Tackling health disparities through drone delivery

They say good things don’t drop from the sky, but they recently did in Western Kenya: Two thousand rabies vaccines were delivered by drones to help combat the disease in these rural communities. To ensure an effective cold chain storage, extensive collaboration was needed from pioneers on the ground, including NGOs, private companies, and public authorities. The use of drones introduces long-awaited, new possibilities for secure, on-demand delivery of life-saving products – for the individuals, animals and communities who need them most.

A black dot appears on the horizon, rapidly approaching with a whirling sound. Excited children race through the streets, chasing the flying object, as dogs bark in the background. This marks the arrival of an eagerly anticipated delivery in Bungoma County, Kenya, where the use of drones is creating new possibilities – bringing with them two thousand doses of rabies vaccines for the local communities’ dogs.1 Rabies is a fatal disease, primarily caused by dogs. These deaths could be avoided if available vaccines could be securely transported and cooled, readily accessible even in remote regions.

Joyce Wamalwa is a healthcare worker at the Kibisi Dispensary hospital in Kenya, facing the harsh reality of the immense suffering the disease brings to the people she serves. “We’re doing our best to combat rabies, but it’s tough,” she says. “We lack vaccines and must send patients to other hospitals for life-saving treatment, forcing them to travel for hours on rough roads.” Wamalwa is regularly in touch with the local organization Core Health and Wealth International (CHW) and was asked earlier this year to share her insights and experiences. It marked the beginning of what became a successful pilot project to fight rabies in Kenya and unfolded through a remarkable collaborative effort between Boehringer Ingelheim as a multinational corporation, start-ups and local organizations from the Boehringer's Making More Health (MMH) initiative, government authorities, and the people on the ground.

Providing medication to remote areas

In many Sub-Saharan African countries, vaccines and temperature-sensitive medical products are mainly transported by motorbikes, with limited storage, cooling, and security. Unstable cold chains make verifying vaccinations difficult and hinder timely rabies vaccine delivery. To implement an effective vaccination delivery program, it was essential to leverage the expertise of many of the Boehringer's partners in the company's existing Sustainable Development – For Generations network. “We have worked hard to build trust and create effective partnerships on the ground, with the shared objective of creating better access to essential health services,” shares Ayman Eissa, Lead Sustainable Development at Boehringer Ingelheim IMETA2. Collaborating with local NGOs from our MMH network like CHW and GAASPP (Golden Age and Albinism Support and Protection Program), a regional community organization in western Kenya, the team was able to rely on a strong foundation of trust to engage the local communities. The next step was to find an aerial transportation partner to explore opportunities with a lasting impact on healthcare outcomes.

“We have worked hard to build trust and create effective partnerships on the ground, with the shared objective of creating better access to essential health services.”

Ayman Eissa,
Lead Sustainable Development at Boehringer Ingelheim IMETA

Partnering for drone distributions

Upon joint consultation, Daniel Blay and his team from Zipline, specializing in on-demand drone delivery, became part of the Kenyan pilot project to distribute vaccines. Their long-range, high-speed drones weigh under 25 kg and carry up to 3 kg. Dropping packages from a height of 30 meters, they fly at altitudes between 100 and 200 meters, remaining virtually unnoticed until they are just two minutes away. “Zipline serves as the technology provider, but our success depends on strong partners on the ground who mobilize communities and supply high-quality products,” says Zipline’s Vice President Blay.

To cover the crucial last-mile to remote vaccination stations, VacciBox, a portable solar-powered fridge, was used during the campaign. “Not a single vaccine was wasted that day,” Norah Magero proudly recalls, founder of Drop Access, emphasizing that the challenge is not a lack of vaccines, but rather spoiled vaccines due to inadequate storage. The start-up joined the MMH Accelerator Program earlier this year and was asked to support the rabies project. This experience demonstrated VacciBox’s potential, now capable of storing up to 3,000 vaccines and running for 36 hours on battery.

On-site insights, people who recognize the program’s benefits, and professionals constructing dispensers for the delivered products (as done by CHW) are crucial for the project’s success. An impressive tally of ca. 2,000 dogs were vaccinated at eight different sites throughout Bungoma and Kakamega County in only one day. By the end of the year, the program aims to distribute an additional 10,000 doses across Kenya’s Lake Region Economic Bloc.

vaccinated dogs in one day

Disruption to by an entire ecosystem

The Kenya pilot project builds on a successful proof-of-concept in Ghana, aiming to create robust health systems using drone delivery. CowTribe is one of the organizations that made this innovative collaboration possible in the first place. The Ghana-based start-up offers a platform for livestock farmers to access vaccinations and veterinary services by aggregating demand and has been part of the MMH network since 2019. In collaboration with Zipline and a cross-functional team from Boehringer Ingelheim, the pioneers had established a holistic approach to identify infrastructural pain points for farmers and agro-vets, building a groundbreaking distribution system:

In the first half of 2023, 292 drone flights distributed 1.4 million poultry vaccine doses to nearly 5,000 rural smallholders and which resulted in a significant reduction in vaccine costs. “Nearly all our deliveries are now drone-supported, cutting customer wait times from several days to a maximum of eight hours,” confirms CowTribe CEO Peter Adwin.

The impact of drone delivery in healthcare, facilitated by reliable collaboration on the ground, is truly remarkable: Not only has this innovative approach the potential to make the delivery of essential healthcare products more efficient and cost-effective, but it also enables on-demand deliveries without the need for storage at a facility. “Our collective disruption through a co-created ecosystem is recognized by stakeholders on the ground and within the government, validating our ambitions,” emphasizes Kiran Dsouza, Head of IT at Boehringer Ingelheim IMETA.

This acknowledgment underscores the significance of the Boehringer's collaborative efforts, serving as a prime example of how, by working together, the company can empower communities to improve their living conditions and make a meaningful contribution to enhance access to health in the most remote areas of this world.

“Nearly all our deliveries are now drone-supported, cutting customer wait times from several days to a maximum of eight hours.”

Peter Adwin, CEO of CowTribe
Rabies (who.int)
(short for: India, Middle East, Turkey and Africa)