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Heroes In The Sky

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At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Rwanda featured prominently for its drone technology, especially for its delivery of blood supplies to its rural areas.

The small East African nation was praised for being the first country in the world to adopt performance-based regulation for drones, which includes policies for safety, innovation and approvals.

Most would imagine that a small emerging land locked economy would have far more pressing priorities than drone technology, an element of the fourth industrial revolution which is still in concept phase in most developed countries, but they would be wrong.

The country is using it as an opportunity to address age old struggles, such as preventable deaths like postpartum bleeding.

Regulation, however, is not Rwanda’s first global milestone with drone technology. In October 2016, the country was the first in the world to commercially launch and use drones to deliver medical supplies.

To understand this development, one has to travel to Muhanga, a small town in Rwanda’s Southern Province, which hosts the country’s ‘drone port’.

On a cloudy Thursday afternoon in January, a remotely-piloted buzzing drone flies low above Ruhango District Hospital, in Muhanga, drops a red package on the lawn and takes to the skies again.

The hospital’s patients are not surprised by the low-flying drone; they are accustomed to such occurrences. A nurse rushes out of the nearby consultation waiting area, picks up the package and makes his way back to the patients.

Earlier in the day, another drone made a similar drop at Kabgayi Hospital, about 30 minutes away. This is how Rwanda’s remote healthcare facilities receive blood supplies in the southern and western parts of the hilly country.

Previously, the delivery of blood supplies from the central National Centre for Blood Transfusion to remote parts of the country took hours, holding up resources and medical staff, and at times forcing them to spend a night in Kigali.

Prior to drones, it took ambulances four hours to transport blood supplies from Kigali to Kabgayi Hospital by road. The ambulance would need to make this trip two to four times a week.

Apart from the difficulties of the road trip, laboratory technicians had to abandon their facilities and patients to process orders of blood supplies. With the adoption of drone technology by the Rwandan government, through a public-private partnership, the process now takes about 30 minutes.

READ MORE: Mind Blown By Drone At 160km/h

The innovative initiative was launched in October 2016, following an agreement between the Rwandan government and Zipline, a robotics company in California.

The partnership was one-of-a-kind. Across the world, drones are associated with bombing and spying. In Rwanda, however, drones were a sight for sore eyes as they came with much-needed medical supplies.

To many people, the two partners were underdogs. Zipline was a start-up firm and was yet to commercially roll out the concept, while Rwanda was not renowned for being a global innovation hub.

Keller Rinaudo, the CEO and Co-Founder of Zipline, says they were driven to succeed because of the millions of lives lost across the world due to preventable causes, like excessive blood loss.

Zipline co-founders Keller Rinaudo (left) and Will Hetzler at the launch of the firm’s operations in Muhanga (Photo by Faustin Niyigena)

While most countries adopted a wait and see attitude, Rwanda was willing to step up.

Millions of women across the world die each year due to postpartum hemorrhaging (PPH). In fact, the United States has the highest rate of maternal death due to PPH in the industrialized world. It’s a major global problem. Rwanda was the first country in the world to step up and decide that they would tackle it with the most cutting-edge technology available,” says Rinaudo.

As the Rwandan government established regulatory framework to operate drones, Zipline gathered advice from everyone involved, including governmental departments, doctors, nurses, National Centre for Blood Transfusion officials, and laboratory technicians.

“The easy part was building the technology. The hard part was integrating with the national health system,” says Rinaudo.

As Zipline was building an ecosystem for drone technology, the state was looking at the safety and security concerns around the disruptive technology. This resulted in regulations such as seeking clearance from the Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority before taking off, registration of drones, and acquiring flying permits.

These regulations reduce the likelihood of drones being used for illegal activities or interfering with a plane’s flight path.

The hype around the innovative project attracted the attention of international corporations.

UPS, a global logistics firm, and Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), a public-private global health partnership, sought to be involved.

UPS, with an interest in using drones for their own deliveries, supported the initial launch with a grant of $800,000. GAVI was using the project to see if they could use the model elsewhere and improve healthcare across the world.

With a staff of about 50 and a fleet of 15 drones, Zipline has since made over 2,000 deliveries with over a quarter of them saving lives. The company is now looking to double the number of its drones as well as adding more advanced drones to its fleet.

“Our base in Rwanda has operated with 15 planes. We’re replacing those aircraft with the next generation and will soon begin flying 30 drones from each base we operate,” says Rinaudo.

This is welcome news for Rwandans, like Esperanza Ugirambabazi, who needed a transfusion when giving birth to her son at Kabgayi Hospital. In about 30 minutes, this was made possible because of one of the drones.

