Drones & Africa’s Colonial Heritage
Rwanda is proving to be the exception to the rule that African governments cannot transcend their colonial histories, genocidal post-colonial records and generally destructive government.
It is in the fertile soil of the Rwanda re-birth that this month’s story grows. Bloomberg reports that; “In the spring of 1994, Abdoul Salam Nizeyimana’s executioners arrived. It was about two weeks after the Hutu majority-controlled government stepped up its decades-long persecution of the Tutsi minority, calling on citizens to slaughter all Tutsis.”
Nizeyimana’s family was Tutsi, and it didn’t take long for the killers to come knocking. Nizeyimana, who was three years old at the time, hid under the bed with his mother and two siblings. The father stepped out, probably in an attempt to convince the militia that his family wasn’t home. Nizeyimana heard them talking briefly, and then he couldn’t hear his father talking at all. Having hacked the father to death with their machetes, the men moved into the bedroom and found the rest of the family. The men swung at them, including Nizeyimana, who was struck at the top of his head. Everyone died. Everyone except him.
Nizeyimana remembers the following years only in staccato moments, like disconnected dots on a graph. At one point he was at a homeless shelter for survivors, and at another point his grandmother found him there. She took him in and remembers him being a studious boy; but Nizeyimana remembers it differently. “I was a stubborn kid at school, and I caused a lot of trouble for my grandma,” he says. “The first couple of years of school were really, really hard.”
Things changed in his teens when his uncle and chief benefactor pulled him aside one day. “He told me, ‘I can pay your school fees, I can help you grow, I can build a house for you, but I cannot be a man in your place,’” Nizeyimana recalls. So he studied hard, obtaining his associate degree in renewable energy engineering first, then his bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronics engineering, all the while working various jobs.
The hard work paid off. Today, Nizeyimana leads a team of young people in Rwanda who launch and retrieve autonomous drones that deliver blood to remote hospitals. The drone flies to the clinic at up to 60 mph. When it is within a minute of its destination, the waiting clinic receives a text. The drone then drops the package, attached to a parachute, into a marked-off zone near the clinic, before returning to base.
The 27-year-old Rwandan already probably knows more than anyone else about what it takes to run a drone delivery operation. While the big budget tech giants like Amazon.com and Alphabet Inc. generated buzzy headlines about their drone delivery trials, Nizeyimana’s employer Zipline International just got on with the job of pioneering a commercial service back in 2016. Zipline is headquartered in California, but decided to open its first distribution centre in Muhanga, west of Kigali, Rwanda’s capital.
Bloomberg reports that Nizeyimana and his co-workers have now completed more than 8,000 flights, carrying about 15,000 units of blood to 21 hospitals in Rwanda’s western region. Zipline’s negotiations with the Rwandan government started in early 2015, when the company approached a number of African governments with an idea for delivery drones. The start-up’s founders knew they wanted to do something in healthcare, but they weren’t sure what exactly to deliver. It was the Rwandan government that suggested starting out with blood – much of the country is connected by winding, dirt roads in the mountains that get washed out in the rainy seasons, making it difficult for hospitals to procure blood in emergencies. And Rwanda was willing to change its regulations to make it happen, including opening up its airspace for the company’s drones. In April 2016, Zipline announced that it planned to start its first delivery service in Rwanda.
About a month later Nizeyimana heard about Zipline at the World Economic Forum on Africa, where the California start-up had a booth. Nizeyimana left the conference sceptical. Having undertaken a mostly unsuccessful drone delivery project at school, he had discovered just how difficult it was to make such a system work. He also knew corporations much larger than Zipline were struggling to make meaningful headway with the new technology. But then, a few weeks later, an American company needed someone to fix its generator and a friend referred Nizeyimana for the job. When Nizeyimana showed up, the company in need happened to be Zipline, which was laying the groundwork for its first distribution centre. Intrigued that the company was moving ahead, he emailed to say he wanted to apply. In September 2016, Nizeyimana became its first local hire. Today, the country’s staff of about 20 are almost all Rwandan.
Even though the drones fly autonomously, that is without a ground pilot with line of sight contact with the drone, there’s a surprising amount of work that goes into running a drone delivery operation. At Zipline’s distribution centre there are two main jobs: fulfilment operators, who package the requested blood; and flight operators, which is what Nizeyimana does. When an order comes in, he assembles the plane, packs the bags of blood inside and places it onto a launcher, which catapults the drone into air. When the aircraft returns, a robotically controlled line catches the plane by its tail, after which two people disassemble the plane. It’s when things break, as they invariably do, that Nizeyimana seems most animated, hunched over the object of concern with a tool in hand. He says he falls asleep most nights thinking through the next thing he hopes to fix.
Nizeyimana today is planning to do a post graduate study in robotics, potentially overseas, because the job also made him realise how much more there is to learn. But it’s not just sheer curiosity that’s propelling him to this next stage of his life. He thinks he can better serve Rwanda if he’s better-educated and better-skilled.
He says Rwanda will become the Singapore of Africa in the next decade and a half, repeating a commonly voiced aspiration in the country. It’s wildly lofty – Singapore enjoys the fifth-highest quality of life in the world, compared with Rwanda’s rank at 159th – but Nizeyimana sees it as his personal obligation to help the country get there.
It’s a lot for a 27-year-old to achieve but he isn’t alone. In Rwanda the median age is 19, so the country is full of young people like him who speak with this particular mix of extreme ambition, optimism and duty. It’s been 24 years since the genocide, and the country has come a long way: the economy, for example, has grown more than seven-fold. Yet few are standing still to celebrate. They’re impatient for the future.
Nizeyimana says he derives his drive from the sheer improbability of his survival. With an open gash on his head, in a city where there was little food and water, let alone a functioning healthcare system, surrounded by people who systematically mobilised to ensure his death, he had lived. “If I got another chance to live, would I want to use that chance for having a lot of beers, or buying cars? What should I use the second chance for?” he says. “Serving the community and making an impact on other people’s lives is what makes sense for me.”
Nizeyimana’s experience and his scars, both emotional and physical, would reduce almost anyone to living the rest of their life like a beaten dog. But he has, like his country, managed to overcome the trauma of his past and move on. While regulators in the first world battle to manage the burgeoning drone industry, Rwanda just got on with it and wrote drone regulations that are liberal and far sighted enough to enable Zipline to provide an invaluable lifesaving service.
In contrast, almost everywhere else in Africa it is proving almost impossible to get a Drone Operators Certificate or licence, and even Zipline with its track record of success, is struggling to get approvals to work in Tanzania.
Keller Rinaudo, Zipline’s co-founder and chief executive officer, is upbeat; “Some of the biggest, most powerful technology companies in the world are still trying to figure out how to do this. But east Africa is showing them all the way. The work in Rwanda has shown the world what’s possible when you make a national commitment to expand healthcare access with drones and help to save lives.” This year Zipline hopes to deliver a range of medical products – including blood transfusion supplies, HIV medication, anti-malarials, sutures and UV tubes – to four bases in Tanzania, supporting more than 1,000 clinics.