Historically, industrial revolutions haven’t been kind to poor people. Despite the potential benefits technology can offer, the immediate impact on the lowest-paid members of society has often been negative. If it wasn’t putting people out of work, then technology was usually endangering them through hazardous working environments or long-term exposure to pollutants. And even today there is evidence that technology-driven economies are favoring just a small group of successful individuals, and thereby exacerbating inequality.

But now, with what the World Economic Forum (WEF) is calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we are seeing a different story unfold. Where steam once led to mechanization, electricity to mass production, and IT to automation, this fourth revolution is fusing technologies to achieve something new. Not only are the world’s poorest having their lives radically improved by these advances, but in some cases they are actually the first to benefit.

This marks an important and potentially powerful global shift. It can sometimes take decades before people on the bottom rung of the economic ladder can afford access to new technologies, even though they are often the ones with the most to gain. But the revolution now under way has the potential to usher in big improvements in quality of life with low-income countries as the early adopters. That means it can help close the global health gap between rich and poor.

Take the example of civilian drones. Despite much talk about gimmicky applications like drone-delivered pizza, the real potential lies in transporting medical supplies. A number of companies like Matternet are working on this in the United States but have been held back by regulations, because until last month it was illegal to fly a commercial drone without approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. However, in Rwanda the government is embracing the technology.

This week, while hosting the World Economic Forum on Africa in its capital city, Kigali, the Rwandan government announced a new nationwide drone delivery service. In partnership with the U.S. drone company Zipline International and partly funded by UPS and my own organization, Gavi, this service will use drones to deliver time-critical emergency medical supplies, such as blood and rabies vaccines, from the capital to Rwanda’s remotest regions. This is an elegant solution to some of the formidable and unpredictable challenges involved in reaching marginalized communities with unpredictable needs.

First published by Technology Review. The rest of this article can be read in full here.

This article is part of our Africa series. You can read more here.

The World Economic Forum on Africa is taking place in Kigali, Rwanda from 11 to 13 May.