The largest inland island in Africa sits just a few kilometres from mainland Tanzania and is the centre of a life-changing programme using drones to deliver vital medical aid.

Ukerewe measures 530 km squared, and is surrounded by 27 smaller islands – around 400,000 people live in the Ukerewe district. You can get to it from two main vantage points, the closest involving a boat journey of just 3.8 km. The other calls for a longer trip of three to four hours from the town of Mwanza, which is 45 km away to the south.

Either way, getting there in a hurry is not an option. And in the event of accidents or emergencies that can literally be the difference between life and death. There are several medical facilities and clinics dotted across the island and a hospital in the main town of Nansio. But a patient in one of the remoter parts of the island might have to travel for a whole day to get help.

Now, in a move that echoes similar initiatives in neighbouring Rwanda, Tanzania is using a drone service to deliver medical supplies, fast.

Image: Deutsche Post DHL Group

Flying in the face of last-mile challenges

The Tanzanian government’s Medical Stores Department (MSD) has a warehouse in Mwanza that holds stock for a network of hospitals in the Lake Victoria Region – an area with a cumulative population of more than 10 million people. But the greatest challenge facing the MSD is the last mile of distribution; it is a vast country (twice the size of the American state of California), with low population density and poor transport networks.

“I know of places in Tanzania so remote that (MSD) could take several days to deliver medical supplies,” Syriacus Buguzi, a doctor and public health advocate told Bloomberg. “Ultimately, people’s lives are transformed through timely delivery of medicines and medical supplies.”

The Tanzanian medical drone project is operated by the delivery company DHL and drone specialist Wingcopter. The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ – the German Society for International Cooperation) has provided around $170,000 in funding.

During a six-month pilot phase around 8,000 patients were helped, 2,000 flights were made and 2,200 km were travelled. The drones fly autonomously and can cover a distance of 60 km in around 40 minutes, shaving more than three hours off the end-to-end journey time.

Every minute saved counts, especially if life-saving anti-venom is being shipped to a snakebite victim, for example. But there are also many communicable and non-communicable diseases that regularly require an urgent response, as EF Chang’ah, District Commissioner of Ukerewe Island, explains: “We face a number of diseases such as malaria, typhoid, schistosomiasis and the like.”

Image: Deutsche Post DHL Group

Down-to-earth drone applications

The drones also have a vital role to play in shipping medical samples to the mainland for tests. Blood taken to determine the presence of HIV or tuberculosis, as well as other diseases, can be sent via a scheduled two-hour drone service. It means that people in remote areas get access to the same test turnaround times as those living closer to main hospital facilities.

Five or six years ago, when drones were starting to capture the public imagination, there was a lot said about how they would revolutionize many everyday tasks in the developed world, such as delivery of online purchases. It wasn’t long before the flaws in that notion were spotted. From safety concerns to the need to have a pilot in line-of-sight at all times, such fancies were eventually dismissed as unlikely to ever happen.

But in Tanzania and nearby Rwanda, there is a glimpse into a more promising and pragmatic use for drone technology. It has required a more flexible outlook from the authorities than the likes of the USA or most of Europe would be likely to adopt. When you have mountains to overcome and lakes to cross, when there are fewer people and buildings around to make the risk of collision more manageable, other considerations tend to rule the day. Such as, how many lives could be saved – whether by shipping medical supplies between Mwanza and Ukerewe or sending blood for urgent transfusion, as is the case in Rwanda.