How technology can really make an impact – Zipline in Rwanda

Rwanda invests significant amounts in Information Technologies (IT) and the high-tech sector. This usually leads to disputes with international organizations and public financial backers. For instance, the German development agency GIZ (Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH) prefers to support the poorest of the poor and improve their situation. Therefore support by international donors or agencies in high-tech projects is rare. Nevertheless, the Rwandan government decided to focus on these projects.

One example was the construction of an airport for drones in 2016. This is being undertaken by the Ministry of Health cooperating with the company “Zipline”, a Californian start-up with connections to Google and NASA and well-known business angels. Many people in Rwanda, especially mothers after giving birth, often die due to delayed delivery of blood supplies. The Ministry of Health decided to construct a drone system for delivery. A multinational cooperation was launched to get the needed expertise. The drone airport centrally stores blood preserves, and if a hospital urgently needs blood, it orders the respective blood type via WhatsApp. Within minutes, the blood is packed and attached to the drone, which then flies to the hospital and drops the blood package with a parachute at the delivery spot. After the delivery, the drone will immediately fly back to the airport (without landing), minimizing accidents, as they mainly occur on launching or landing.

Because of Rwanda’s landscape, characterized by challenging terrain and limited infrastructure, access to essential medical products was not given before Zipline was introduced. In the case of blood needed for an emergency, delivery used to take at least three hours from the country’s capital Kigali to a hospital 100 km away. Zipline managed to reduce that time to 15 minutes, significantly improving the medical outcomes. 

Analyzing the Zipline project shows three significant facets. Firstly, it is solving the problem of preventable death due to scarcity of blood and long transportation period. This primarily benefits mothers who lose blood while giving birth. Consequently, it is directly beneficial to the “regular citizen” in rural areas and not a project exclusively designed for the elites.

Secondly, the innovative approach fits the top-down strategy of the regime. As this project has been successful for a few years now, it is expanding to Tanzania. Thereby Rwandan employees will benefit due to their experiences. 

Thirdly, the project follows the “proof of concept country“ theory which states that one country/region first serves as a test laboratory for the world market. Depending on its success, the product might then be launched globally. In this case, Rwanda will have an immense initial advantage as a pioneer. So this project is combining several aspects which all potentially have a positive impact on the daily life of many Rwandans, either as recipients or potential job opportunities.

Additionally, Rwanda intends to transform itself into a hub for internet and communication technologies (ICT Hub). For this purpose, thousands of kilometers of fiber cables have already been laid to establish a nationwide broadband network, once again in stark contrast to the preferences of international donors. In most parts of the country, a stable reception and an internet connection can already be established via mobile phone. Furthermore, Rwanda has one of the cheapest internet accesses among developing countries. 

More recently, Zipline has helped Ghana to deliver the COVID-19 vaccine. The accessibility of the vaccine to an entire population presents a huge logistical challenge for healthcare organizations and governments, especially in developing countries. Remote areas and hard-to-reach places of the world combined with the vaccine-specific storage requirements of -90°C to -60°C complicated the access even more. Companies like Zipline that provide end-to-end logistics play a huge role in bringing COVID-19 under control. Recent developments with new upcoming variants show the importance of vaccinating every part of the world, no matter the complications. So far, Zipline has managed to distribute more than 220,000 vaccines across Ghana, planning to distribute millions in the future once supply allows them to do so.

The example of Rwanda and Zipline made me think about how technology can be used to help people in poverty. Additionally, I thought about how resource scarcity relates to the success of digital initiatives. I wonder if limited resources and, therefore, the requirement for clear prioritization lead to better digital, business, and sustainable outcomes. Obviously, major digital transformation of large conglomerates act on a different scale and do require more capital investments, but I am pretty sure that even those companies can learn from how Rwanda managed digitalization.

Click to access 16158.pdf


  1. cloudbasedbrett · ·

    YES! This is amazing. Showing how technology is transforming different areas, regions, and practices! I love it when we can find really interesting examples of DT in our society today. I really think drones are in our future. I personally have a drone for my own, personal fun, but they have a lot of great use cases throughout our society, especially this one that you highlighted!

  2. albertsalgueda · ·

    Exactly! Thank you for picking up this topic for your last blog. Digital transformation has different dimensions and different ways of impacting societies across the globe. This particular example that you talked about make me feel optimistic about the future of our species.
    Regarding your future, I wish you a lot of success and joy, it’s been a pleasure sharing this class with you, thank you for all your contributions!

%d bloggers like this: