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How Zipline made Africa the springboard for its delivery drones


It is a red and white machine with propellers, presented as a small revolution in the world of logistics. The new model of the Californian start-up Zipline, specializing in drone delivery, was inaugurated with great fanfare on Wednesday March 15. It can cover 15 km in ten minutes, transport salads, hamburgers or medicines in dense urban areas and delicately drop them on the doorsteps of individuals thanks to the detachment of a second, smaller drone.

Six years after launching its first prototype in Africa, Zipline is tackling the booming instant delivery market. The start-up plans to carry out more than 10,000 test flights this year before deploying its new device commercially, in particular with the Sweetgreen fast food chain, American health organizations but also with the Rwandan government, its oldest and most loyal. customer.

Read also: In Rwanda, mobile messenger RNA vaccine laboratories deployed by BioNTech

Announced for years, unmanned aircraft are currently taking their first steps in the United States with projects led by Alphabet, the parent company of Google, Amazon and many others. For their designers, these drones, which are faster and more ecological than trucks, represent the future of e-commerce and delivery. But some experts see it as huge challenges in terms of regulation and a technology that is difficult to make profitable and develop on a large scale.

Today valued at nearly 3 billion dollars (2.8 billion euros) but still not profitable, Zipline nevertheless plans to carry out more annual flights than most airlines by 2025. It puts for this ahead of its rapid development on the African continent, first in Rwanda and Ghana, then more recently in Nigeria, Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire. “Our platform operates seven days a week, 365 days a year, in all weathers. Our drones have already flown more than 60,000 km of commercial flights and serve more than 3,000 medical establishments,” assures Keller Rinaudo, CEO and co-founder of the company.

blood bags

Founded in 2013 in Silicon Valley and financed by American venture capital giants, the young shoot originally focused exclusively on the health sector and displayed an almost humanitarian project. “More than 5 million children die each year due to lack of access to medical supplies. We wanted to provide a solution to this problem with a logistics network accessible to all,” explains Keller Rinaudo. The model: take charge, against payment, of part of the deliveries usually managed by the public health system.

“We are offering a transition to a system ten times faster, more ecological and less expensive than road transport”, adds the CEO, which does not, however, specify the cost of a trip or the exact terms of invoicing applied by the company. Rwanda quickly appears to be the ideal candidate: a predominantly rural population, few paved roads and rugged topography that makes road transport long and laborious. And, above all, a head of state, Paul Kagame, fond of communications operations and new technologies.

Read also: In Ghana, the delivery of medicine and blood by drones takes off

In the first year, Zipline delivers blood bags to around 20 Rwandan hospitals for around 200,000 dollars. All it takes is a message or a phone call to order an autonomous drone, powered from one of the two distribution centers in the country. Guided by GPS data, it arrives in less than an hour at its destination and drops the package using a small parachute. Very quickly, the service was extended to almost all Rwandan health structures and transported other products such as vaccines and antimalarials. Today, the start-up provides 75% of blood deliveries outside the capital, Kigali.

“This has allowed us to improve the reliability of our health structures, assures Thomas Muyombo, of the Rwandan Biomedical Centre, the institution that manages blood stocks at the national level. Previously, hospitals spent a lot of money and time sending vehicles to collect blood in an emergency. It could take three or four hours. Drones do it in less than forty minutes. » According to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Zipline’s services have even drastically reduced deaths from postpartum hemorrhage among young mothers in hospitals nationwide.

“Health Uber”

The Covid-19 pandemic then gave a boost to its activities. In Rwanda, in full confinement, it delivers their treatment to cancer patients, then agricultural inputs. In Ghana, where it signed a four-year, $12.5 million deal, it is beginning to deliver coronavirus vaccines in partnership with Pfizer-BioNtech. And earned a reputation for “Health Uber” able to save lives.

On a continent where national budgets are very tight, one wonders if the millions paid to Zipline would not be better invested in the construction of roads, which constitute the most basic infrastructure. “, tempers Amaury de Féligonde, co-founder of the consulting firm Okan Partners and specialist in logistics in Africa. ” Is this really a solution for the future for African States and populations, or has Africa simply been a practical testing ground for society and an opportunity for States to appear modern? », he asks.

Read also: In Rwanda, containment accelerates the delivery of medicines by drones

Souvenirs “Made in Rwanda”

“Africa was a springboard for Zipline because of its relatively empty skies and weak regulations. The company sells a service, but there is also a dimension of knowledge data production,” analysis for his part Georges Macaire Eyenga, researcher at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research in South Africa who worked on Zipline’s activities in Ghana. He believes that it was the information collected on the thousands of kilometers traveled without incident by its drones on the continent that enabled the company to obtain, in June 2022, certification from the Federal Aviation Administration allowing it to carry out commercial flights over long distances in American skies.


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A strategy that raises questions of value and control of this data, but also of sovereignty according to the researcher. “In Ghana, Zipline has information about the airspace, but also about the health system, of which it is now an integral part. It is a foreign private company that manages drug stocks and knows the order books of the majority of hospitals in the country,” he points out.

Read also: In Africa, drones at the service of precision agriculture

While Zipline now operates in a handful of US states through partnerships with private entities and in Japan, Rwanda remains its biggest customer. In December, Kigali signed a new $61 million agreement to extend drone delivery to all government entities as well as e-commerce and the tourism sector. Objective: operate 2 million instant deliveries in Rwanda by 2029 and deploy the new Zipline platform. While 40% of the Rwandan population lives below the poverty line, these new services will probably target a minority. Initially, they will allow, for example, tourists staying in luxury hotels far from the capital to order souvenirs “Made in Rwanda”.