The Health Challenges We Continue to Solve

Sabrina Ravail
Dec 3, 2020 · 9 min read

In January 2020, Swoop Aero, in partnership with Frontier Technology Livestreaming (FTL), the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO, or UK AID), and UNICEF Malawi, established a multi-drone aeromedical logistics network in the Southern districts of Chikwawa and Nsanje of Malawi to assist and support the Malawian Ministry of Health achieve national health targets for the residing 800,000 citizens in the area, as outlined in the Health Sector Strategic Plan III (2017–2022).

Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, the Swoop Aero medical drone logistics platform has also been utilised to support the national government’s rapid pandemic response. Upon the request of the Malawian Ministry of Health and Population, Swoop Aero tripled the number of aircraft and commenced additional recruitment of local workforce team members to manage and pilot the network, also collaborating with the African Drone and Data Academy (ADDA) to utilise the skills and knowledge of their local graduates.​ Since January 2020, Swoop Aero has scaled-up operations to service 38 health centres across the two districts, via the establishment of two drone hubs. Swoop Aero’s achievements are best characterised by our continued operation.

As Sprint 4, and Swoop Aero’s partnership with UNICEF and UK Aid comes to an end, we have taken the time to reflect on these key achievements, and our plans for the future.

Swoop Aero plans to sustain operations in Malawi as a demonstration of our commitment to the national Ministry of Health and Population as well as the Malawian community; this was never a PR exercise for us. Scaling-up our existing network alongside our trusted and global not-for-profit partner, VillageReach, the continued operation of this established network will enable a more rapid and responsive method to the COVID-19 pandemic, and beyond.

Swoop Aero already showed this commitment by leveraging alternative funding arrangements during parts of the operation when UK Aid and UNICEF were in between sprints. A halt in services would have had and will have profound implications for community health outcomes as well as operational efficiency of the health supply chain in Malawi.

The Health Challenges We Continue to Solve

Malawi is characterised by a heavy burden of disease as evidenced by high levels of child and adulthood mortality rates and high prevalence of diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, HIV/AIDS and other tropical diseases. In 2008, the World Health Organisation estimated that out of the total population of 14 million, 5 million people had malaria illness. In March 2018, UNAIDS reported 1,000,000 people above 15 years of age in Malawi were currently living with HIV/AIDS. In addition, UNAIDS noted that of the total population aged between 15–49 years, this grouping experienced a HIV prevalence rate of 8.9%; 79% of this total figure were currently receiving antiretroviral treatment for the disease.

The need for infrastructure improvements and geographical proximity continue to exacerbate the rate of illness and mortality evidenced in Malawi. Other indirect causes include delays in seeking care, a poor referral system, and lack of appropriate drugs, equipment and staff capacity. The pre-existing method of medical commodity transportation pertained to the use of Riders for Health motorbikes and on-ground courier vehicles, which would take hours, sometimes days, to reach the specified destination.

In 2019, the Malawi government issued the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) III. The report outlined the objectives of the Malawian government as to how Malawi should move forward as a productive, competitive and resilient nation. Health was defined as a prerequisite for increased national productivity, accelerated economic growth and poverty reduction. In addition, health was imperative to accelerating the socio-economic development of other areas, such as education, environment, agriculture and industry. The strategy was underpinned by the realisation that Malawi’s population is relatively useful, with approximately half of the population (46%) under the age of 15 and up to 73% of the population below the age of 30 years. This youthful population is coupled with a high fertility rate. In 2017, the World Bank affirmed that the birth rate in Malawi was approximately 4.3. The government identified that population planning and management would dramatically improve access to quality basic services and amenities, enhances economic variables, and reduces environmental damage.

The Ministry of Health and Population identified drones as an innovative and dynamic method of healthcare service and commodity delivery; utilising the Swoop Aero drone logistics platform as their primary method of medical commodity transportation and delivery.

Since January, Swoop Aero has expanded the operational capacity of the network to distribute and collect medical supplies, the frequency of flights as well as volume of goods transported through the integration of an additional four aircraft and expansion of the number of routes alongside the Riders for Health network. Swoop Aero has trained more than 70 district health staff to send and receive medical cargo across 38 health centres and has employed 6 full time local community members, including graduates from the African Drone and Data Academy (ADDA) to operate and manage the network, including hub operations manager and piloting duties.

Swoop Aero is committed to three principles; sustainable, reliable, and scalable.

As is the nature of donor funding, UNICEF and UK Aid financing for Swoop Aero operations in Malawi has come to an end. In an effort to maintain the momentum and positive strides made in the realm of improved health outcomes and wellbeing of the Malawian population, Swoop Aero has decided to sustain operations unilaterally for the next months as our partner, VillageReach, prepares to join us for the continued scaling-up of the drone logistics platform to provide a nationwide network over the coming months, and years.

Our growth as a company is rapidly scaling with our impact as we endeavour to transform the delivery of essential healthcare as well as improve the availability and accessibility of essential medical supplies for the national population. ​That’s why, for instance, we also self-funded operations between July and August to ensure the district populations’ needs were met in relation to the provision and access of COVID-19 supplies and related medical commodities at the height of the pandemic. UNICEF and UK Aid could not allocate funds to the project during this time. Swoop Aero prides itself on its long-term commitment to drive impact and the desire to yield positive health outcomes for the national population of Malawi. Without a focus on genuine value creation, businesses are destined to continually shift their focus to new revenue extraction approaches, or wither and die. It comes down to values focus, and at Swoop Aero, ours is on value through impact; revenue and profits will follow suit.

