Good For Drones = Drones For Good?

Welcome to the latest edition of the Storm King Analytics newsletter, a bi-weekly update on what we’re doing, reading, and listening. This week, we take a slight detour into the startup scene of Kigali, Rwanda, where drones are being pressed into service to deliver medical supplies to remote locations — along with groceries.
We went to Rwanda with the intention to map Kigali’s resource networks; we just didn’t expect any of them would fly.
Drones are hot in the capital’s startup scene, which may sound surprising but shouldn’t be. For one thing, the government is aggressively positioning the city as the tech hub of Sub-Saharan Africa, with investments in mobile telephony networks to match. For another, Rwanda’s topography is famously hilly, with many remote communities that are cut off completely during the rainy season. Stronger smartphone reception is a start, but if ever there was a place for an Internet of Flying Things, this is it.

The Rwandan Countryside

And so it is. Last year, the architect Lord Norman Foster and his partners selected Rwanda as the test bed for a droneport network capable of relaying supplies across nearly half the country by 2020, followed by subsequent expansion to more than 40 stations nationwide — at least according to the press release.

Droneport Concept from Lord Norman Foster

While Foster and his deep-pocketed NGO partners gear up to match their beautiful renderings, local and global entrepreneurs alike aren’t waiting. During our data collection visit in May, we were invited to join a “Drones for Health” hackathon sponsored by the Kigali branch of Impact Hub, a worldwide co-working network for social entrepreneurs. Two participants particularly impressed us.
One was Zipline, which uses a slingshot-launched fixed-wing drone capable of speeds of 100 km per hour. The California-based startup has raised $19 million in venture capital from the likes of Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, and has used that cash (and clout) to partner with UPS and Gavi: The Vaccine Alliance, to test the delivery of medical supplies via drone-delivered parachute. (A few months later, Zipline was selected by the White House to conduct similar trials in America.)
If all goes according to plan, Zipline will deliver all blood products for twenty hospitals and health centers, improving access to healthcare for millions of Rwandans. Thanks to the drones’ extended range, it’s technically possible to cover Rwanda’s 10,000 square miles from a single base.
The other participant was Globhe, a loose confederation of global health consultants and drone experts partnered with a consortium of universities and the drone-makers ofMatternet to develop similar solutions. (At this point in drones’ evolutionary cycle, the value-to-weight ratio of medicines, coupled with their extraordinary social good, makes this a no-brainer for startups.) Unlike Zipline, however, Globhe and its partners are mainly pursuing rotor-based drones. While this deprives them of a fixed-wing’s range, it does provide precision delivery and offers the possibility of carrying payloads back to base (such as blood samples for testing, etc.).

A Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) delivering medical supplies.

While Zipline and Globhe wrangle for market share in Rwanda’s increasingly crowded drone-based medicine-delivery space (not a sentence we’d ever thought we would write), one of the highlights of our trip was meeting Lauren Russell, a young Yale graduate who runs a next-day motorcycle grocery delivery service named GETIT Rwanda. Expect to hear more about GETIT in future newsletters, as one of our new side projects is assisting Lauren in straightening out a supply chain that includes fresh fruits and vegetables that would make Whole Foods weep. But for now, suffice it to say that Lauren is also working with Rwanda’s government to test drone-based grocery deliveries within Kigali.
Why did we devote an entire newsletter to this? Well, in addition to demonstrating there’s more to drones than patrolling the Sahel or delivering burritos to Virginia Tech students, we’re convinced these initiatives will have a non-trivial contribution to Kigali’s in the next few years, and that the lessons learned from our Infrastructure Networks project might flow back into assisting with the optimization of routes and payloads.
Or, in fewer words: Kigali is currently building the world’s next great network. We want to map it when they do.

More from Storm King Analytics:

  • Harkening back to a previous newsletter devoted to the royal family of Morocco, this unsigned editorial on Morocco World News (character) assassinates Prince Moulay Hicham — the king’s dissident cousin — as a schizophrenic tax cheat. When you’re locked into an internal power struggle, you need to use every tool at your disposal…
  • Djibouti is topic of fascination to us for reasons that will become clear in future newsletters. Where else will you find U.S., Chinese, and Saudi military bases practically within spitting distance of each other?

Other interesting tidbits:

  • Speaking of Rwanda, the World Economic Forum ranks it third amongst the most competitive Sub-Saharan African economies behind Mauritius (an offshore hub) and South Africa.
  • A jihadist was convicted of war crimes for his part in destroying holy shrines in Timbuktu during Ansar Dine’s uprising in 2012. Good.
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