Another young mother from the same district tells of her months-old son who had malaria and urgently needed a blood transfusion. He is alive today because of the drone delivery.

The success of the project has led to a second phase starting in the eastern part of Rwanda, as well as demand for the service in other African countries.

“We’re in the process of setting up a second base in Rwanda to serve the rest of the country, bringing all 11 million citizens within a reach of this lifesaving technology. We’ll be expanding across Africa and the world this year. Zipline is building an instant delivery service for the planet,” Rinaudo says confidently.

Tanzania, with a neighbor of Rwanda, has expressed demand for the services. In 2017, the country announced that it would launch drone delivery services to provide medical supplies in the first quarter of 2018.

The Tanzanian Ministry of Health ambitiously intends to make up to 2,000 deliveries a day to over 1,000 facilities across the country, targeting about 10 million people. The country has already established regulatory framework for the technology.

A drone ready to take off from Muhanga drone port in Rwanda’s Southern Province (Photo by Faustin Niyigena)

For Rwanda, the success of the partnership with Zipline is just the start.

Rwanda’s Minister of Information Technology and Communication Jean de Dieu Rurangirwa says that the country is creating an enabling environment for further deployment of drone technology.

Beyond regulation, the government has been mulling plans to build capacity among emerging techies to increase the number of players in the sector.

“Building on the success of Zipline’s blood delivery technology, we are working to nurture a drone industry. As we look to the future, we will continue to put in place the infrastructure and policy frameworks that accelerate the adoption of emerging technologies to transform people’s lives,” says Rurangirwa.

“We are also establishing capacity-building programs to invest in local talent and leverage public-private partnerships to lay the groundwork for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

READ MORE: Something To Drone About

Already, other sectors have been working around incorporating the technology in their line of work.

In Musanze District, in the Northern Province, a pilot test phase is underway to introduce drone technology for potato crop monitoring, involving around 20 farming cooperatives. This will monitor for pests and diseases, which could boost crop harvests.

There are also conversations about introducing drones in the famous Akagera National Park to combat poaching.

With the new regulations in place, small businesses and entrepreneurs are finding ways to make the most of the technology. Local photographers, for example, are in the process of acquiring drones so their services can include aerial photography.

Renowned British architect Norman Foster is another who has been quick to take advantage. His firm, Foster + Partners, has expressed interest in building the world’s first drone port in the country.

Rwanda’s approach and progress in drone technology is seen as a model for other countries in the region.

“The government of Rwanda’s leadership in co-designing agile policy frameworks around the use of drones could be a model for other countries that want to accelerate adoption of this game-changing technology,” says Murat Sonmez, Head of the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, based in San Francisco.

Rwanda may be a small country, but it’s taking giant strides.

 

– By Collins Mwai

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MultiChoice, Africa’s Biggest TV Operator, To Be Listed By Naspers, Africa’s Largest Public Company

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Koos Bekker, billionaire and chairman of Naspers Ltd., reacts during an interview at his office in Cape Town, South Africa, on Thursday, May 7, 2015. South Africa lacks a coherent economic policy and government departments are failing to work together, said Bekker, chairman of Africa's biggest company. Photographer: Halden Krog/Bloomberg via Getty Images

 

Naspers, the emerging markets internet and media giant which is the largest public company in Africa, will list its satellite television subsidiary MultiChoice, it has announced.

MultiChoice’s DStv service is the biggest TV operation in Africa, broadcasting to some 50 countries, and was one of the first satellite companies to pioneer the then newly-minted digital broadcasting when it began in 1996.

The spun-off company will be listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) and will be known as MultiChoice Group. It will include MultiChoice South Africa, MultiChoice Africa, Showmax Africa, and Irdeto. Naspers will retain its primary listing on the JSE.

“This marks a significant step for the Naspers Group as we continue our evolution into a global consumer internet company,” said Naspers CEO Bob van Dijk. “Listing MultiChoice Group via an unbundling aims to unlock value for Naspers shareholders and at the same time create an empowered, top-40 JSE-listed African entertainment company.”

MultiChoice has been part of Naspers’ Video Entertainment division, which had revenue of ZAR47.1-billion ($3.1-billion), a trading profit of R6.1-billion ($401.6-million) and added 1.5-million subscribers in the last financial year, according to Naspers figures. It “is one of the fastest growing pay-TV operators globally. Its multi-platform business entertains 13.5-million households across Africa.. and employs more than 9,000 people in Africa,” it said. A further 20,000 people are employed by its partners and suppliers on the continent.

