African Countries Experiment with Drones

Drones are commonly associated with with their ability to provide stunning aerial photographs and videography. People have enjoyed using them for selfies or taking pictures of their properties. Other uses have also been explored and span a variety of industries and applications such as helping with wildlife conservation efforts and assisting scientists with studies by attaching equipment like high-resolution cameras. While drones can be utilized in numerous ways, the use that has captured my attention is the quick transportation of medical supplies in Africa.

Aerial shot

Aerial shot taken by a drone


Commercial Drone Legislation in Africa

Recently, a few countries in Africa have been being highlighted for their open embrace of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology. Rwanda has helped to lead this charge and has adopted performance-based regulations for all drones.

“In performance-based regulation the government states this is our safety threshold and you companies tell us the combination of technologies and operational mitigations you’re going to use to meet it.” -Timothy Reuter, Civil Drones Project Head at the World Economic Forum.

“Rather than the government saying ‘you have to use this kind of technology to stop your drone,’ they would say, ‘your drone needs to be able to stop in so many seconds.’” -Lisa Ellsman

This form of regulation has allowed for drone operators to aim for performance targets instead of being confined to specific technologies that must comply with any number of stipulations. South Africa and Malawi have also made progress on commercial drone legislation. South Africa passed laws to train and license pilots while Malawi opened a Drone Test Corridor. Additionally, Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania have also shown interest in drones by issuing or updating drone regulations and announcing future UAV initiatives.


Drone Delivery Startup

The San Francisco startup Zipline has been a catalyst for many of the advances Rwanda is making in drone regulations. Zipline uses drones to quickly deliver medical supplies to people at a low cost. Given the country’s poor infrastructure, the use of drones marks a massive improvement in delivery logistics as they eliminate the need for drivers to navigate the rugged landscape and roads and bridges in a state of disrepair.

Zipline package

Package being dropped from a Zipline drone

“Billions of people on earth lack access to critical medicine. In East Africa, Zipline’s drones bring people the medicine they need, when they need it in a way that reduces waste, cost and inventory while increasing access and saving lives. We’ve been hard at work to improve our technology and are ready to help save lives in America and around the world.” -Keller Rinaudo, Zipline CEO

The idea attracted a renown list of investors including Sequoia Capital, Katalyst Ventures, a16z, Google Ventures, SV Angel, Subtraction Capital, Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and Stanford University. According to Crunchbase, the company has already raised $41.1 million throughout its ten rounds of funding. The large amount of funding has allowed the company to open two distribution centers in California and another in Rwanda.


How Zipline Works

Zipline has developed a simple and quick delivery process that enables it to deliver medicine to “the world’s most difficult to reach places.” In order to receive supplies, one can simply place an order via text message. Once the message has been received, someone will package the desired supplies and prepare the order for launch. The drones travel at over 100km/hr and allow for direct delivery in under thirty minutes. Once the drone has reached the destination, the supplies are then accurately parachuted to the ground, and hospital staff receive a text to alert them that the delivery has been made.

Zipline Stats

Zipline Statistics



Zipline’s Progress

Zipline began the “world’s first drone delivery operation” in Rwanda in October of 2016. The company worked closely with the government of Rwanda in an effort to build a distribution center that can store 15 drones that transport blood, plasma, and platelets to twenty-one different hospitals throughout the western half of the country. Since the service was launched, Zipline has made huge progress including flying over 300,000km and delivering 7,000 units of blood across 4,000 flights. Additionally, about a third of these flights have been in response to emergency life-saving situations.


Drone taking off from distribution center in Rwanda

The impact has been widespread and now Zipline delivers more than 20% of Rwanda’s blood supply outside of Kigali, the country’s capital. Transportation used to be difficult, but with the use of drones, hospitals have rapid and continuous access to blood products. This accessibility has led to an increase in “the use of some blood products by 175% and reducing waste and spoilage by over 95%.” Due to the success of the first distribution center, Zipline is currently in the midst of opening a second second distribution center in Rwanda that will put the entire country within the company’s delivery range. Additionally, Zipline plans to expand into Tanzania where it is anticipating making up to “up to 2,000 life-saving deliveries per day to over one thousand health facilities and serving 10 million people across the country.”


