In 2017 a pioneering humanitarian drone corridor was established in Malawi, with a dedicated airspace covering over five thousand square kilometres. Since the corridor’s creation, multiple projects have explored drone technology’s use in tackling the challenges of health supply chain logistics in a developing country. We spoke with Tautvydas (Tautis) Juskauskas, a Drones and Data Specialist with UNICEF Malawi, to find out how multiple partners came together to create this pioneering initiative and how it’s changed the humanitarian aid situation in Malawi.
The First Steps To Establishing The Corridor
Around 2015/16, UNICEF noticed an increase in the interest of using drones for humanitarian use amongst NGOS, and commercial companies seeking an opportunity for their use in the humanitarian sector. The agency soon came to realise it could be a key technology for addressing long standing issues in development logistics, especially service delivery in health supply chains. So in 2019, a collaboration between the local UNICEF country office and the Malawian government established Africa’s first humanitarian drone corridor to start testing the technology.
‘It was relatively easy to get the corridor established in comparison to other countries, as the Malawian government was keen to test this new tech, and they saw a potential benefit given accessibility and health supply chain challenges,’ says Tautis.
Of course, there were challenges to solve along the way. Heavy testing was needed in the early days of the corridor, with the UNICEF office much more active in providing admin and support.
‘We experienced a lot of drone technical difficulties, which had proven the case that the corridor was much needed to test the tech before it matures. Now it has matured more, we get much fewer tests and more drone delivery operations across the country.’
‘This started to open opportunities to really benefit from drone use,’ Tautis continues. ‘From a regulatory point of view it made it a very safe and enabling environment for drone companies, researchers, scientists and development actors to come to Malawi and test the technology in the corridor as a technological sandbox.’
UNICEF’s role has primarily been in administering the drone corridor, and ensuring that all projects are subject to regulatory clearance. Many NGOS and development agencies quickly approach UNICEF to explore the opportunities to test drone technology offered by the corridor. USAID began a donor-supported project to support the delivery of diagnostic samples in northern Malawi, whilst UNICEF, with support from the UK’s FCDO, helped embed the operations in South Malawi, continued to this day by Village Reach. The German development agency GIZ also partnered with a German startup, Wingcopter, who are beginning operations in Central Malawi to deliver medical supplies.
‘We have been very closely involved in the USAID project too, as one of our financial supporters and technical support,’ says Tautis. ‘The corridor has been an enabler as it has helped many partners become more comfortable with drone technology, which has led to more investment. As of today, we have seven or eight districts in Malawi receiving drone deliveries on an almost daily basis.’
Deploying Drones To Help Supply Chain Logistics and Emergency Responses
With the multiple projects underway, Tautis explains that drone technology is now being used to help in two main areas.
‘Firstly, we use drones for strengthening health supply operations, specifically for making Last Mile delivery. The drones help support the delivery of vaccines, diagnostic samples and general health supplies to remote medical facilities and community health centres.’
‘The technology is also being used for emergency preparedness and response, by mapping geographical areas and also helping with any search and rescue efforts. For example, aerial imagery has been used to assist with flood modelling or assessing damage of floods and other natural disasters in Malawi’.
Since UNICEF entered into collaboration with the government of Malawi, multiple departments have been involved in building the capacity of logistics and operational use, from the Ministry of Health to the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services, and the Department of Disaster Management Affairs.
‘The technology also provides a much more efficient way to monitor climate change, and helps to mitigate risks to responders during emergency situations.’
Flying The Last Mile To Improved Patient Care
The corridor quickly started seeing successes with improvement in the logistics of health supply chains and solving last mile issues. Regional health centres have seen a reduction in out-of-stock health supplies, who can now receive an order in one or two days, a reduction from around one week before. Not only has this made a great difference to the availability of certain health supplies, but also with patient diagnoses.
‘In North Malawi, the turnaround time of diagnostic samples has been reduced significantly. It would have taken around eight weeks from sample collection to issuing a test result to the patient. This was reduced to two weeks,’ says Tautis. ‘With these logistical improvements, you can improve the efficiency of treatment of the patients, such as those with conditions like TB or HIV, which is very prevalent in Malawi.’
‘The efficiency, the speed, is the key thing.’
Establishing Drone Technology In New Territories
With UNICEF’s involvement in the development and ongoing administration of the corridor, there are some key considerations that Tautis suggests for any territory wanting to explore the use of drone technology.
‘It’s very important to understand the root causes of the supply chain issues, so we are providing the appropriate remedy and are not a ‘solution-before-problem’. That takes time and requires a lot of investment. Drone technology is something that’s seen as very new and compelling, but there needs to be a more systematic approach to understand the problems and if drones are the right solutions.’
With the number of private suppliers entering the space, it’s also important to choose the right partner to supply the technology service.
‘Offering competition is great, so everyone is improving their level of service, and everyone is given a fair chance to participate. UNICEF has established very detailed guidance on the procurement of drone delivery services, which enables us to fairly select partners and private firms, and also clearly manages what is needed from the private sector.’
The final consideration is building network capacity, from the central government through to local communities, that helps with operations but also navigate regulations.
‘Regulation has been one of the key roadblocks, so it’s not seen as only a drone project but how to make it work in the local context.’
The Future Of The Corridor
So what’s next for the humanitarian drone corridor in Malawi?
‘Next is really localising the service, making sure there are lots of local private firms that start offering drone delivery as a service, and that ultimately drives the long term cost of drone delivery down and increases the sustainability and local ownership,’ explains Tautis. ‘That’s why the African Drone and Data Academy (ADDA) is an important program, because it develops local skills and capacity, and also encourages young Malawians to start offering those services to the government.’
UNICEF now plans to continue supporting Malawi with the expansion of the technology across the entire country.
Photo courtesy of UNICEF Malawi