“Africa can be the disruptor. These small agile economies can leapfrog with newer and better systems,” says Keller Rinaudo whose Zipline drones have proved just that by delivering life-saving blood in Rwanda within 30 minutes of an emergency call.
Zipline is a remarkable company that uses small, lightweight plane-shaped drones to deliver emergency medicine or blood from its base outside the Rwandan capital Kigali, in arguably the best demonstration of both innovative use of new technologies and what’s possible when a government is willing to experiment with them.
Such life-saving blood deliveries are the key to providing essential medical services in the mountainous East African country, where Zipline has delivered 2,400 blood units since the project began in October 2016.
“Most of that blood is going to mothers with postpartum haemorrhage (PPH),” Rinaudo, the CEO and co-founder, told TEDGlobal in Arusha, Tanzania. Some 30% of it is going to children with anaemia from malaria, the disease which remains the leading cause of mortality in Africa.
This remarkable delivery system, which takes 15-30 minutes to arrive at the hospital after the call is received, solves the particularly challenging problems of storing blood.
“Blood is challenging. It has a very short shelf life and is really hard to predict demand before patients need it. You are always trading off waste against access. To solve waste you want to keep the blood [or medicine] centralized. If you want to have lots of access, you keep lots of medicine at clinics. But if it expires it wastes a lot of money.”
Using Zipline’s system, Rwanda is able to keep the blood storage centralized and still get it to hospitals within in 30 minutes. He says the Rwandan government has been able to break the cycle of wastage, and zero units of blood have expired since the project began. “That’s an amazing result. That has not been achieved by any other healthcare system on the planet.”
Rinaudo described a scenario where a 24-year-old mother began haemorrhaging after a c-section to deliver her baby and Zipline made numerous flights to deliver lifesaving blood, plasma and platelets, which ultimately saved her life.