevelopmentHackwhich was launched by BMZ and the European Commission in the spring of 2020, to seek digital innovations to help meet the challenges posed by the pandemic.  UNICEF and Wingcopter successfully pitched for funding to use drones for delivering temperature sensitive COVID vaccines from central pharmacies to remote health centres, and GIZ manages the two contracts in Malawi. 

The huge benefit of drones, says Andi Fisanich, head of Wingcopter’s humanitarian programme, is that they can take off and land in a very small area and do not require a lot of infrastructure. ‘We literally show up with three bags of cement and the health facility builds a small platform for the drones to land on – and that’s it.  It’s very low cost – which is the business model you need in a country like Malawi which can’t afford to pay for fancy infrastructure.’

Starting with three sites, but aiming to cover the whole region

The Drone and Data Aid pilot project started small with drone deliveries to three health facilities, with another five added recently, and there are plans to build landing sites at another seven. The long-term plan is to have a drone network that covers the entire central region, with a central hub in the capital Lilongwe.  

Drone technology in itself, however, is not a sustainable solution unless the technology is properly anchored in an innovative ecosystem which has the necessary legal and governmental infrastructure to support it. ‘This needs to be properly integrated into the health system,’ says Charles Matemba, GIZ’s senior technical adviser for the Drone and Data Aid Project. Discussions have taken place with various stakeholders, including hospitals and local authorities and a project committee was set up in January to include the Ministry of Health, Central Stores, blood transfusion services, pharmacy and medicines authorities and others. 

Informing communities that have never seen a drone before

Community sensitisation meetings enable people to touch the drones, ask questions and see how they work
Community sensitisation meetings enable people to touch the drones, ask questions and see how they work

One of the main challenges the project has faced, says Hastings Jailosi, chief flight operations officer at the Department of Civil Aviation, is familiarising communities that have never seen a drone before: ‘We’ve had issues in the past where people were regarding drones as some kind of witchcraft, and they ended up destroying the drone when it landed offsite.’ 

 As a result, the project also includes community sensitisation meetings so that people can touch the drones, ask questions and see how they work. Drama performances, radio jingles, interviews and phone-ins have also been used to address concerns and superstitions. Now people are very appreciative, says Mathias Andmos. ‘Instead of waiting weeks for essential medical supplies, they know that the drones can deliver them in a matter of hours.’

Building crucial supply chains in a pandemic

The impact of COVID has complicated the project (face-to-face community sensitisation sessions had to be halted temporarily, for example, to avoid drawing large crowds), but also highlighted how useful drones could be in a pandemic.  Fast, smooth supply chains are even more vital when some of the COVID-19 vaccines developed so far need to be stored at very low temperatures, and drones could quickly transport vaccines to hard-to-reach areas. The project team in Malawi is already preparing plans for drone distribution of vaccines, when they become available. Malawi, like much of the rest of Africa, is currently experiencing an acute shortage of vaccines.   

A pilot for pilots: Training drone experts of the future

Previously most of the people involved in drone technology were from outside the country, so a crucial component of the project is building local skills by supporting the African Drone and Data Academy (ADDA) – the first of its kind on the continent. Set up in Lilongwe in 2020, it trains students from Malawi and (when COVID restrictions permit) across Africa on remote piloting licencing, drone design and engineering as well as analysing data collected by drones. Local and international universities collaborate in the Academy, which is supported by UNICEF, and selected students receive full scholarships.

‘Alongside improved delivery, we want to have a pool of trained, skilled people to employ as pilots, project managers and safety and maintenance workers,’ says GIZ’s Charles Matemba.  ‘We see a direct link between the two and empowering local people.’ By 2022, the academy plans to run a two-year master’s degree programme in drone technology in conjunction with the Malawi University of Science and Technology. Twenty three-year old Memory Sidira from Rumphi in northern Malawi is one of 10 young women and six male students currently enrolled in the second cohort at the Academy. She’s a forestry graduate from Lilongwe College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and applied to ADDA last March. After some delays due to COVID, she did an online introductory course, and is now enjoying the five week in-person course, learning about aerodynamics, physics, flight performance, weather patterns and also how to design drones using 3D printers and to build prototypes using local materials such as cardboard and wood.  ‘It’s so intense and exciting at the same time…This is a very great opportunity and it’s a great platform for us as African youths to learn more.’    She says that in the future she wants to use drones for forestry management.

Girls learn that they can fly drones too

She’s particularly pleased to see so many young women on the course: ‘This should be the way to go: Girls knowing that they can do the same things as the guys do.’ She wants to build a career as a drone pilot, but also ultimately to establish her own company providing services to the environmental sector: ‘The industry is new, but the opportunities are there – the market is right for it.’ 

Previous ADDA graduates like Debora Duwa Mtambalika have already been recruited by Wingcopter and other drone projects. ‘It was quite a challenging course but it was really exciting and a very good experience.’ She’s ambitious and wants to do a master’s degree next, and thinks there are all sorts of ways that Malawi could benefit from drone technology: ‘It could leapfrog Malawi into 21st technology in the way that mobile phones transformed the country in the 20th Century.’ 

Building a national drone network

The Drone and Data Aid project is a very welcome initiative, says Hastings Jailosi. ‘We look at it as a huge milestone and are excited to be a part of this unique project.’  The government and development partners are committed to building up a national drone network and utilising the technology for preventive health care, disaster relief, mapping and many other potential uses. Hastings firmly believes that if the momentum can be sustained, drone technology could grow into one Malawi’s biggest industries.

Expansion will largely depend on future funding and drone capacity. If the Drone and Data Aid project is to go nationwide, drones will need a longer flight range than the current 120 km or be integrated into a larger network that allows drones to hop from hub to hub. Wingcopter has been working on a new prototype, the W198, which is currently being tested in Germany and will be able to cover much bigger distances thanks to its easy battery swap system. Four of the new drones have already been allotted to Malawi – the first country the new model will operate in.    ‘They will make a huge difference to our operation,’ says Wingcopter’s Andi Fisanich. ‘With the W198 we can expand our reach, be more efficient and significantly reduce the cost of operations.’ 

‘The beginning of a beautiful story’

Meanwhile, the Drone and data Academy has already inspired some former students like Thumbiko Nkwawa Zingwe to reach for the sky: ‘I have a vision that I can start Malawi’s first space agency, which uses geo-information data for different applications.’ ‘I no longer believe that we are doomed to be poor because our greatest wealth and treasure are our minds: We can become whatever we want to be. The drone industry has so much potential and I am looking forward to being part of the solution and to help my nation to use these technologies.’

He has a futuristic vision of Malawi being transformed from one of the poorest countries in the world into a progressive, high tech centre of excellence – ‘like Watanda in the Black Panther movie… The sky will be full of flying robots and drones.’ If this currently seems a bit far-fetched, he points to the fact that Malawi is fast becoming a testing ground for new drone technology: ‘We have started and it’s the beginning of a beautiful story that is going to have a beautiful ending.’

Ruth Evans, July 2021 

© Wingcopter
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