July 7

Kyle Poplin

Last Mile in Style

zipline, Rwandan government partner on blood deliveries

This month, Rwanda will become the first country with a drone delivery network. Zipline, a 2014 Silicon Valley startup, will provide the drone service, and has plans to expand its fleet to deliver all sorts of medicines to countries across Africa and the world. We asked Justin Hamilton, Zipline’s spokesperson, about the firm’s beginnings and where it hopes to go from here.


Kyle Poplin: When and why did Zipline start? How many people currently work there?

Justin Hamilton: Two years ago, we learned about a project that researchers had implemented across Tanzania. By distributing cell phones to rural clinics, the researchers trained health workers to send text reports every time a patient came in with a life-threatening condition that could be prevented by having access to basic medicines.

The reality was terrifying. These researches collected a database of death, where every entry was someone whose life could have been saved had they been able to get product quick enough. We’ve designed Zipline to solve the second half of this problem. We know who needs medicine, when and where. And now, we can get them that medicine.


KP: You’re working with the government of Rwanda. What do you do for them? How did your association with Rwanda come about?

JH: Zipline is launching its first large-scale deployment in partnership with the government of Rwanda, where it will make all last-mile blood deliveries across the country. (Note: See the firm’s promotional video below.)

According to the World Health Organization, Africa has the highest rate in the world of maternal death due to postpartum hemorrhaging. Increasing access to lifesaving blood transfusions is critically important for women across the continent. Beginning this year, Zipline will make between 50-150 deliveries per day of lifesaving blood to Rwanda’s 21 transfusing facilities located in the western half of the country.

Zipline plans to expand the project to the eastern half of the country in early 2017, putting almost every one of Rwanda’s 11 million citizens within reach of instant delivery of essential and lifesaving medicines. Zipline’s Rwanda operation is expected to save thousands of lives over the next three years.

Through this effort, Rwanda has leapfrogged countries like the United States and is leading the world in using cutting-edge technology to deliver health care to its citizens.

Zipline’s Rwanda operation will be run by a combination of Rwandan and American engineers from a base in the country’s centrally located Muhanga District. Zipline will begin making its first deliveries this month (July 2016).



KP: What other opportunities/partnerships might be out there?

JH: Through the remainder of the year, the company plans to expand operations to countries across Africa and the world, moving beyond blood delivery to include lifesaving vaccines, treatments for HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, and many other essential and lifesaving medicines.


KP: Do most drone customers need to update their technology to utilize your services, or is it all done by cell phone on their end?

JH: Zipline designs, builds and runs the entire logistics operation. We use both satellite and 3G connectivity to do so. 


KP: How many drones do you operate? How big are they, how much can they carry and how far? 

JH: Each Zip (drone) weighs approximately 10 kilograms (22 pounds), flies autonomously, can carry 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds) of medicine and can reach distances of over 120 kilometers (75 miles) round trip on a single battery charge.

Zips operate from bases called Nests, which are made from modified shipping containers and located next to existing medical warehouses. Each Nest is comprised of 15 autonomous Zips that are capable of fulfilling country-wide medical delivery requests in under an hour. Zips take off and land at the Nest, and make deliveries by descending close to the ground and air-dropping their medicine to a designated spot called a “mailbox” near the health centers they serve. 


KP: How does Zipline make money? Who pays?

JH: Working directly with national governments, Zipline will enable public health agencies to make rapid, on-demand, cross-country deliveries of lifesaving medicines and overcome infrastructure deficiencies like impassible or non-existent roads. Right now, many remote health centers across the world only receive deliveries twice a year. Zipline will make it possible for these same facilities to receive deliveries twice a day. Zipline’s service will allow health care systems to solve stock-outs, improve access to long-tail medicine, and respond to emergencies in real time, all of which can save millions of lives. 


KP: What metrics are you using to determine success, and how will Zipline know it’s become successful?

JH: We’ll be working every day to increase access to medicine, decrease delivery costs and save more lives. 


Kyle Poplin is the editor of NextBillion Health Care.

Photos courtesy of Zipline.



Health Care
Base of the Pyramid, business development, healthcare technology