Current African Drone Initiatives

The exciting new possibilities that have been opened by drone technology have led some African country governments to encourage innovation. The Government of Malawi has entered into a partnership with UNICEF in order to provide people the opportunity to participate in their humanitarian drone test corridor. They are currently accepting applications for people to “test a potential use case in the main areas of Imagery, Connectivity and Transport to improve the lives of Malawi’s children!” Additionally, there is the Lake Victoria Challenge which gives “drone innovators” the chance to compete in “a series of real-world scenarios” such as picking up and delivering a medical package using electric vertical take-off and landing platform. Prizes for the competition will include things like demonstration contracts or service related to local customers.

I believe there is abundant potential for drones to disrupt a variety of industries – especially shipping. As technologies continue to improve, I am excited to watch more drone centered initiatives emerge in various industries.

consumer drone market.png

Consumer Drone Market




10 thoughts on “African Countries Experiment with Drones

  1. This is such an inspiring and fascinating blog!! It is amazing how much of an impact drone technology can have on medical fields. It is so cool that orders are placed via text and shipped off so quickly. The news of Zipline is probably expanding rapidly throughout Rwanda because of the speedy, efficient and recognizable drones. It is exciting that Zipline is opening another distribution center in Rwanda and has future expansion plans throughout Africa. Overall, really impressed by the actions that this startup is taking to efficiently provide medical supplies to third world countries through the use of drones.


  2. Thank you for sharing, Jenna! I really enjoyed this post. It is really impressive and admirable to see a startup focused on legitimately helping parts of the world in need. I think it will be very interesting to see how Zipline spreads their capabilities to other parts of the developing world, whether that may be in Africa or even Asia. I also think they will be able to expand their services by providing products like clean water, along with medical supplies, to parts of the world that lack these products. It is clear that Zipline is a major player in a huge and growing market opportunity to help developing areas.


  3. I found this blog post fascinating because of the amazing impact that Zipline is making, but also because it makes you think about how Drones can affect the world in so many different ways. I did not know about the work that Zipline was doing but the fact that they are able to achieve delivery in under 30 minutes 24/7 is absolutely incredible. It makes you think how beneficial further drone usage could be to all of Africa, and other places in the world were medical supplies are not available. Another exciting use for drones that has been in the news a lot recently is in regular e-commerce deliveries. It is definitely essentially to develop drones to save peoples lives in under-developed places, but regular delivery by drones would make companies like Amazon, Nike, and every e-commerce company incredibly efficient.


  4. I had a student present on Zipline in my Social Media and Digital Business Class, and I thought it was one of the coolest business models and applications of technology I’ve seen in years. Nice post!


  5. Great job Jenna! I had no idea Zipline or anything of the sort even existed today, but it is so inspiring to see the way smart people paired with smart technology can truly help push the world forward. I love how the government of Rwanda and other African nations are seriously encouraging innovation of this kind. Businesses like this located in developing countries provide invaluable job opportunities for the local communities, not to mention the humanitarian impact this has.


  6. Wow! Companies like Zipline help remind people just how significant and life-changing technology and innovation can be. I find it incredibly surprising that these drones are able to transport goods in rain or shine, and how they are then able to accurately deliver them. I wonder if Zipline will work towards home deliveries, as it is a well-known fact that many people in Africa have to travel miles to access larger towns or even water sources. Great post, and I will be sure to keep an eye out for Zipline in the news!


  7. Awesome topic! I hadn’t heard about the implementation of drone technology in such use cases, but it’s great to see how companies like Zipline are transforming lives and the landscape of healthcare/medicine. Zipline embodies the positive power of entrepreneurship to create meaningful change and it’s nice to see the collaboration between governments and organizations like UNICEF in the process. I hope we keep seeing innovations like this in the future!


  8. This is really awesome. I find the power potential of drones to be extremely lucrative and I’ve heard of other initiatives of agricultural drones, where drones have digital sensors that map out the condition of the fields, are able to spray crop seeds and fertilizer, manage irrigation, and monitor crop production and fertility. I haven’t heard of countries outside the U.S. using this technology, but I’m sure other countries could benefit from this as well, especially within such a vital field. I could see drone technology having a huge impact on disaster relief as well.


  9. Zipline’s more traditional business approach to a problem that many would consider in the non-profit sector is really innovative, not to mention their innovative product they are creating! I would be curious how they profit from this, because if they can set it up in a self sustaining way, there is no limit to the people they could reach. What an amazing company, thanks for sharing!


  10. This is such an exciting and interesting innovation. Since taking Portico, I have been very interested in learning about how companies can be both innovative and function like a traditional business, but also be very innovative and impactful on a community. Their decision to use the technology for blood delivery is quite risky, but also so helpful.


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