MultiChoice offers online streaming services called ShowMax (which offers a pure-play service in Poland) and DStv Now.

“The Video Entertainment business is an African success story. This unbundling and listing is expected to deliver value to the South African economy as well as to Naspers and Phuthuma Nathi shareholders. Naspers will continue to invest in South Africa through our interest in e-commerce business such as Takealot, Mr. D Food, PayU, OLX, Property24, and AutoTrader, amongst others,” Van Dijk added.

Phuthuma Nathi is a Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) scheme in South Africa, BEE is government policy designed to redress the injustices of Apartheid. The unbundling is subject to regulatory approval in various African countries.

“Listing and unbundling MultiChoice Group is intended to create a  leading entertainment business listed on the JSE that is profitable and cash generative. WE offer an unmatched selection of local and original content, as well as a world-class sports offering. Our leadership team is diverse, experienced and well-positioned to take the company forward,” said Video Entertainment chief executive Imtiaz Patel. “There are growth opportunities for MultiChoice Group in Africa. The combination of MultiChoice’s reach, Showmax and DStv Now’s cutting-edge internet television service, alongside Irdeto’s 360-security suite will provide a unique offering. Our customer focus, international and local content, and pioneering technology places MultiChoice Group at the forefront of African digital transformation.”

Earlier this year Naspers sold a 2% stake in Tencent for nearly $10-billion to fund its internet growth and offloaded its share in Indian e-commerce business Flipkart to Walmart. In mid-2016, Naspers became the first South African company to reach the magical R1-trillion valuation.

For decades MultiChoice was the crown jewel of the Naspers stable, until its internet interest – especially Tencent – became the group’s focus. The first channel, called M-Net, was the brainchild of Koos Bekker, now Naspers chairman, who was studying for an MBA at Columbia University. At the time it launches in 1986 M-Net was one of only two pay-TV channels in the world.

Bekker told me that he had seen the success of HBO during his studies and approached Ton Vosloo, then CEO of Nationale Pers (Naspers), a large newspaper group with Afrikaans-language publications, with his idea. Vosloo was keen to find another revenue stream for Naspers which had been awarded a broadcast license by the South African government to compensate them because significant advertising revenue was being spent with the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).

DStv’s first broadcast in October 1986 was the final of a provincial rugby competition, called the Currie Cup, between provinces then known as Western Province and Transvaal.

But, with massive capital investment and huge overheads, within a year it faced severe financial pressures as it struggled to attract customers.

“By Feb [19]87 our viewing audience was so pathetic we had to give make-good ads to advertisers on the basis of one-paid, two-free,” Bekker told me at the 30th anniversary of M-Net in 2016, where a holographic depiction of Trevor Noah reminisced how integral and influential the channel had been to South African culture.

“By March [19]87 our trading results were turnover of half a million Rand, loss of ZAR3,5m for the month. Since our backers were newspaper groups of small to moderate size, they couldn’t bear that sort of bleeding. We were a few weeks away from the end.”

MultiChoice’s strategic advantage was its choice of new technology (well-made decoders) and a clever change in strategy (from selling to apartment complexes and to single homes), something Bekker would prove adept at doing when he bought a one-third stake in 2000 for $30-million in a then-unknown Chinese messaging company called Tencent, whose QQ instant messaging service now has over 1-billion customers.

The decoders “sold sweetly, since we now needed to persuade only a single guy and it didn’t matter what his neighbors thought”.

M-Net “scraped through by the skin of our teeth, and by the end of [19]88 were breaking even on a monthly basis” and became profitable in 1990. It was listed a year later and Bekker took over as Naspers CEO in 1996, a decade after his big gamble on the nascent digital television market had become a roaring success.

Bekker is now one of South Africa’s best – and best-known – businessman. His gamble on Tencent has made Naspers the most valued listed company in Africa, after AB InBev bought South African Breweries. It is the most valuable media company outside of the US and China and the seventh largest internet company in the world.

Naspers growth and status, as well as its entrepreneurial culture, is because of Bekker, who also brought “equality to this business right in the beginning, thanks to Koos. He set the pace for how the public company in the new coming South Africa would have to look. No discrimination whatsoever.”

He added: “The outlook of being together and all being equal, and no discrimination, set the pace and the scene like no other public company had done up to that time. So in that sense, M-Net is the great pioneer that led us into the new South Africa.”

Vosloo repeated a mantra that has defined both Naspers’ risk taking and Bekker’s first-name leadership style: “Of course he was known as Koos, and everybody says Koos Says So.”

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