The concept of sustainability is indeed a multifaceted one; encompassing environmental, economic and social elements. In Malawi, Swoop Aero has sought to preserve and enhance the social, environmental and economic sustainability of the platform. We have done this through the training and technical upskilling of the local workforce, the integration of environmentally sustainable business practices and the close working relationships forged between Swoop Aero, our partners, the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) and the Ministry of Health and Population.

The training of local communities and Swoop Aero’s focus on community engagement has demonstrated long term, positive social benefits for those remote and regional communities that remain the primary beneficiaries of the service. The employment and training of the local workforce offers the community the chance to up-skill and gain an advanced understanding of the technological platform. Once employed these members receive a competitive salary, which allows them to gain greater economic freedom and stability, thus contributing to a better quality of life. The intention of long term, inclusive community engagement and the practical training of local team members to operate the aircraft and network is to ensure the network is sustainable and remains a long term, self sufficient solution to the present inequitable health issues experienced by the community.

Since February, Swoop Aero has trained 6 Malawian staff members who can operate the air logistics network, coordinate flight operations and manage the central distribution hub. In addition, Swoop Aero has trained more than 70 local community members to receive and deliver essential medical cargo, across 38 district health facilities. The sustainability of the service is prefaced in the fact that district healthcare professionals can now focus on patient care and treatment rather than health supply procurement.

Teamwork makes the dream work

Our commitment to community engagement has enabled Swoop Aero to navigate the complexities that have arisen within these unprecedented times, and flourish unlike any other company in the realm of medical drone logistics. Upskilling the local workforce and transferring the skills and knowledge to operate the network successfully has ensured the continued success of service at the height of the pandemic. Capacity building and fostering of self sufficiency within the local health supply chain has yielded immense benefits for the local communities in Malawi as well as imbued trust and confidence within the service to perform in any context, without disruption. Without our local teams working hard on the ground to facilitate the continued operation of the network during COVID-19 times, our mission could only be a distant possibility.

VillageReach is a non-profit with global reach and core offices in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique and the United States. They focus on the availability of quality health care by increasing access to medicines and vaccines, improving the capacity of the health workforce and enabling better decision-making for patients, health workers and policy-makers.

The organisation continues to work hard to understand the use and utility of drones for essential commodity delivery in low-resource environments, collaborating with stakeholders such as governments, donors, NGO parties as well as private UAV technology firms and manufacturers.

As part of their broader work on improving health supply chains, VillageReach has partnered with stakeholders at the local, regional and global levels since 2014 to explore the use of drones for the transport of medical commodities. Their expertise and experience in several countries is described in the “Drones for Health” ​overview​. In Malawi, VillageReach has been supporting the government in its exploration of drone technology since 2016. They were the lead partner that worked with the Department of Civil Aviation to create the National Drone technical working group (TWG), in which VillageReach remains the secretariat. VillageReach also assisted the TWG in developing the operational toolkit for implementers and drone companies. In addition to its leadership in building the enabling environment to explore drone delivery technology in Malawi, VillageReach also led two feasibility and safety drone delivery projects with two drone service providers and conducted two costing ​studies for drone integrations into health systems

Since 2019, VillageReach and Swoop Aero have partnered together in Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique. In the last trimester of 2020, both organisations’ will expand their trusting relationship in Malawi. Both organisations’ seek to support the Ministry of Health and Population as they tackle the pandemic head on, as well as minimise the impact of other persistent health challenges, such as low immunisation rates and unpredictable pathology sample transportation for TB sputum and blood samples. Together, Swoop Aero and VillageReach will work closely with the Ministry of Health and Population to scale up the existing networks in Nsanje and Chikwawa to roll out a nationwide drone logistics network that will cover an estimated 3 million people across Malawi; who live in remote and hard-to-reach geographical locales.

“Our partnership with VillageReach remains premised on the notions of impact and value creation, as we seek to collaboratively build a robust and resilient health supply chain that in the coming months and years is capable of improving the accessibility and availability of essential health supplies for the whole nation of Malawi. As we have demonstrated in both DR Congo and Mozambique, like-minded organisations with a genuine commitment to global health and community wellbeing, are powerful tools in the construction of an agile global health system.” noted Eric Peck, CEO of Swoop Aero.

“It is through radical collaboration and building on previous successes and lessons learned that the government of Malawi’s vision of a drone supported health supply chain will become a reality. This motivated the partnership between Swoop Aero and VillageReach in Malawi“ explained Dr. Olivier Defawe, Drones for Health Program Lead at VillageReach.

Swoop Aero and VillageReach are currently seeking additional funding to maintain the network during this interim period between Phases 2 (sustain phase) and 3 (scale up phase), to ensure positive impacts made within the Phase 2 operation period are not lost or significantly impeded by a delay or halting of the network.

If you are interested in Swoop Aero’s operations in Malawi and seek additional information as a potential donor, please reach out to Sabrina Ravail, Commercial Director at Swoop Aero.

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